Roanoke, the Accidental Colony

Roanoke, the Accidental Colony


Description of often misunderstood circumstances surrounding the first English colonization attempt.

Stories about Roanoke, the Accidental Colony

Roanoke Island; a tragic outcome for a bright beginning

  • Roanoke Island, Virginia Colony

**Roanoke, the Accidental Colony
**The Lost Colony, an accident of fate with a tragic outcome that reverberates to this day, should never have happened. The group of colonists sent out by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1587 to establish the Cittee of Raleigh, had never intended to locate on the Island of Roanoke. But after a four month long trip marked by delays, mishaps, evasive tactics and possibly outright sabotage, these some 117 men, women and children were unceremoniously dumped on the island by Captain Fernandez. All but but two of them would vanish without a trace.

They had intended only to stop by the island where fifteen men had been left behind by Sir Richard Grenville the year before, after the failure of first settlement attempt. Governor John White and forty of his "best men" would make a short visit to check on the men, then they would continue on to their destination about 50 miles up the coast of the Chesapeake Bay. Exploration parties sent there previously had made favorable reports on the suitability of the area for settlement. But as soon as the pinnace carrying the men was in the water, Captain Fernandez ordered them to stay there on the island, forbidding them to re-board his ship, claiming he needed to return to the Caribbean as the season was growing short for privateering. Inexplicitly, he then sat at anchor for several weeks in a cruel taunting gesture to the colonists stranded on an island where something very sinister and unexplainable had obviously occurred. Among the first sights to greet the landing party were the bleaching bones of one of the fifteen Englishmen left behind the previous year. The other 14 had vanished without a trace, the fort had been destroyed and the houses had fallen into disrepair. Deer were grazing on melons which had grown up in the floors of the abandoned houses. Something was terribly wrong.

Trying to make the best of their situation, the Colonists began repairing the houses and building new more substantial ones of tile and brick. Their situation was truly precarious. Arriving too late to plant crops, they had not been allowed to take on salt, cattle, plants or fresh water at Hispaniola to replenish their dwindling supplies. They did not have sufficient food to exist for more than a few weeks. They were horrified when one of the assistants, George Howe, out crabbing alone, was killed and mutilated by Indians. Someone would have to return to England and get word to Sir Walter Raleigh that they were in peril. But who would even be able to see Raleigh and who would be believed? These men were, for the most part, middle class craftsmen and the like, unschooled in statecraft. There was only one answer after Christopher Cooper agreed to go, then withdrew his offer. The only man sure to get through to Raleigh and be believed was John White, the Colony Governor. He had been picked by Raleigh to lead this colony and was respected by him. John White did not want to leave his daughter, her husband and his granddaughter, nine day old Virginia Dare. The Colonists begged him to do so though and knowing it was their last chance, John White agreed to set sail with Edward Spicer, who had miraculously found the settlers after his flyboat became separated from them early in the voyage. White refused to sail with Captain Fernandez. He hurriedly prepared and left instructions for certain symbols to be carved if the colonists leave this location. They are to carve the name of the location to which they are relocating on door posts or trees; if they are in distress they are to carve a Moline or Maltese* cross over the name.

<a></a>#Unfortunately, John White and Edward Spicer are blown far off course by terrible storms and barely make it to Ireland. By the time they reach England, Fernandez has been back for weeks, establishing himself as a hero of the expedition. White does see Raleigh, but it is unknown what he tells him.

John White will spend the next three years desperately trying to return to his Colony. He makes two abortive attempts to reach the Colonists from which he is lucky to survive the second one. He is injured and shot by enemy mariners attacking his ship. During this time, Sir Walter Raleigh's attentions are diverted in an attempt to save his Queen and save his country from the menacing threat of defeat by the mightiest Navy in the world; the Spanish Armada. Many believe he will fail. Queen Elizabeth I forbids the sailing of any ships to the area where the colonists are stranded. Due to Raleigh's efforts and history's most providential storm, the Spanish Armada is totally destroyed. England is saved.

Amid much rejoicing by his countrymen, John White is finally able to secure passage to his Colony. Once again he is at the mercy of captains and sailors with other agendas. They waste many precious months chasing ships in the Caribbean for their own personal gain. By the time they arrive at Roanoke, storms are raging and even after they pass, the experienced captains know they must anchor several miles offshore from these treacherous banks. Several years before, Simon Fernandez, a very skillful navigator, discovered a passage through the dangerous shoals. Named Fernando Pass in his honor, it will offer their best chance of reaching Roanoke in safety. That night smoke is seen coming from the island and John White is elated. Surely this indicates the colonists are still where he left them. He can hardly sleep for anticipation. He is up at dawn eager to explore the island. Captain Cocke and Captain Spicer are each in charge of a shoreboat. There is a strong undertow and rowing in by the sailors is slow and arduous work. Halfway in to shore a second plume of smoke is spotted from a nearby chain of sand dunes. The party changes direction to check out what they believe is a signal from the colonists. The undertow delivers them to a site far short of the smoke plume and they decide to walk the rest of the way. It is much further than they thought and they are exhausted and thirsty when they reach the burned and deserted area from which the smoke had come. Realizing the fire must have been set by lightning, they return to their boats. The sailors have been digging in the sand and found much fresh water. It is far too late to go to Roanoke that day, so they order the sailors to fill all available casks with fresh water and return to the ship.

John White spends another night in nervous anticipation, with less hope than before now that the fires no longer appear to be have been set by the colonists.

Once again he is up at dawn, but this morning Captain Spicer has decided that fresh water must be taken on immediately and for the better part of the morning the boats are occupied in this task. At last at ten of the clocke aforenoone, once again, Captain Cocke and Captain Spicer each man a boat. Captain Cocke's boat in which John White is a passenger, passes the first breach, but suffers a sea break which fills the boat half full of water. Only by Cocke's skillful steerage were they saved and brought to shore.

They were then left to stare in horror as Captain Spicer's boat's approached the passage just as the wind shifted to northeast, capsizing their boat halfway through the passage. Men were in the water and hanging onto the boat. Some were trapped underneath. Most sailors purposely never learned to swim and their fate was sealed. Captain Cocke then exhibited a great deal of bravery, stripping and ordering several sailors to join him, he directed their boat toward the capsized craft and they saved four men. Captain Edward Spicer, John White's good friend, was lost, along with six other men. The sailors were demoralized and refused for several hours to go any further to seek the colonists. After much persuasion on the part of Captain Cocke and John White, they finally agreed to prepare the boats.

Nineteen persons then divided into the two boats and continued on to where the colonists had been located. By then it was dark and they overshot their landing by a quarter mile. A fire was seen burning toward the north end of the island so they rowed toward it. They let fall their grapnel, sounded a trumpet, played many familiar English tunes and called to them friendly for hours. All to no avail. The next morning at first light they went ashore. Other than the prints of bare feet in the sand from last night's silent audience, they find no signs of recent human occupation. The houses have been torn down, although the walls of the fort still stand. At last someone finds the message CRO on a tree trunk, in faire Romane letters. John White is elated because he realizes this means they have gone to the island of Croatoan, birthplace of their Indian friend, Manteo. And soon he finds CROATOAN carved into the tree trunk serving as a gatepost to the fort. Mercifully there is no cross.

Another storm is brewing and the men hurry to their boats and back to the ships. For two nights they must stay out in the deep water, the storm is raging and small boats would not survive another trip ashore. At last a morning dawns with winds favorable to sail to the Island of Croatoan. But disaster strikes again. Cables snap, two anchors are quickly lost and only providence saves the ship. The storm grows much worse and Captain Cocke and his men are very anxious to leave this place. He promises John White that they will Winter in the Caribbean and return in the Spring to seek the colonists. It was agreed that the Moonlight should return immediately to England as that ship is not seaworthy for a long trip. They parted and for two days all went well. Captain Abraham Cooke and John White sail toward the Caribbean in the Hopewell. They were then beset with contrary winds that drove them toward the Azores. After taking on fresh water there, they sailed on to England, abandoning all hope of reaching the Caribbean. John White was a dejected and defeated man. He knew he would never return. He entrusted the fate of his family and the rest of the colonists, people he had persuaded to immigrate, into God's hands. He moved to Ireland and presumably died there. The last surviving document related to White is a letter he wrote from Ireland in 1593 to Richard Hakluyt, the publisher of his Roanoke drawings. If John White had not survived the two dangerous trips back we would know next to nothing about the Colonists. Perhaps in the turmoil existing in England at the time and Raleigh's loss of power and means, culminating in his execution, these Colonist might have been lost to memory for all time. But John White's writings and exquisite artwork do provide a comsiderable amount of information.

The mystery of what actually happened to the colonists haunts people to this day. Part of the Jamestown initiative was to locate these colonists. Their leaders were instructed to find gold and other precious metals, to find the Passage to the Orient and to find the Lost Colony. Unfortunately, they were usually so involved in seeking the first two objectives that the colonists came in a very distant third. And then they themselves were in peril and could only try to survive. The colonists were forgotten for the time being. Later there were rumors that they had all been ordered killed by Powhatten, in fact John Smith claimed that Powhatten told him this on the night he planned to execute him. Only the timely intervention of Pocahontas saved John Smith that night, if he is to be believed.

George Percy reported seeing a "Savage Boy about the age of ten years, who had a head of hair of a perfect yellow and a reasonable white skin" among the Indians on an extended trip in May of 1607. Others reported that seven colonists had been seen. Four in one place were employed by the chief beating copper for him. One of these was a maiden and Virginia Dare was the only known girl child among the colonists. In 1998, tree ring analysis revealed that the severest drought to strike the mid-Atlantic coastal region in eight hundred years occurred from 1587 to 1589 which would have caused severe food shortages. Perhaps they simply starved. But if so, who were these Indians who told John Lawson over one hundred years later their ancestors could talk in a book? Some of the colonists were Welsh. Could this explain Indians speaking Welsh and overhearing Morgan Jones, a captive express his fears, assured him he would not die and ransomed him? So many questions unanswered. What happened to their pinnace? What happened to the many trunks of goods they would have been carrying with them? Are they all at the bottom of the sea? What was a gold signet ring doing in the Croatoan capital, 40 miles from Roanoke? Was it stolen, bartered, freely given? Simply lost?

What about the mixed blood groups originating in North Carolina with oral histories of descent from the Lost Colony? The Lumbee, the Red Bones, the Melungeons, and others? Some linguists have examined and dismissed these claims out of hand. But now some researchers believe they may have tossed out the baby with the bathwater. Many among these groups bear the same or simular surnames. A coincidence? What about the tiniest artifacts imaginable? Carried in the lifeblood of these people; DNA found in every cell of their bodies could finally provide links that prove the old stories.

It is time, past time, to find out. We owe the colonists no less.

-Janet Lewis Crain**

  • I have not been able to document the type of cross. Different sources give one or the other.

Searching for the Lost Colony Blog

Read John White's Account here:

Sun rising off the coast of Roanoke Island, North Carolina

<a target="_blank"></a>

Copyright 2007
All rights reserved**

See all 1 stories…

Additional Info
ljcrain -Contributions private
29 Jul 2008
30 Jul 2008
View count:
216 (recently viewed: 2)