- 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
Raleigh was allowed contact with the outside world during his imprisonment and became famous as a scientist and writer. He was allowed to maintain a small herb garden and a laboratory, and many fashionable people, including Queen Anne, came to him for his “Great Cordial.”
Finally he persuaded the king, who was deeply in debt, to allow him another chance to find his Guiana gold. The expedition, plagued by tropical sickness, failed, and contrary to royal instructions, some Spanish subjects were killed. Raleigh, on his return to England, was executed on the original treason warrant. He came to be seen as a martyr by those who opposed James I and his son Charles; when Charles was beheaded in 1649 by a victorious Parliament, Raleigh’s vision of England’s future greatness once more ruled.
Meanwhile, once privateering was closed off as an outlet, patriotic gentry and merchants poured money into colonization in America. In 1607 Jamestown was founded near Chesapeake Bay. Whereas Roanoke had had a few investors, Jamestown had hundreds. Many mistakes were made, there was great suffering in the new Virginia colony, and investors saw little or no return; but since this was all that prevented Spain from dominating the whole of America, investment and reinvestment poured in. Both Hariot and Raleigh lived to see Jamestown established; they must have reflected on how Roanoke might have done with such support. By the time Hariot died in 1621, tobacco was firmly established as Virginia’s cash crop, and he surely drew satisfaction from seeing an American product emerge triumphant. Local commodities were indeed America’s gold.
The Jamestown settlers heard rumors of people who looked and dressed like them and hoped they could locate the lost colonists of Roanoke, whose twenty years’ experience in the country could have been very useful. The story, as finally pieced together, was that most of White’s settlers had made their way overland to Chesapeake Bay and had been taken in by the Chesapeake tribe. Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas, dominated many of the tribes in Jamestown’s neighborhood but was resisted by the Chesapeakes. At about the time Jamestown was founded, he attacked and wiped out the Chesapeakes, including their English members. This reconstruction was accepted by the Virginia Company, and historians believe it is probably near the truth.
Some part of the colony must have remained with the Croatoans so it could guide White and the supply fleets; the CROATOAN legend was meant to direct White to them. This party, like the main group, was never seen again. There were persistent rumors that some English people had escaped the attack on the Chesapeakes and were with other tribes. John Smith claimed that Powhatan showed him “divers utensils of theirs,” and another Virginian, George Percy, reported seeing an Indian boy whose hair was “a perfect yellow.” But that was all.