Historical Mysteries: The Lost Colony of Roanoke


Apologies in advance for the fans of American Horror Story, I am not talking about the
Roanoke series. I am going to be delving into the 433-year-old mystery of the disappearance of the Lost Roanoke Colony.

The Roanoke Colony refers to two separate attempts of permanent English settlement in North America; both attempts were led by Sir Walter Raleigh. The first colony was established by Governor Ralph Lane in 1585. This colony’s main failure was due to not only a lack of supplies and bad relations with local Native Americans, but Lane, whilst waiting for a resupply mission, decided to abandon the colony and returned to England with Francis Drake in 1586. When we talk about the Lost Colony of Roanoke, we are talking about the second colony that was led by Richard Hakluyt, Thomas Harriot and John White. As Roanoke Island was no longer safe for English Settlers due to the hostilities between Lane’s men and the local Secotan tribe, it was suggested that the new colony be set up in Chesapeake Bay.

On January 7th 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh approved a charter to build the “Cittie of Raleigh” where John White was appointed as Governor with 12 assistants, and along with 115 people who had also signed up to join the colony, a fleet consisting of three ships departed on May 8th that year. On July 22nd, two of the ships, the Flagship Lion and the Pinnace, anchored on Hatteras Island. It is understood that White had planned to take 40 men who were aboard the Pinnace to Roanoke, to consult with 15 men who had been stationed there as part of Richard Grenville’s detachment, before they continued on to Chesapeake Bay. However, once White boarded the Pinnace, one of the men on the Lion who represented the ship’s master and pilot Simon Fernandes, ordered the sailors to leave all the colonists on Roanoke.

The following morning, White and his men located the site of Lanes’ colony. They found that the fort had been dismantled and houses were vacant. There was no sign to suggest that Grenville’s men had been there, except for human bones. White believed that these were the remains of one of the men and that they had been killed by Native Americans during the hostilities. On July 25th, the final ship of the fleet, the flyboat, arrived and the final members of the colonists disembarked, however, one of the colonists, George Howe, was killed by one of the Native Americans while he was searching alone for crabs in Albemarle Sound.

John White sent Edward Stafford – Commander of the pinnace – to go and re-establish relations with the Croatan with the help of Manteo, who himself was a Native American of the Croatan tribe. During these negotiations, the Croatan recounted how a coalition of mainland tribes, led by Wanchese had attacked Grenville’s detachment. The colonists attempted to negotiate a truce through the Croatan but received no response. On August 9th, John White led a pre-emptive strike in retaliation to the killing of Grenville’s men on the Dasamongueponke. Unbeknownst to White, the tribe had fled through fear of reprisal for the killing of Howe. White’s men instead attacked Croatan looters. Fortunately for White, Manteo was able to smooth things over with the Croatans. For his service to the colony, Manteo was baptised ‘Lord of Roanoke and Dasamongueponke’; not much is known about Manteo’s later life.

Prior to the fleet preparing for a return to England, the colonists had moved fifty miles up the Albemarle Sound; they had persuaded Governor John White to return to England to explain the colony’s situation and to ask for help. White agreed, with some reluctance, and on August 27th, 1587, he departed with the fleet. The fleet returned to England on November 5th, 1587. During this period, news that the Spanish Armada were mobilizing for an attack had reached Queen Elizabeth I. The Queen then placed a prohibition order, preventing any able ship from leaving England, so that they could participate in the oncoming battle. During this period, Grenville was granted a waiver to lead a fleet of ships to the Caribbean to attack the Spanish, and White was permitted to stay with him and follow on a resupply ship. However, adverse weather and strong winds kept them in port and Grenville received new orders to stay and defend England. White, however, was granted two decommissioned ships, the Brave and Roe, as they were deemed unsuitable for combat. He set sail for Roanoke on April 22nd, 1588. The captains of the Brave and Roe had decided to improve their profits by attempting to capture Spanish ships on their outbound journey. On May 6th, 1588, they were attacked by French pirates near Morocco; it is estimated that nearly two dozen of the crew were killed, and the supplies for the colonists had been looted. This caused the ships to turn back and return to England.

Following the defeat of the Spanish Armada, England retained its ban on shipping in order to organise their efforts for their Counter Armada and attack Spain in 1589. It would not be until 1590 when White would be granted permission for another resupply attempt. Walter Raleigh arranged passage for John White on a privateering expedition that was arranged by John Watts, where a fleet of six ships would spend the summer of that year raiding Spanish Outposts along the Caribbean. Two of the ships, the Hopewell and Moonlight, anchored at Croatoan Island on August 12th. While anchored at the north end of Hatteras Island, on August 15th the crew saw plumes of smoke coming from Roanoke Island and they investigated the following morning. White and his landing party spent two days attempting to cross Pamlico Sound. The journey was not without trouble – the journey saw the loss of lives of some of White’s party. On August 17th, they saw a fire on the North end of Roanoke Island. They rowed towards it, but by the time they reached the island, it was nightfall. Not wanting to risk going ashore, they stayed in their anchored boat. The following morning on August 18th, White and the others made landfall.
They came across fresh tracks but didn’t encounter anyone. They also came across a tree that had “CRO” carved into its trunk. When they reached the site of the colony, White noticed that an area had been fortified with a palisade. Near the entrance, the word “CROATOAN” had been carved into the post. White believed that these inscriptions meant that the colony relocated to Croatoan Island, they had agreed back in 1587 that should they relocate, the colonists would leave a ‘secret token’.

Upon entering the site, they found houses had been dismantled; anything that could be carried was moved and several trunks were dug up and looted. As well as this, the boats belonging to the colonists were nowhere to be seen along the shore. The party returned to the Hopewell with the intention to search Croatoan Island. However, one of the anchor cables snapped, leaving the ship with one working anchor and the search mission could no longer continue due to the risk of shipwreck. The Moonlight set sale back to England and the crew of the Hopewell compromised with White that they would winter in the Caribbean and return in the Spring of 1591. This plan fell through, as the Hopewell was blown off course when they stopped for supplies in the Azores. They also encountered adverse winds and this forced them to turn and return to England, arriving on October 24th 1590.
To be continued …


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