1584 VOYAGEIn the late sixteenth-century, England's primary goal in North America was to disrupt Spanish shipping. Catholic Spain, under the rule of Philip II, had dominated the coast of Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Florida for the latter part of the 1500s. Protestant England, under the rule of Elizabeth I, sought to circumvent Spanish dominance in the region by establishing colonies in the New World.
England's attempt at colonization would serve two purposes. First, a colony would act as a buffer against Spanish control of the North and South American coasts.
Second, a colony would act as a base for privateering, allowing English ships to attack Spanish vessels and gain control of Spanish treasure and trade routes in the region. Sir Walter Raleigh, with the blessing of Queen Elizabeth, sent a reconnaissance expedition to the New World in April, 1584.
The expedition, two ships under the command of Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, arrived on the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina in July, 1584. The goal of England's 1584 expedition was not to establish a colony but to scout potential locations along the eastern seaboard for future settlement. The sailors found a potential site at Roanoke Island, a small land mass resting between the mainland and the Outer Banks. Barlowe, in his account of the voyage, attested that "the soil is the most plentiful, sweet, fruitful, and wholesome of all the world."
In addition to praising the natural resources of Roanoke Island, the 1584 expedition also made contact with the Carolina Algonquian. Perhaps the most important outcome of the 1584 expedition was the return to England with two Algonquian on board, Manteo of the Croatoan tribe and Wanchese of the Roanoacs. The two Algonquian were the subject of much fascination upon their arrival in England and likely boosted Raleigh's efforts to enlist more investors in the potential colony. In addition, Manteo and Wanchese provided the English with detailed descriptions of Algonquian culture and social structure.
On April 9, 1585, almost one year to the day of the first expedition's departure, 600 English soldiers and sailors in seven ships (with Manteo and Wanchese on board) sailed from Plymouth, England in an attempt to establish the first English colony in North America.
1585 VOYAGEHaving determined Roanoke Island to be a favorable location for the first English colony in North America, seven English vessels with 600 soldiers and sailors began their voyage from England to the Outer Banks in April, 1585.
Under the command of Sir Richard Grenville, the fleet encountered a storm in the Atlantic, damaging ships and destroying one, forcing a stop in Puerto Rico for repairs. The delayed and hobbled vessels arrived at Roanoke Island on June 26th.
The stop in Puerto Rico had caused conflict between Grenville and Ralph Lane, an Irishman appointed governor of the new colony. Lane believed that Grenville's delay in Puerto Rico, which involved privateering and trading as well as repairs to the damaged fleet, had cost valuable time for the colonists to prepare for winter. In addition to the hostilities between Grenville and Lane, one of the largest ships in the fleet, the Tiger, was too large to enter the sounds surrounding Roanoke Island. It, along with other larger English ships, were forced to anchor off the Atlantic coast, exposing themselves to more volatile weather and seas.
Almost immediately, the Tiger was heavily damaged and the majority of the colonists' food supplies were destroyed. The initial plan of making Roanoke Island a permanent colony and privateering base had been destroyed along with the Tiger's cargo.
With the loss of valuable supplies, Lane was left with only 100 men on the island to construct temporary shelter from which to scout for a more permanent location; Grenville, after briefly scouting the region for a more suitable location as well, would sail back to England with the rest of the men and return next year with more colonists and supplies.
Although it was initially believed the colonists could subsist on agricultural ingenuity, it soon became clear that in order to survive they would have to consistently rely on the Carolina Algonquian for assistance. This reliance may have led to an increasing paranoia in Ralph Lane; he began to exert strict control over the colonists, going so far as to construct a jail to maintain order and discipline.
In addition, what began as peaceful, mutually beneficial relationships with the Algonquian population, rapidly deteriorated into violence. Wingina, Chief of the Secoton tribe of the Algonquian across the sound from Roanoke Island began to feud heavily with Lane and his men. While the colonists' increased reliance on the Algonquians to provide food had escalated the tension, the exposure of the Algonquians to English disease became the tipping point. Smallpox and other diseases began to decimate the native population, fueling the Algonquian fear of the English. Wingina decided the English should be removed from the region at all costs.
Wingina, now calling himself Pemisapan possibly to signify his new hostile stance on the English, attempted to cut off all food supplies to the colonists, forcing them to break up into small detachments in search of food, detachments that could easily be overwhelmed by a larger Secoton force. Lane heard of this plan before it could be put into action and had Wingina/Pemisapan preemptively killed, forever altering English-Native power dynamics and alliances in the region.
Shortly after the killing of Wingina/Pemisapan in June of 1586, a large fleet was spotted off the coast. Fearful that the fleet was Spanish, Lane and his men were relieved to find that it was an English fleet under the command of Sir Francis Drake. Drake, having made port at the Outer Banks after months raiding Spanish shipping along the Florida coast and West Indies, agreed to help Lane in his continual desire to search for a more suitable settlement location. However, a violent hurricane quickly changed those plans, forcing an increasingly angry and frustrated Lane and his men to abandon Roanoke and return to England with Drake.
Ralph Lane would never return to North America. However, less than one year after Lane returned to England with Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh would send 118 men, women, and children again to Roanoke Island in his most ambitious attempt yet to establish a lasting English colony.
1587 VOYAGEThe 1587 voyage to Roanoke, consisting of 118 men, women, and children, was compromised from the beginning. The failures of the previous expedition to find a suitable base from which to privateer, coupled with the lack of discovery of precious metals and other supposed treasures, led many investors to begin withdrawing support. Sir Walter Raleigh himself, even though still supportive of the idea of an English foothold in the New World, began to show a decreased enthusiasm for the venture; the colonization attempt had already cost 30,000 pounds, a steep sum in the 1580s. Nevertheless, in April of 1587, the new group of colonists began their journey.
Led by John White, the colonists arrived at Roanoke in July, but it was not their intended destination. Roanoke Island was to only be a stopping point on this voyage so White could hopefully make contact with a very small garrison left on the island after the departure of the 1585 expedition. Instead, the colonists were to sail up the Chesapeake Bay to find a more suitable area for settlement. However, the flotilla's captain, Simon Fernandes, refused to take the colonists farther up the coast, the excuse being that summer was rapidly ending. The colonists were left at Roanoke Island.
On July 22, 1587, White and the colonists set foot on Roanoke Island. The only clue as to the fate of the previous garrison was a sun-bleached skeleton of one of the men. The colonists got to work rebuilding and refurbishing the fortification and dwellings left by the 1585 expedition. By the end of July, they had made substantial progress. White, however, was convinced that he could move the colonists north to the Chesapeake, their intended destination, before winter.
Once again, the tenuous relationship between the English and the Algonquian broke down. Shortly after the colonists' arrival George Howe was ambushed and killed by members of the Secotan tribe. In retaliation, White and his men attacked what they thought was a Secotan village on the mainland. It was Croatoan, straining relationships even further.
The one bright spot in the month of August for White and the colonists was the birth of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World. Her birth signified the possibility that the colony may very well take hold.
The threat of Algonquian attack, the lack of reliable food sources, and the approaching winter forced White to return to England for more settlers and supplies. White left for England in late August, having only been on Roanoke for slightly over a month. Prior to leaving it was determined that the remaining colonists would split into two groups; one group would stay on Roanoke Island while another headed inland in search of a permanent settlement and more potential supplies. In addition, it was agreed that, should the colonists leave Roanoke Island prior to White's return, they would carve their destination into nearby trees.
John White arrived in England on November 8, 1587 and immediately reported to Sir Walter Raleigh.
1590 VOYAGEJohn White, upon his return to England in November, 1587, fully expected to be resupplied and have yet another expedition ready to sail for Roanoke by the spring of 1588. Initially, Sir Walter Raleigh was equally hopeful. However, the primary reason for English colonization of the New World, the Spanish, disrupted their plans.
The Spanish Armada, the most formidable fleet in the world, was preparing to attack England directly. Queen Elizabeth I ordered all English vessels to remain nearby in defense of the homeland. England, with her faster, more maneuverable ships under Sir Francis Drake, defeated the Spanish Armada, signaling a shift in global superpowers. However, the battle delayed the return of White to Roanoke.
After the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Raleigh's interest in colonization began to shift to Ireland, forcing White to turn to other investors to acquire revenue for the journey. It was not until early 1590 that White was able to convince a group of privateers bound for the West Indies to take him to Roanoke.
Landing on August 18, 1590, White and his men found remnants of the colonists but no signs of life. Arriving at the site of the 1587 settlement, White found "CRO" carved into a tree and "CROATOAN" carved into a palisade. There were no signs of a struggle or of the colonists leaving in haste.
White immediately began to sail to Croatoan but, as had happened so often before, a storm disrupted his plans and he was forced to return to England, never knowing what became of the Lost Colony of Roanoke.
After the failure of the Roanoke Colony and the disappearance of its settlers, John White all but disappeared from the historical record. He died, possibly in Ireland, around 1606, one year before England, having learned from the failures at Roanoke, established the first successful English colony at Jamestown, Virginia.