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Roanoke Colony: a few things everyone should know

Somehow, the story of Roanoke Colony has lost its historic significance. Its an ambiguous story to be sure, with little surviving evidence and first person testimony and a growing sense of legend. Regardless, the story of Roanoke Colony is an important memory to keep alive. Why? Despite its ambiguity, there are significant first encounters we cannot ignore. Encounters of idealism and philanthropy, violence and decapitations, of life and new discoveries, and also of murder and death. These are some of the first encounters between English settlers and  natives of the Late Woodland Indians of the coastal Carolina region, the very same who would later encounter more colonists in Jamestown and possibly as far north as Plymouth Rock. Here are a few things everyone should know regarding this early history of English colonization:


Sir Walter Raleigh inherited the patent for colonization in America from his half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who had drowned while attempting to colonize St. Johns, Newfoundland. The patent was issued by Queen Elizabeth I, who did not really care so much about establishing a permanent English settlement in America per-say; but rather, a pirate base for English privateers, such as the infamous Sir Francis Drake, who were terrorizing Spanish outposts and fleets in the Caribbean and along the Florida coastline. However, because the contract was about to expire, Sir Raleigh was forced to execute the expedition post-haste, leaving the colonists so ill-prepared and so severely dependent on local inhabitants for food, that they never actually built anything except for crude defensive structures and living quarters.

The “lost” colony everyone talks about wasn’t the first “lost” colony to disappear from Roanoke Island.  Technically, the first colonists to be “lost” were roughly fifteen men made up mostly of slaves and captured natives from the Caribbean left behind by Sir Francis Drake (who arrived at Roanoke Island under the assumption that there was supposed to be an actual working pirate base for him to unload some of his cargo), and a few men from the English garrison to hold the fort and maintain an English presence in America…with no real promise to return… When John White’s crew landed on Roanoke Island in 1587, a full year later, there was no sign of the men left behind.

lost colony

The mystery of the “lost colonists” of Roanoke Island, the lost members of John White’s crew, including his daughter Eleanor Dare and granddaughter, Virginia, is really no mystery at all. Considering the misadventured exploits of the previous expedition with Govern Lane and company and their not-so-stunning rapport with the local Algonquian (Late Woodland Indians of the coastal Carolina region) communities which culminated with the destruction of Dasemunkepeuc village and the murder and beheading of Wingina, the weroance (leader) by one of Lane’s servants, a young Irish boy named Edward Nugent, is it really a surprise when White was persuaded to leave the colony and seek help from England after George Howe was “murdered while fishing alone in shallow water,” that upon his delayed return he found the settlement abandoned? However, what’s important to note here is that, surprisingly, not every native tribe hated this fresh group of colonists. Somehow White, among the Secota, Aquascogoc, and Damonquepeio tribes, was able to reestablish a positive relationship with the nearby Croatoans. The same name that so happened to be carved into one of the fort posts of the missing colony. “After failed attempts [to find the missing colonists] and poor weather, the fleet White is traveling with sets course for England.” White had intended to search further south on Croatoan Island for the colonists, but the crew (all privateers) refused to do so. The “real” mystery then becomes, not so much about what happened, but what definitively happened to the colonists who disappeared. Yet, history is full of little ambiguous pieces of memory; very few things are ever truly definitive. White died three years later in 1593 and the next expedition, under the authority of King James, known as Jamestown, would not happen for an additional seventeen years.

lost colony2

Roanoke Colony is an amazing story to be sure, but leaving it in myth and folklore devalues the lessons we can learn from this early memory of English settlement in America. Basically, in summation, a couple botched attempts at colonization and some of the first relationships and contacts among native peoples of among the Algonquians, the supposed same groupings colonists in Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, 22 & 37 years respectively after Roanoke, encountered and how these new encounters first effected and transformed the “New World.”

Michael Leroy Oberg, “The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand: Roanoke’s Forgotten Indians,” University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.