The Lost Colony Before the Lost Colony

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A Brief History

On July 22, 1587, a detachment of English settlers landed at Roanoke Island, in what is now North Carolina, with the intention of establishing a colony.  This group of colonists became famous as the mysterious “Lost Colony” of Roanoke, but prior to this infamous colonial failure, Sir Walter Raleigh and the English had made a previous unsuccessful attempt at establishing a colony at Roanoke, one that also resulted in the disappearance of the last English detachment at the colony.

Digging Deeper

After the voyages of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish had made numerous voyages of exploration and conquest in the New World and had a decades long head start on the British in exploiting the New World.  British interest focused on the areas North of where the Spanish had established a presence, from the Carolinas to Canada.  Sir Walter Raleigh, a gentleman of lands and means, sought to exploit the new lands and was granted a charter from Queen Elizabeth I to explore and colonize the lands from Newfoundland South to Florida, where the Spanish had claimed and settled. The areas from Newfoundland and North were granted by charter to Adrian Gilbert, the half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh.  Raleigh’s charter had a provision by which he was required to establish a colony by 1591, or face losing his charter.

Only a month after being granted the charter, Raleigh organized an expedition to the American coast that set sail in April of 1584, stopping at the West Indies for fresh water and provisions. By July 4, 1584, the expedition had reached the Carolina coast in the area of Cape Fear.  Contact with the local Native American people (Secotan) went well, especially since the Secotan had recently fought with another Native American tribe, the Pamlico.  The expedition returned to England with glowing reports of what they had found, including amiable relations with the Natives.  In fact, they even brought back a representative of the Secotan and another Native American from the Croatan tribe. It is possible, if not likely, that Raleigh exaggerated the bounty of the new land when describing the expedition to Queen Elizabeth.  Suitably impressed with Raleigh’s report, Elizabeth knighted him Sir Walter and gave him the governorship of the land she called “Virginia.” Raleigh proceeded forthwith to raise funds and the means of establishing a colony in Virginia.

Raleigh planned a major effort at establishing a colony strongly supported by men and arms, amassing 600 men in a fleet bound for Virginia (really North Carolina), perhaps half of which were to be left as the initial colonists.  Ralph Lane was made governor of the new colony, and this first effort by Raleigh has become known as “The Lane Colony.”  The 7 ship fleet was commanded by Phillip Amadas and overall command of the expedition was held by Sir Richard Grenville.  Both of the Native Americans that had been brought to England were on board to return to their homelands.  (We have previously discussed the tortured relationship between Europeans and Native Americans.)

The colonial fleet lost one of its smallest ships in bad weather on the Atlantic crossing, but when the flagship landed at Puerto Rico, a new replacement ship was made. Only one other ship from the fleet made it to the rendezvous point at Puerto Rico, although 3 of those ships later made it to catch up to the other 2 ships off the Carolina coast. The voyage to the Carolina coast had been an adventure in and of itself, with fighting the weather and the sea, ships grounding on shoals, and encounters with the Spanish, including the capture of 2 Spanish vessels.  One of the ships in the fleet dropped off 30 men at Croatoan Island and went North to the coast of Newfoundland to engage in privateering.  When the expedition finally arrived at the intended location of the new colony, a ship was sent back to England with tidings of the successful arrival of the fleet.  Unfortunately, much of the provisions had been lost in the grounding of a ship, and the size of the colony had to be reduced to only 100 people along with Lane due to the lack of provisions.

Contact with Native Americans was at first cordial, but a dispute over the alleged theft of a silver cup resulted in the British “teaching the Natives a lesson” by burning an entire Secotan village along with its crops.  Roanoke Island was decided upon as the site of the colony with the agreement of local Natives, and 107 men were left with Lane, with the expectation that a resupply fleet would be leaving England in June of 1585.  Unfortunately for the colonists, that resupply fleet was diverted to Newfoundland instead.  Lane set about constructing fortifications on Roanoke, a practice the expedition regularly put into effect each time they stopped on shore during the voyage to the colony site.

The “Lane Colony” at Roanoke was created with the expectation of finding gold and silver, thus enriching the colonists, but precious metals were never found.  Even Native supplies of copper eluded the colonists, who engaged in trade with the Native people for their food.  English provisions quickly ran out, resulting in the reliance on Native food supplies and a marked decrease in morale and enthusiasm for the colony.  Historians have noted that every time the colonists visited a Native American village, the Native people suffered an epidemic of European illness such as smallpox or influenza.  By the Spring of 1585, the English colonists were hungry and dispirited, and the local Native population had suffered epidemics caused by interaction with the colonists, which aggravated the food situation for both the Natives and the colonists.  Lane sent forays into the countryside to explore and meet with other Native people, hearing of potential riches and plotting English conquest to exploit those riches.  Of course, Lane lacked the requisite number of men for such forays, and he waited for his expected resupply before mounting such an expedition.  As relations between the Natives and the colonists deteriorated, Lane found his colony increasingly hungry and with diminished food supplies from the Secotan, as well as increased hostility from the various Native people in the area.  By the end of April, 1585, the Secotan had left Roanoke and destroyed their fishing weirs (sort of nets or traps made of sticks) while passing word that no Native people should supply the English colonists with food.  Things actually went downhill from there!

By June 1, 1585, Lane knew of planned hostilities toward the colony by the Natives and conducted a preemptive attack of his own, striving to prevent Natives around the colony from notifying larger Native groups inland of the onset of hostilities.  The English attack was a ploy using the ruse of negotiations in order to surprise the Native warriors, and the English were successful, including the beheading of the Native chief.  The unfortunate chief’s head was displayed on the outside of the English fortification as a warning to any Natives that sought to attack the colony.

During June of 1586, Lane was able to make contact with Sir Francis Drake who commanded a fleet in the Caribbean and East coast of North America, raiding Spanish ships and ports while amassing slaves and provisions with the intention of resupplying the Roanoke colony.  Drake proposed leaving considerable supplies, slaves and even a ship for the colony, but after a storm Lane and his colonists just wanted desperately to evacuate the colony and Drake agreed to take the colonists back to England, arriving in July of 1586.  Meanwhile, Raleigh had dispatched a resupply fleet to Roanoke which included another 400 colonists, not knowing what had been transpiring there and Drake’s involvement in the evacuation of the colony.  The relief ship arrived and found no trace of the colonists who had already departed for England.  The rest of the fleet arrived and the Natives in the area told the English that the colonists had packed up and left with Drake’s fleet.  The relief fleet left a small detachment at Roanoke to keep Raleigh’s and the English claim on the land and left for the return to England.

The small detachment left at Roanoke, only 15 men, suffered attacks by Native Americans and were ultimately all killed.  When a second attempt at establishing a colony at Roanoke was mounted by Raleigh in 1587, the English arriving there found no trace of the detachment left behind by Drake.  That second Roanoke colony became infamous as “The Lost Colony,” overshadowing the 1585 first failed attempt to make a permanent English colony in what is now the United States.  Ah, but that is another story…

(Note: The second, “Lost” colony at Roanoke saw the first English baby born in North America on August 18,1587, when little Virginia Dare took her first breaths.  We have also previously discussed the “Lost Colony.”)

Question for students (and subscribers): Were you previously aware of this first failed attempt at creating a colony at Roanoke? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Horn, James. A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Basic Books, 2010.

Seelye, James Jr. and Shawn Selby (editors). Shaping North America [3 volumes]: From Exploration to the American Revolution. ABC-CLIO, 2018.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.