Roanoke’s Lost Colony Found?

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The colonists needed safe haven. But where? The only surviving clue—aside from the letters carved into the trees—lies in White’s enigmatic phrase that the settlers intended to move “50. miles further up into the maine.” The “maine,” or mainland, signified the interior. “Their [the colonists’] meaning,” a contemporary clarified, was “to remove 50 miles into the countrey.”

Moving westward made good sense. Freshwater, a “great store of fishe,” and the friendly Chowanoc lay inland. Sailing along the broad, swift waters of Albemarle Sound, the colonists would have encountered few sandbanks or shoals. After about 50 miles, they would have reached the confluence of the Chowan and Roanoke rivers, possibly the place later described by the English as “Ohonahorn,” near the promontory where the Chowanoc settlements of Tandaquomuc or Metackwem were located.

For the next couple of years, they remained at the head of Albemarle Sound, searching for news of the mines of Chaunis Temoatan and waiting for White to return. But as the disappointing months passed, they began drifting away from the settlement to join the Indians, either marrying into the Chowanoc or moving farther inland to join the powerful Tuscarora near the rapids of the Roanoke River.

It was along the Chowan and Roanoke rivers that a catastrophe overwhelmed this already part-Indian culture nearly two decades later. In the spring of 1607, 400 elite Powhatan warriors journeyed along well-known trading paths to Chowanoc and Tuscarora country and slaughtered the Europeans, their children, and Indian sponsors. The settlement at Jamestown had seriously threatened Chief Powhatan’s influence over the peoples of his expanding sovereignty. He could not risk the newcomers joining forces with the Roanoke colonists and their Indian allies on his southern border.

Some of the colonists survived, however. News of the slaughter reached Jamestown in the bitterly cold winter of 1607–8. Captain John Smith, one of the settlers’ leaders, had been captured by Powhatan’s kinsman Opechancanough just before Christmas and learned from the chief that “certaine men cloathed at a place called Ocanahonan.” Later, Powhatan himself confirmed what Opechancanough had said, telling Smith of other clothed men to be found “within a day and a halfe of Mangoge, two dayes of Chawwonock, [and] 6. from Roanoke.” Smith wrote that the great chief further mentioned “a countrie called Anone, where they have abundance of Brasse, and houses walled as ours.”

Smith summarized what he had learned in a sketch map sent back to London in the summer of 1608, which included reports from an expedition that set off from the south bank of the James River in January 1608 to look for a “place called Panawicke, beyond Roanoke,” where local Indians reported many “apparelled” men lived. The group traveled a good way to the south, possibly as far as the Neuse River, and had some success in establishing where a few of the colonists might be found. Smith wondered whether future expeditions might fare better in locating survivors.

More information came to light when a Powhatan named Machumps traveled to England in 1608 under Chief Powhatan’s orders to learn more about the English. Machumps told William Strachey that at “Peccarecanick and Ochanahoen . . . the People have howses built with stone walls, and one story above another, so taught them by the English who escaped the slaughter at Roanoak.” The news caused a sensation in London. Leaders of the Virginia Company, which had sponsored Jamestown, immediately began organizing further expeditions to locate the Roanokers. It could be extremely beneficial to find survivors of the Lost Colony, some of whom, after all, might have lived in America for more than two decades; such intimate knowledge of the region could help uncover the wondrous treasures dreamed of by Ralegh and Lane, riches that could incalculably benefit the company, its backers, and the nation.

Nathaniel Powell and Anas Todkill, dispatched early in 1609 to probe inland from the Chowan River, “found crosses and letters, the characters and assured testimonies of Christians, newly cut in the barks of trees” within 50 miles of Jamestown, but no sign of the colonists themselves. Thereafter the trail went cold. A long and bitter war with the Powhatan and the discovery of a strain of tobacco that promised handsome returns in London dimmed any long-term interest in the lost colonists. Planters found a more certain route to wealth in profits from the smoky weed than continuing to search in the interior for elusive gold mines. Roanoke Island and the high drama of England’s first American colony were soon forgotten.

The colonists recruited by John White never reached the Chesapeake Bay; they never established a great city in Ralegh’s name or discovered gold mines in the distant province of Chaunis Temoatan. Riches did not lie in the mountains to the west, and there was no convenient route that would take the English to the Pacific and beyond to the riches of Cathay.

In the years that followed White’s return to England, the colonists must have waited patiently for him to come back, unaware of his tireless efforts to reach them or of his last voyage to Roanoke in 1590. When he failed to return with supplies and reinforcements the lost colonists turned to local peoples for help and lived peacefully with them for nearly 20 years.