- Historic Sites
Four hundred years ago the first English settlers reached America. What followed was a string of disasters ending with the complete disappearance of a colony.
August/September 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 5
The legacy of the first colony would haunt, and ultimately destroy, the second.
Hariot’s work must have circulated in manuscript before publication; by 1587 a new colonial venture had been set up, and White, the man who had worked hardest for it, was the new governor. Its promoters set out to correct all the obvious errors made in 1585, but the legacy of the first colony, particularly its connection with privateering, was to haunt the new effort and ultimately to destroy it.
Raleigh, with his estates and concerns all over England, was losing interest in running a colonial venture the future of which seemed dim. He encouraged White to organize a corporation in which the colonists themselves would take a leading role. The City of Raleigh, as the corporation was called, was to be governed by White and a board of directors known as the assistants, most of whom intended to emigrate. The leadership would be much less authoritarian than that of the earlier colony, and the settlement would be on Chesapeake Bay, on fertile land approachable by oceangoing ships—probably very near where Jamestown was to be founded in 1607.
The colonists—men, women, and children—were people with something to invest, at least to the extent of outfitting themselves for the journey. Each family was to receive five hundred acres in the new land, and they came to America planning to stay, to re-create English culture. There were seventeen women and nine children. Two of the women were so heavily pregnant that they gave birth within weeks of their arrival at Roanoke. Several of the families consisted of men and their sons; presumably mothers and other children were to join them later. In its population as well as in its corporate organization, the City of Raleigh pointed to the future: all successful colonies were built on this family-centered model.
The colony set out on three small ships in the spring of 1587. Simon Fernandes, a Portuguese navigator who was one of the corporation’s assistants, was in charge of the voyage and saw no reason not to place top priority on privateering. Almost three months elapsed before the ship finally landed in America.
Shipboard life was miserable. Only the highest officers had bunks; ordinary seamen and passengers rolled up in blankets between decks. Rations were salt meat and fish and hardtack, with some oatmeal, butter, and cheese. The water and beer began to go bad after the first four weeks. During storms the passengers stayed belowdecks, where rats and cockroaches, stirred up by the ship’s motion, scuttled over them. Vomit, feces, and urine mixed with the seawater leaking into the ship. The stench quickly became overpowering.
Also, the passengers’ lives were in danger as long as their little fleet attacked other ships. White raged impotently at Fernandes, who gambled with the entire venture. Fernandes refused to take the colonists north to Chesapeake Bay and dumped them instead at Roanoke. According to White, the explanation from “our Simon” was that “the summer was farre spent” and he wanted to get back to privateering. But the ships stayed with the colonists for a month, until they were settled for the winter, and, in fact, Fernandes may have felt it was too late in the year to begin a wholly new settlement—the houses on Roanoke were still standing—and White may have been secretly pleased to be back on familiar ground.
Once the houses were cleaned up, the settlers began to assess their situation. From the beginning there was evidence of Indian hostility: not only were Grenville’s men missing, but George Howe, one of the assistants, was killed when he went off alone to catch crabs. White decided to approach the Croatoans, Manteo’s people, who had always been friendly. Manteo had made a second trip to England with Lane’s men and had just now returned to his land with White’s colonists.
The Croatoans, though fearful at first, welcomed the colonists and gave the delegation a feast. There were signs of tension, though: the Croatoans asked the colonists “not to gather or spill any of their corne, for that they had but little.” They also hesitantly mentioned the fact that some of their people had been wounded when Lane’s men mistook them for enemies, and they asked for some badge to indicate their friendly status.
The Croatoans confirmed what the colonists already knew—that the nearby mainland Indians were now implacably hostile and had been responsible for the fate of Grenville’s holding party. Moreover, their description of the battle made clear the clumsiness of English military technology against Indian bowmen, who had moved nimbly among the trees while the English, with their cumbersome, slow-loading muskets, became standing targets.
The delegation asked Manteo’s people to organize a meeting between the settlers and their enemies in one week. When no word came, the English, true to their view of human nature, saw it as a challenge they could not ignore. They decided to surprise the Roanokes at their mainland capital, Dasemunkepeuc, and avenge the deaths of George Howe and Grenville’s men. The attack was a fiasco. The village was inhabited only by Croatoans, including women and children, who had moved in after the Roanokes had fled. The colonists thus offended their only friends while failing to prove that Indians could not kill Englishmen with impunity.