Aug 172017

The Roanoke Colony, also known as the Lost Colony, was established on this date in 1585 on Roanoke Island in what is now Dare County, North Carolina. It was a late 16th century attempt by Sir Walter Raleigh, under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I, to establish a permanent English settlement in North America. The colonists disappeared during the Anglo-Spanish War, three years after the last shipment of supplies from England. Their disappearance gave rise to the nickname “The Lost Colony” especially because to this day no one knows what happened to the colonists because there is almost no evidence, archeological or otherwise, to tell the story.  There’s plenty of speculation, though. People like a good mystery.

On March 25, 1584, Queen Elizabeth I granted Raleigh a charter for the colonization of a part of North America. This charter specified that Raleigh needed to establish a colony in North America, or lose his right to colonization. Elizabeth and Raleigh intended the venture to enrich them; the queen’s charter said that Raleigh was supposed to “discover, search, find out, and view such remote heathen and barbarous Lands, Countries, and territories … to have, hold, occupy, and enjoy.” Here “enjoy” means “rob.” The queen’s charter also said that Raleigh was supposed to establish a base from which to send privateers on raids against the treasure fleets of Spain. The purpose of these raids was to send a message to Spain that England was ready for war (given that Felipe II (ex-king of England harbored desires of conquering the country and being crowned king again). The original charter basically told Raleigh to establish a military base to counteract the activities of the Spanish. Raleigh himself never visited North America, although he led expeditions in 1595 and 1617 to South America’s Orinoco River basin in search of the legendary golden city of El Dorado.

On April 27, 1584, Raleigh dispatched an expedition led by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to explore the eastern coast of North America. They arrived on Roanoke Island on July 4 and soon established relations with the local Secotans and Croatoans. Barlowe returned to England with two Croatoans named Manteo and Wanchese, who were able to describe the politics and geography of the area to Raleigh. Based on the information given, Raleigh organized a second expedition, to be led by Sir Richard Grenville.

Grenville’s fleet left Plymouth on April 9, 1585, with five main ships: Tiger (Grenville’s), Roebuck, Red Lion, Elizabeth, and Dorothy. A severe storm off the coast of Portugal separated Tiger from the rest of the fleet. The captains had a contingency plan if they were separated, which was to meet up again in Puerto Rico, and Tiger arrived in the “Baye of Muskito” (Guayanilla Bay) on May 11. While waiting for the other ships, Grenville established relations with the resident Spanish while simultaneously engaging in some privateering against them. He also built a fort. Elizabeth arrived soon after the fort’s construction. Grenville eventually tired of waiting for the remaining ships and departed on June 7. The fort was abandoned, and its location remains unknown.

Tiger sailed through Ocracoke Inlet on June 26, but it struck a shoal, ruining most of the food supplies. The expedition succeeded in repairing the ship and, in early July, reunited with Roebuck and Dorothy, which had arrived in the Outer Banks with Red Lion some weeks previously. Red Lion had dropped off its passengers and left for Newfoundland for privateering.

During the initial exploration of the mainland coast and the indigenous settlements, the Europeans blamed the Indians of the village of Aquascogoc of stealing a silver cup. As retaliation, the settlers sacked and burned the village. English writer and courtier Richard Hakluyt’s contemporaneous reports also describe this incident. (Hakluyt’s reports of the first voyage to Roanoke were compiled from accounts by various financial backers, including Sir Walter Raleigh. Hakluyt himself never traveled to the New World.) Despite this incident and a lack of food, Grenville decided to leave Ralph Lane and 107 men to establish a colony at the north end of Roanoke Island, promising to return in April 1586 with more men and fresh supplies. The group disembarked on August 17, 1585, and built a small fort on the island. There are no surviving renderings of the Roanoke fort, but it was likely similar in structure to the one in Guayanilla Bay.

As April 1586 passed, there was no sign of Grenville’s relief fleet. Meanwhile, in June, bad blood resulted from the destruction of the village, and this spurred an attack on the fort by the local Indians, which the colonists were able to repel. Soon after the attack, Sir Francis Drake, on his way home from a successful raid in the Caribbean, stopped at the colony and offered to take the colonists back to England. Several accepted, including metallurgist Joachim Gans. On this return voyage, the Roanoke colonists introduced tobacco, maize, and potatoes to England. The relief fleet arrived shortly after Drake’s departure with the colonists. Finding the colony abandoned, Grenville returned to England with the bulk of his force, leaving behind a small detachment of fifteen men both to maintain an English presence and to protect Raleigh’s claim to Roanoke Island.

In 1587, Raleigh dispatched a new group of 115 colonists to establish a colony on Chesapeake Bay. They were led by John White, an artist and friend of Raleigh who had accompanied the previous expedition to Roanoke, and was appointed governor of the 1587 colony. White and Raleigh named 12 assistants to aid in the settlement. They were ordered to stop at Roanoke to pick up the small contingent left there by Grenville the previous year, but when they arrived on July 22, 1587, they found nothing except a skeleton that may have been the remains of one of the English garrison. When they could find no one, the master pilot Simon Fernandez refused to let the colonists return to the ships, insisting that they establish the new colony on Roanoke.

White re-established relations with the Croatoan and other local indigenous groups, but those with whom Lane had fought previously refused to meet with him. Shortly thereafter, colonist George Howe was killed by an Indian while searching alone for crabs in Albemarle Sound. The colonists persuaded Governor White to return to England to explain the colony’s desperate situation and ask for help. Left behind were about 115 colonists – the remaining men and women who had made the Atlantic crossing plus White’s newly born granddaughter Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas. White sailed for England in late 1587, although crossing the Atlantic at that time of year was a considerable risk. Plans for a relief fleet were delayed first by the captain’s refusal to return during the winter, and then the attack on England of the Spanish Armada and the subsequent Anglo-Spanish War. Every able English ship joined the fight, leaving White without a means to return to Roanoke at the time. In the spring of 1588, White managed to acquire two small vessels and sailed for Roanoke; however, his attempt to return was thwarted when the captains of the ships attempted to capture several Spanish ships on the outward-bound voyage (in order to improve their profits). They themselves were captured and their cargo seized. With nothing left to deliver to the colonists, the ships returned to England.

Because of the continuing war with Spain, White was unable to mount another resupply attempt for an additional three years. He finally gained passage on a privateering expedition organized by John Watts and Walter Raleigh. They agreed to stop off at Roanoke on the way back after raiding the Spanish in the Caribbean. White landed on August 18, 1590, on his granddaughter’s third birthday, but found the settlement deserted. His men could not find any trace of the 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children, nor was there any sign of a struggle or battle.

The only clue was the word “CROATOAN” carved into a post of the fence around the village, and the letters C-R-O carved into a nearby tree. All the houses and fortifications had been dismantled, which meant that their departure had not been hurried. Before he had left the colony, White instructed the colonists that, if anything happened to them, they should carve a Maltese cross on a tree nearby, indicating that their absence had been forced. There was no cross, and White took this to mean that they had moved to Croatoan Island (now known as Hatteras Island), but he was unable to conduct a search. A massive storm was forming and his men refused to go any farther; the next day, they left.

Some attempts in later years were made by both the English and Spanish to determine what had happened to the colony but for one reason or another they were unsuccessful, so the affair remains a mystery to this day. My best (uninformed) guess is that the colonists were driven to desperate measures because of lack of supplies from England combined with their inability to raise European crops and animals in the New World and so threw their lot in with the Indians and assimilated. There has to come a tipping point at some stage when you begin to feel abandoned and, after looking out to sea day after day, give up hope of ever finding relief and, therefore, chart a new course. What little evidence there is points against a raid or massacre.

I know that part of North Carolina, known as the Outer Banks, very well because I lived in the region for a year doing research on fishing communities for my doctoral dissertation. The coastal sections of what are now Virginia (named for Elizabeth, the virgin queen), and the Carolinas (named for Charles I), became prosperous and vital colonies in Stuart times. By the later part of the 20th century when I lived there they catered mostly to the tourist industry, but little shreds of their English colonial history survived. Much of the cooking in the area is standard rural Southern, but some conventional English dishes showed up once in a while.  My landlady, for example, used to make a meat stew with flour and suet dumplings once in a while that was very similar to one my mother used to make. Normally she made corn dumplings, cooked with collards, but sometimes flour and suet called to her. This is not to suggest that the two women had some long lost ancestor from hundreds of years ago, of course, but merely to hint that there are recognizable strands of English culture in Tidewater North Carolina that you don’t find elsewhere in the South.

Hotel Roanoke spoonbread is a cross between cornbread and a soufflé that was reputedly first created on Roanoke but is now popular throughout the Tidewater.

Hotel Roanoke Spoonbread


1 ½ cups water
¼ cup butter, softened
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 cup cornmeal
1 tsp baking powder
5 eggs, beaten
2 cups milk


Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Combine the water, butter, sugar, and salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Whisk in the cornmeal and boil 1 minute, stirring constantly until thickened. Remove from the heat.

Add the baking powder, eggs, and milk to the mixture and stir to mix and form a batter.

Pour the batter into a greased cast-iron skillet. Bake for 50 minutes and test for doneness. A skewer pushed into the center should come out clean.

Serve immediately.