- 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 colonists must have been heavyhearted as they observed the mariners cleaning and recaulking their ships for the return voyage. White said they kept busy writing letters and preparing “tokens” for family and friends back home. He proudly recorded the birth of his own granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first baby born in America of English parentage, and noted that Margery Harvie was also delivered successfully. As the fleet’s departure approached, the colonists grew fearful; they wanted to make sure that they were not forgotten and begged White to go along as their representative. He held out for days, fearing he would be accused of desertion, but finally agreed after getting the request in writing.
As soon as he was back in England, White rushed to Raleigh, and plans were laid for a great supply fleet of seven or eight ships to sail in the spring under Sir Richard Grenville. Raleigh arranged for the publication of Hariot’s report to encourage investment. White devoted the winter to gathering the necessary supplies and more colonists. Everything was ready for an early departure.
Suddenly the connection with privateering intervened in the most fateful possible way: Spain decided to cut off harassment at the source, assembling the great Spanish Armada of one hundred and thirty ships manned by eight thousand sailors and nineteen thousand soldiers. Elizabeth and her advisers were afraid; the Privy Council announced that no ships capable of service in war were to leave England. Grenville’s great fleet was diverted to defense, and throughout the summer of 1588 England focused on its own danger.
White alone continued to think exclusively of his colonists. He persuaded the authorities to free two tiny ships to take him and a few new settlers and supplies to Roanoke. But these little ships careered around the ocean, attacking other vessels. After two French ships had routed them, White’s company felt lucky to limp back to England alive.
Early in 1589 the corporation backing Roanoke was reorganized again, and this time Raleigh signed over most of his rights. Additional investors were recruited, and they took a somewhat leisurely attitude toward the colony. Nothing was done all year. In 1590 the Privy Council, fearing a renewed attack by Spain on the homeland, issued another general stay of shipping. White, desperately impatient, managed to get some privateers an exemption if they would promise to take him to Roanoke.
Long weeks were spent preying on ships in the West Indies. Finally, in August 1591, two of the ships moved northward to the Outer Banks. When they finally anchored off Roanoke, White was excited to see smoke rising from the settlement. After several false starts they reached the island in their rowboats just as night fell. To reassure the colonists that they were a friendly party, they sounded a trumpet call and sang folk songs.
White and his companions were astounded to find the colony deserted. The fire had apparently been kindled by lightning. They concluded, though, that the settlers had clearly not gone away in distress. Everything left behind, including all of White’s books and pictures and his armor, had been neatly buried. The colonists had left a message: CROATOAN was carved on a post, and CRO was found on a nearby tree. The governor recalled that before he had left, nearly three years earlier, the settlers had decided to try to go overland to a better location, so he was not downcast. The message had been planned, moreover, and there would have been a Maltese cross added if the colonists had left in distress. White was reassured that they were safe at Croatoan, “the place where Manteo was borne, and the Savages of the Island our friends.”
White’s next step, obviously, was to go to Croatoan for a joyful reunion. At this point nature once more intervened and crushed the last hope of seeing the colonists alive. The two ships were battered by a gale; then, as the anchor was being raised on White’s vessel, the chain broke. A second anchor was lost in an attempt to prevent the ship from being driven aground. Only one anchor remained. Plans to replenish supplies in the West Indies and return in the spring were shelved when another storm blew the vessels to the east, and the party decided to head home. John White had made his last attempt to find his colonists. Years later he wrote of his hope that God would comfort them; he could do no more.
The Jamestown settlers heard rumors of people who might be the lost colonists of Roanoke.
Raleigh’s days of great power were almost over. His secret marriage in 1592 so enraged Elizabeth that she first imprisoned him and then exiled him from London. He began to concentrate his American schemes on Guiana, rumored to be the site of gold mines, hoping that a rich strike would restore him to royal favor. He made his first transatlantic voyage there in 1595 but found nothing. The next year his participation in the English attack on Cadiz earned him admittance to the queen’s circle once again.
In 1603 Queen Elizabeth died, and the anti-Spanish policy died with her. Her successor, James I, the Stuart king of Scotland, wanted to avoid war at all costs and quickly signed a treaty with Spain. Privateering was now the work of outlaws. Raleigh had lost most of his fortune in his various ventures; he now lost everything. James, convinced that Raleigh was plotting against him, threw him into the Tower of London.