Roanoke’s Lost Colony Found?


By the early 1580s, Spain’s overseas holdings stretched from the Americas to the East Indies—the first empire in history on which the sun truly never set. The growing threat of Spain to England’s security and commercial interests sparked a suddenly intense English interest in North America. The “planting of two or three strong forts upon some good havens,” wrote Richard Hakluyt the younger, one of the period’s foremost promoters of colonization, would provide privateer bases against Spanish treasure fleets, weaken Spanish power, and enrich England. Forward-looking English writers agreed that, besides undermining Spain’s influence in the Americas, English colonies would promote commerce, prosperity, and well-being at home.

In 1583 Queen Elizabeth I’s new favorite, Walter Ralegh, became England’s chief sponsor of colonizing ventures. From Durham House, his palatial London residence on the River Thames, he organized the expeditions that would colonize Roanoke. He carefully studied accounts of French and Spanish explorations of the east coast of North America, particularly the journals of early French Huguenot explorers who had heard from Indians along the Florida coast that fabulous mines lay to the north about 60 leagues (200 miles) “in the mountains of Appalesse [the Appalachians].” Ralegh may also have heard about the Spaniard Juan Pardo’s discoveries in the Carolinas, where his men allegedly had found a fertile land rich with gold, silver, and crystal mines.

In 1584 Ralegh sent two ships on a reconnaissance mission that discovered the Outer Banks and Roanoke Island. The following year he dispatched a full-scale expedition that resulted in the establishment of a 108-strong garrison settlement on Roanoke under the command of Ralph Lane, a seasoned veteran of the Irish wars.

Lane saw at once that the shallows between the Outer Banks and the mainland made Roanoke unsuitable as a privateering base. Nor did he believe that the general plans to raise a variety of natural commodities—timber, flax, hemp, dye stuffs, fruits, sugarcane, and wines—could make the colony profitable. But during the winter and spring of 1585–86 he received news that set everybody’s imagination on fire.

The Moratuc, an Indian people who lived along the lower reaches of the Roanoke River, told him of “strange things” at its headwaters, 30 to 40 days away, which, wrote Lane, “springeth out of a maine rocke . . . and further . . . this huge rocke standeth nere unto a Sea.” Could the rumors refer to a passage by water that flowed through the western mountains to the Pacific?

Just as tantalizing, the powerful Chowanoc who lived nearby along the Chowan River

told him of “a marveilous and most strange Minerall” that they called “Wassador,” which he described as “very soft, and pale”—possibly copper or gold. Mines lay in a

distant province of “Chaunis Temoatan,” more than 20 days inland. Lane learned that another people, the Mangoak, “beautifie their houses with great plates” of it.

In the spring of 1586, Lane led an expedition up the Roanoke River but failed to make contact with the Mangoak. Running low on supplies, he returned to Roanoke Island. Not long after, hostilities broke out with the Secotan, on whom the English had depended for food. With little hope of maintaining his settlement beyond the summer, Lane reluctantly agreed to return to England with a fleet commanded by Sir Francis Drake, which had arrived off the coast in early June 1586.

In London Lane reported enthusiastically to Ralegh that the Roanoke River promised “great things.” He recommended that England establish a new colony 100 miles north of Roanoke Island on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, whose many rivers would prove excellent harbors for deep-draft seafaring ships. Moreover, Menatonon, the chief of the Chowanoc, had told him that an Indian king to the north had so many pearls that “it was a wonder to see.” From a settlement on the Chesapeake Bay, Lane argued, the English could trade for pearls, search for Chaunis Temoatan, and explore a passage to the Pacific. Ralegh agreed. The next colony, he decided, would be located on the Chesapeake Bay and be led by John White.

Civilians rather than soldiers made up White’s colony, which would be largely self-sufficient. Ninety-one men, 18 women, and nine children joined White’s party (somewhat short of the 150 he had in mind), together with two Indians, Manteo and Towaye. They were a young group; the majority of men were in their 20s and early to mid-30s, most of the women in their late teens and 20s. All the children were boys, aged between three and 12 years.

White set off from Plymouth in May 1587, arriving at the Outer Banks two months later. He had planned to pick up 15 men left on Roanoke Island the year before and then sail for the Chesapeake Bay, but matters went disastrously wrong. He discovered only one bleached skeleton near the fort that Lane had built. Then the master pilot, Simon Fernandes, head of the squadron’s mariners, refused to carry the settlers any farther; his crew was set on departing as quickly as possible, to prey on Spanish shipping in the Caribbean.

Once put ashore, the colonists found themselves in a precarious position. Not only were their provisions dwindling, but the neighboring Secotan had turned hostile. Moreover, in their present exposed position they could expect little quarter if the Spanish, who had got word of their arrival, found them. They therefore agreed that White should return to England with Fernandes and raise fresh supplies while they moved inland to find friendly Indians who would sustain them until help arrived. A small contingent would await White at the settlement and then guide him to the main group inland.