Squinting into the sun, John White spots a tree-lined stretch of land across the muddy, brackish sound water. “There,” he says to the men rowing, pointing to a small, sandy stretch of beach emerging from the gently swaying salt marsh. They pull the row boat ashore and stagger out on wobbly, sea-worn legs. Cautiously, they make their way into the treeline and towards the site of the settlement White helped to build two years ago. He looks around. This island is full of enemies. He was lucky to escape it last time. He takes a deep breath and focuses on the mission. Find the settlement. Find the 15 men Grenville left behind. Up ahead, the trees thin, a clearing. The remains of the ransacked fort emerge as they near it. But White takes in little of the ruins around him. His eyes settle instead on a glint of bright white bone, glowing in the sun. It’s a human skull. They’ve found the men that stayed behind, one of them, at least.
In 1587, John White arrived on Roanoke Island, part of the Outer Banks of present day North Carolina. He was part of an expedition sent by Queen Elizabeth I of England to establish a permanent colony in the Americas. White was to be the governor of this new colony. But this wasn’t his first time on Roanoke Island. He had been part of an earlier expedition in 1585. An expedition that did not end well. And, spoiler alert, this new attempt would meet an even more disastrous end when as many as 116 men, women, and children disappeared entirely, going down in history as the mysterious “Lost Colony of Roanoke.” But did you know, there's a lot more to the story than what a handful of Englishmen recorded back in the 1580’s? A whole nother side to the story, that is mostly left out? Let’s fix that.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix, where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. This week, and next week, we’re talking about the Roanoke colonies better known as the Lost Colony. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart having grown up just across the sound from where it all took place. I know a lot about the Roanoke colonies. I taught it for 8 years as a 4th grade social studies teacher, researched it extensively for lessons I created for my TPT store (which is my real job, by the way), and just grew up in it, really.
So, cool, this should be easy to cover right? Well, no. Honestly, despite all of that, I’ve been super intimidated by this episode. Well, these episodes, cause this is going to be a 2 parter for sure. There’s just 2 parts to the story so it makes sense to break it up. But, yeah, I’m intimidated to dig into this because there’s so much to this story and I just really want to do it justice. So I guess I was procrastinating a little. I actually had a few listeners reach out to me on Instagram asking that I cover Roanoke after the episode about Pocahontas and Jamestown. It kept coming up in that episode and in the mini fix about the Jamestown Jane. So I guess I was accidentally teasing you guys a little bit there. Sorry. But without further ado, here it is, Roanoke your hearts out babies. You’re in for quite a ride.
In part 1, which is this one. You’re listening to part one. I’m going to talk about the 1585 colony that preceded the 1587 “lost colony.” And while I know the lost colony like the back of my hand, the 1585 colony is a bit less familiar to me, if I’m being honest. That’s not entirely my fault though. The lost colony is kind of a big deal. It’s been romanticized and dramaticized, if that’s a word, in popular culture as this intriguing real life mystery. We’ve seen this most recently with the extremely popular TV series “American Horror Story” season 6 which is very, very loosely based on, inspired by, the lost 1587 Roanoke colony. And then of course there’s the Lost Colony outdoor drama which is the longest running outdoor theater production in the United States, going strong since 1937 which once starred Roanoke Island’s very own Andy Griffith.
But, the 1585 colony is kind of like the lost colony’s ugly stepsister. It’s the dirty little secret no one wants to talk about. But like most dirty little secrets, it is incredibly interesting and exceedingly important, pivotal, in understanding what happened to the lost colony. So, let’s get into it.
So sixteenth century England, that’s 1500s by the way, not the 1600s. I know it’s confusing. Elizabeth I is queen of England. Spain and England are mega rivals at this point in history. For much of the century, so far, Spain has dominated exploration and colonization of the Americas. They have Central America, they have South America, they have the Caribbean, they even have Florida. Elizabeth wants to get in there. One of the major goals of English colonization was, basically just to mess with Spain. She wants an English presence in the Americas as like a buffer against Spanish control. She also wants a base for privateering. We’ve talked about privateering a bunch. It’s legal piracy. The crown hires privateers to attack Spanish ships and steal any valuable cargo. It's a win-win. They weaken their Spanish enemies, and England gets rich from all the treasure they steal.
Enter Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh was a wealthy courtier and a favorite of the queen. I think she had a little crush on him. She never married. She wasn’t willing to share her throne with anyone. But she certainly fancied Sir Walter Raleigh. He wants to establish a colony in North America. And she’s like “okay, cool me too, let’s do it.” He’s like, “alright, sweet, when do I leave?” and Elizabeth is like “Oh, no, no, no, no, you aren’t going. You’re my boo. You have to stay here.” And she won’t allow Raleigh to join any of the expeditions. I think a lot of people think he actually went with the colonists. No. He never set foot in North America. But he gets permission from the queen to go forward with this colony idea. The actual letters patent that was issued to him granted him permission to quote “discover search find out and view such remote heathen and barbarous lands Countries and territories not actually possessed of any Christian Prince and inhabited by Christian people” and to “hold occupy and enjoy . . . forever all the soil of all such lands Countries and territories so to be discovered or possessed . . .” So, basically if there aren’t Christians AKA white people already living there, he can just take it. Just take it and enjoy it, forever. The nerve of these people. Nevermind that it’s already fully occupied and has been for thousands of years. They’re just going to take it. So that’s the mentality we’re working with here. That’s the mindset going into this.
But let’s pause there to expand on that. This land is already occupied and has been for thousands of years. I reached out to Michael Oberg who is distinguished professor of history at SUNY Geneseo University in western New York. He specializes in Native American studies and is the author of the book The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand which I highly highly recommend if you’re interested in the Roanoke Colonies. I could not put it down. In this book, he tells the story of the Roanoke colonies but from the perspective of the indigenous people living in the area. I’ll let him set the scene for you: Michael Oberg Interview
So, Algonquian speaking. I just want to clarify, Algonquian is a language. It’s the same language spoken by the Powhatan, which were Pocahontas’ people. Within this group “Carolina Algonquian” there were many different groups - on the mainland the Choanoac, Weapemoeoc, Secotan, and Machapunga, the Roanokes on Roanoke Island, the Croatoans on the Outer Banks - but Michael is pretty adamant that the word “tribe” doesn’t do much to explain the organization of this civilization. It’s really more village based.
The indigenous people call this land Ossomocomuck but, I find this quite funny. Originally the English thought it was called Wingandacon. They printed it in patents and documents referring to the area. But that’s not what it was called. That was a total misunderstanding. You see, they didn’t speak the same language initially, they didn’t understand each other. When one of the English asked an indigenous man the name of the land, he replied “Wingandacon” which actually means “you wear good clothes.” So he was just complementing the guy’s outfit and they thought it was the name of the whole land and printed it in a bunch of official documents. But no, it was actually called Ossomocomuck.
In 1584, a scouting expedition led by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe departs England. They are looking for a suitable location for the new colony. They just head west. They’re just like “let’s go see where we land.” And they end up on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Which is where I live. The ocean is mega treacherous here. It’s known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of all the shifting sand and unpredictable shallow shoals that have sunk thousands of ships off the narrow strip of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. So Amadas and Barlowe sail through an inlet between the islands and into the calm protected waters of the Pamlico Sound. This is where they find Roanoke Island nestled between the barrier islands and the mainland. It’s about 10 miles long and 2 miles wide with tons of trees, it’s teeming with game, plus the indigenous people seem friendly. Barlowe described them as quote “very handsome and goodly people, and in their behavior as mannerly and civil as any of Europe.”
Going into this, the English wanted peace with the native people. That was hugely important to them. They saw the way the Spanish had conquered the native inhabitants of their colonies, just absolutely destroyed them and they wanted to take the opposite approach. They wanted to make allies out of the Algonquians, to use them as weapons against future Spanish colonization. If they were allies of the English, they were automatically enemies of the Spanish. Little did they know, these people already had their own enemies. At the time of their arrival in 1584, the Roanoke weroance, or leader, Wingina was embroiled in a violent dispute with the neighboring village of Pomeiooc. In fact, when English ships first appeared, Wingina was laid up in his house in the village of Dasemunkepeuc on the mainland, injured from battling with that group. He heard of the arrival of the English though, of course, and sent a lower weroance named Granganimeo who was based out of a small village on the north end of Roanoke Island to greet them. Granganimeo is very friendly, he beckons them to shore, they exchange gifts, later his wife invites some of the Englishmen into their village where she offers them dinner and beds for the night. The Roanokes also want to establish peaceful relations, they want to use the English, with their superior weapons, as allies against their own indigenous enemies. So both groups are playing the same game, using each other, to get a leg up on their enemies.
Barlowe and Amadas reportedly had a wonderful experience and excellent, peaceful relations with the native people. It almost seemed too good to be true so I asked Michael about that Michael Oberg Interview
When it was time to return to England with news of their discoveries, they bring two indigenous men back to England with them: Manteo who was part of the Croatoan group on the barrier islands, on the beach, and Wanchese who was part of the Roanoke group, on Roanoke Island, in the sound. Now, Manteo and Wanchese were not prisoners of the English, they were not forced into this trip. They were actually sent by their own people to basically gather intel on the English who are planning to return a year later to establish a colony.
So they get back to England, with rave reviews about the area and the people living there. Sir Walter Raleigh is stoked. He’s parading Manteo and Wanchese around. The English are fascinated by them and this helps Raleigh enlist more investors in the colony. It’s the same thing King James will later do with Pocahontas. They are propaganda “see, the ‘New World’ is great, the people are so exotic and cool, don’t you want to move there?”
About a year later, they are ready to actually establish a colony. Remember the 1584 expedition was just to scout out a location. They were never planning to stay. Now it’s 1585. Seven ships carrying around 600 English soldiers and sailors plus Manteo and Wanchese set sail from Plymouth, England towards Roanoke Island. The 1585 colony was all men. It was a military colony. They are going to set up a fort and settlement, a homebase, so that, eventually, women and children could also be brought over. They would have somewhere to go.
This fleet of 7 ships is under the command of Sir Richard Grenville, who was Sir Walter Raleigh’s cousin. So Grenville is in charge of the sea voyage, basically, the crossing. But another man has been appointed governor of the colony. That man is named Ralph Lane and he’s pretty awful. He’s a pretty garbage human. I don’t how these guys always get put in charge. Other notable folks include John White, he is here to record things. He draws pictures and keeps a written account of the people they encounter. Thomas Harriot was a scientist who had learned some Algonquian from Manteo and Wanchese so he helps with communication. He also writes an in depth account of the expedition which is where a lot of the information we know comes from. Philip Amadas is back with this crew, he came with Barlowe in 1584 so this is his second trip. And of course Manteo and Wanchese who have spent months in England gathering intel about these people and they are returning with very differing views of the English.
Manteo is all for it. He thinks the English are great. He thinks they will be powerful allies. Wanchese is not so sure. He’s seen the brutality of these men, the filthy squalor they live in over in London, the power of their military might. He begins to fear the English will be more enemy than ally and I imagine he can’t wait to get back to Roanoke to tell Wingina all of this.
Once they reach the Outer Banks, they encounter a problem pretty much immediately. Some of the ships in the fleet are too big to enter the sound around Roanoke Island. The sound is pretty shallow and the inlets are unpredictable. If your ship draws too much water, you’re not getting it in there without running aground. Which is exactly what happens to their flagship Tyger. So they are forced to anchor offshore in the ocean where they are exposed to storms, strong winds, and rough seas. Several ships were badly damaged pretty much immediately and most of the food and supplies they had brought with them were destroyed by seawater. They were reportedly left with only 20 days worth of food.
So this is bad. This is real bad. They are supposed to be setting up a permanent colony. Now they have no supplies, no food, no time to prepare for winter. It’s not looking good. It’s a bad start. There’s no way they can support 600 men with so few provisions. So eventually Grenville takes most of the men and heads back to England to get more supplies, leaving Ralph Lane with 108 men. And this isn’t like just running home to grab something you forgot real quick. This is like months, like months at sea. He is planning to come back, but it’s gonna be minute.
Basically as soon as they get to shore, Wanchese takes off. He’s like “See ya!” He runs straight to Wingina and warns him “The English are awful. They are going to destroy us.” Which, he’s ultimately right, but Wingina isn’t sure. He decides to keep exploring this English ally idea. He instructs Ralph Lane to set up a settlement on the north end of Roanoke Island about a half mile from Granganimeo’s village. So, he can keep an eye on them basically. Which they do, they dig this triangular shaped earth fortification that they top with a palisade, a fort. Then they build some houses, a blacksmith shop, that sort of thing around the outside of the fort. Which seems like a weird choice but whatever. But Lane is like “yeah, I don’t know, this isn’t a great spot because we can’t even get a ship back here.” And they have a point, I don’t know why Amadas and Barlowe didn’t realize that. They did have smaller ships but I don’t know. It seems like they should have warned them about how shallow the water was around Roanoke Island. I feel like Amadas and Barlowe were just being like wined and dined by the native people like “Yeahhh, it’s great. We love it. You guys should totally go to Roanoke.” Just like completely overlooking major flaws in that idea. But anyway, here we are.
So while Lane wants to look for a more suitable location for the colony, they’re kind of forced to just set up shop here, on the north end of Roanoke Island. It’s an interesting dynamic we see here. When you think of English colonization, you think of men like waltzing off a ship and planting a flag, claiming the land. That’s not really what happened at Roanoke. They were very much invited in by the Roanoke people, actually told where they could set up their settlement. They were following orders, essentially.
But that peace that Barlowe reported back in 1584 does not last long. They are popping around to some mainland villages, introducing themselves and looking for a more suitable place to settle. They still have Manteo with them as an interpreter. He’s still drinking the English kool aid. It’s all going well and then, there’s this drama with a silver cup. Amadas accuses the people of Aquascogoc of stealing a silver cup from them during their visit. He returns to the village to get the cup and when they fail to produce this cup, Amadas and his men burn their village to the ground. And I could not make sense of this, strategically, this seems real dumb and petty, so I asked Michael about it Michael Oberg Interview
So they attack and burn a few villages. But they happen to be villages that Wingina doesn’t get along with. So he’s like, alright, cool, let it ride. That’s not what turns Wingina against them. What eventually does it is disease. Every village the English visit is suddenly stricken with deadly illness. They are dropping like flies by something they clearly have no immunity to. The English accounts don’t give details about their symptoms but it was likely some kind of influenza. The indigenous healers are not able to do anything to save the sick. Wingina goes to the English and he’s like “Can you stop it? Ask your god to stop it.” And they’re like “uh, he doesn’t actually do that, sorry.” Disease kills Granganimeo and another weroance named Ensenore, who were both pro-English. They were two of the last allies the English had at this point. But the disease more than anything, more than the burning of the villages, more than Wanchese whispering warnings in his ear, this is what starts to turn Wingina against the English and away from the whole English ally idea. Here’s what Michael had to say: Michael Oberg Interview
At this point Wingina changes his name to Pemisapan. This is not uncommon in Algonquian culture. We’re not totally sure why he changed his name. It may have been to signify the change in the way he viewed the English. Like he’s a new person who has suddenly seen the light. Around this time, he tells Lane that 6,000 native warriors are gathering west up the Chowan river preparing to attack the English. Lane heads that way. He’s greeted peacefully but he storms into their village and takes their weroance, Menatonon captive. He’s like “what the heck, why are you planning to attack us?” and Menatonon is like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. We aren’t planning to attack you. I think Pemisapan (AKA Wingina) made that up. I think he’s the one planning to attack you.” So this plants a seed of paranoia in Ralph Lane. He starts to believe that Pemisapan is plotting against him.
Lane lets Menatonon go but takes his son Skiko back to Roanoke Island with him as a prisoner. When he gets back he realizes the Roanoke village near them has been left abandoned. The people are gone, all of the crops are gone, all of the fishing weirs are gone. This is a problem. The English are not self-sufficient. They rely heavily on the Roanoke people for food at this point. So Pemisapan has withdrawn that support, most likely hoping that any survivors returning from the disastrous westward mission he sent them on would just starve to death and they’d be done with the whole lot of them. Michael Oberg Interview
Lane is furious. He’s on to Pemisapan. He just knows he’s plotting against them at this point. Plus Skiko, his captive Choanoac, is telling him Pemisapan is plotting to wipe them out in a middle of the night sneak attack. Lane details all of this in his journal. And he decides to take drastic measures. Michael Oberg Interview
Ralph Lane seeks council with Pemisapan at his village of Dasemunkepeuc on the mainland, which today is called Mann’s Harbor. He meets with Pemisapan and some other important leaders, acting like he just wants to talk. Then he yells “Christ our Victory” and the English open fire. Pemisapan is shot but later gets up and runs away. They chase after him. The fastest is an Irishman named Edward Nugent. He eventually catches up to Pemisapan and cuts off his head. This is Ralph Lane’s account of that moment, reenacted by my friend Bill Rea who spent many years in character as captain of the Elizabeth II, a replica sailing ship based on those that carried the settlers to Roanoke Island. So, who better to do this, I’m not sure. Here’s what Lane wrote his journal: Bill Rea clip
Yeah, so, so much for peace. Here’s Michael’s take Michael Oberg Interview
So it seems like Lane and the rest of the colonists are completely screwed right? There’s no way they’re getting away with this. Michael Oberg Interview. That’s right, about a week after the murder of Pemisapan, Sir Francis Drake made his way to the Outer Banks to check in on the colony. So let’s rewind for a minute to have a look at what Drake has been up to all this time. Drake has been off privateering, raiding Spanish ships off the coast of Florida and the West Indies. He’s taken a bunch of valuables and also captured a reported 500 enslaved Africans and indigenous South Americans. Before he heads to Roanoke, he makes a stop in Saint Augustine, Florida. Saint Augustine was a Spanish outpost basically just to discourage other countries from trying to settle in that area. Drake took a bunch of valuable hardware off of the houses, locks and doorknobs, and hinges and stuff and then basically destroyed Saint Augustine, set it ablaze. He’s like “cool, they’re gonna love these door knobs in Roanoke. This is exactly what they need over there.” Because you see, he misunderstood the situation completely. He thought the Roanoke colony was surely well established and thriving at this point. He rolls up with a bunch of fancy hinges and finds them basically starving and at war with the neighboring indigenous groups after murdering their leader. He’s like “Oh, ok nevermind the door knobs, then.”
Ralph Lane is like “get us out of here.” He wants to head up towards the Chesapeake Bay to scout out a better spot for the colony but a terrible storm, probably a hurricane, scatters the fleet and basically forces them to return to England. What I find very interesting. Is that, when Sir Francis Drake returns to England, he only has 100 enslaved people with him. What happened to the other 400 enslaved Africans and South Americans he stole from the Spanish? Some historians theorize that he left them behind on Roanoke Island. This would change everything. When the 1587 group arrives the next year, they find no sign of any enslaved people, just that one English skeleton. So, if this is true, there’s a whole nother lost colony of Roanoke that no one even cared to look for. Others think maybe they were lost at sea during the storm. Maybe Drake sold them off on the way back to England. But I can’t stop coming back to the possibility that they were left behind. The impact that would have, culturally, linguistically, genetically is profound. I really want to dig into this more, but I’m going to have to save it. Might have to revisit this in a mini-fix.
So Lane and Manteo and all but 3 of his men escape back to England with Sir Francis Drake. Those 3 were off on some adventure like scouting out new spots or whatever and they got left. Not long after this, Sir Richard Grenville actually returns. Yeah, remember him? He had gone back to England for more supplies, which he now has but, upon finding the settlement abandoned and everything basically in shambles. He’s like “darn, I guess that’s that.” He leaves 15 men behind to hold the fort and heads on back to England. Soon enough, John White, returning with the next group of colonists, would find one of those men, very much dead, and the rest of them, nowhere to be found.
And we’re back to where we started from. Just a year later, despite the absolutely disastrous outcome of the 1585 colony, Queen Elizabeth I gives Sir Walter Raleigh the go ahead to send another group over - this time with women and children. Tune in next week to hear about the 1587 Roanoke colony, why it was doomed from the start, and how it went down in history as the “Lost Colony of Roanoke.” Michael Oberg Interview That’s next week.
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in this episode was sourced from The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand and huge thank you to author Michael Oberg for being willing to share his knowledge with us, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, Coastal Review, Smithsonian Magazine, Washington Daily News, The First Colony Foundation, and the journal of Ralph Lane from Documenting the American South. Links to all of these sources can be found in the show notes. Also, huge thank you to Bill Rea for helping to bring Ralph Lane’s words to life.
John White stares at the sun bleached skull. Empty eye sockets stare back. This was surely one of Grenville’s men. But 15 stayed behind to hold Fort Raleigh. Where were the rest of them? “Governor White,” one of the men speaks up, “we should go.” White nods, but go where? He’s still rattled from the news he was given back at the ship, still trying to make sense of it. As they’d clamored into the boat to head to shore, the ship’s pilot, Simon Fernando, had leaned over the railing. “Leave the men on shore,” he had yelled down in his thick Portuguese accent, “you come back for the rest.” White hadn’t understood at first. They were only here to find Grenville’s men. They were meant to sail on to the Chesapeake Bay farther north, to settle in a more accessible spot, with friendlier native people. “Summer is far spent,” Fernando continued, “I will land all the planters in no other place.” They were stuck, it seemed, on Roanoke Island, stuck amidst hostile enemy territory.
Hello, I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix. This is part 2 of a 2 part episode about the Roanoke Colonies. If you missed part 1, head on back and listen to that now, then rejoin me here. In our opening scene, the 1587 colony, led by Governor John White has just arrived on Roanoke Island. But they weren’t intending to stay. White, having witnessed the horrific downfall of the 1585 colony, knows Roanoke is a lost cause at this point. The plan, instead, was to take their 118 men, women, and children farther north to the Chesapeake Bay where they hoped they would find more suitable land and more hospitable native neighbors. However, the ship’s captain, Simon Fernando, had other plans. He claimed he needed to head back out in order to avoid hurricane season. Other theories suggest Fernando was antsy to hit up some of his favorite privateering spots in the Caribbean and basically ditched the colonists on Roanoke so he didn’t miss out on the looting.
Whatever the reason, the colonists are forced to disembark the ships and set up camp in known enemy territory. The 1585 colonists under the leadership of Ralph Lane burnt this bridge, to the ground, when they murdered the nearby weroance, or leader, Pemisapan (formally called Wingina). They know this. They are fully aware of this. And yet here they are. So the odds are certainly against them. I asked Michael Oberg, distinguished professor of history at SUNY Geneseo University in western New York and author of the book “The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand” to explain. [Michael Oberg Interview].
So let me just attempt to put this in perspective for you. These are not soldiers, rough, war-hardened men like in 1585. These are families. 14 families including 17 women and 11 children. Two of the women were pregnant. One of whom was John White’s own daughter Eleanor Dare. They think they're going to the Chesapeake Bay, which they have been told is a utopian land with rich, fertile soil, plentiful food, agreeable weather, and hospitable neighbors where they will be free to establish their own homestead and practice their religion however they see fit. This is what they signed up for. Freedom and opportunity. What they got instead, was a tiny, inaccessible, mosquito ridden island with poor soil, experiencing the worst drought in almost a millennium, and a settlement that had obviously been destroyed in some kind of brutal, violent attack by their neighbors who very much wanted them all dead. Is that the kind of world you’d want to birth a baby into? I can’t even imagine.
[Hannah West Interview].
That’s my sister Hannah West. The first chapter of her book “Remarkable Women of the Outer Banks” focuses on Eleanor Dare and the overwhelming obstacles she faced as she prepared to enter motherhood on Roanoke Island in 1587.
[Hannah West Interview].
Just a few days after arriving and setting to work rebuilding the destroyed settlement, disaster struck. A colonist named George Howe was killed as he searched for crabs and shellfish in the sound. He had wandered around 2 miles away from Fort Raleigh where he was easy pickings for Pemisapan’s people who still wanted revenge. Here’s historical reenactor Bill Rea reading John White’s account of this encounter. Bill Rea Sound clip.
So George Howe doesn’t come back. They go to find him. They find him full of arrows with his skull bashed in. [Michael Oberg Interview] This is clearly a message from those who were loyal to Pemisapan. White has to figure something out. He has to fix this. They can’t rely on the Roanokes for food like they did last time and they can’t be self-sufficient if they can’t leave their fort without being killed. He turns to Manteo, who is still with them, and he’s like “hey, you still like us for some strange reason, maybe your people still like us too.” Because Manteo is not a Roanoke like Wanchese. He’s a Croatoan. The Croatoans live on the barrier islands, mainly on modern day Hatteras Island which is farther south. Manteo’s mother is a weroanza of the Croatoans, a leader. So they head south with Manteo to try to gain some allies there. When they arrive, the people are immediately defensive. They seem ready to attack. The Croatoans had never been intentionally provoked by the English but some of them had been accidentally killed during that attack on Pemisapan’s village when he was beheaded by Edward Nugent. So they’re a little salty about that still. So they’re readying their bows and arrows. They are not receiving the English peacefully. Then, Manteo calls to them in their own language and they stop, drop their weapons, and embrace him. They didn’t recognize Manteo. He wore English clothing at this point, they didn’t even recognize him until they heard him speak.
So John White sits down with the Croatoan leaders, thanks to Manteo. He asks them to help him reestablish peace with the rest of the indigenous groups. He wants the Croatoans to send the others a message to come meet with him on Roanoke Island at a predetermined time so they can sort it all out and figure out how to coexist peacefully. The Croatoans are hesitant but they agree to send the message. They also agree to peace with the English on the condition that the English don’t ask them for any of their corn. They barely have enough for their own people. This truly is the worst drought in around 800 years. Core samples taken from very old trees in the area confirm this. White’s like “okay, okay, we won’t ask for any corn. Your corn is safe. Just help us make peace with the others” [Michael Oberg Interview].
It’s here, from the Croatoans, that they learn what happened to the 15 men Grenville had left behind. Wanchese and some of his men had attacked them and set fire to the fort, forcing them to flee. Some were killed trying to run away, the others piled into row boat, crafted a sail out of their clothing, and foolishly headed out to sea where they most likely drowned.
So the day of John White’s peace meeting comes and goes and no one shows up. They don’t give White and his pleas for peace the time of day. Now the English are mad. They feel slighted. And I’ll never understand this next move because it seems a complete 180 from this little peace party he was trying to have. They decide to attack Dasemunkepeuc to get revenge for the 15 men Wanchese had killed. Which seems real dumb. They killed Pemisapan, Wanchese killed their men. They’re even. Why keep it going? But I think it all goes back to that English fear of treachery that Michael mentioned in part one [Michael Oberg Interview].
Well this attack gets even dumber, unfortunately. They roll up on Dasemunkepeuc ready to take down the Pemisapan avengers, Wanchese supporters. They attack and kill a bunch of indigenous people. But then, realize far too late that these were not their enemies. These were Croatoans, Manteo’s people, basically their only allies. They accidentally killed the Croatoan weroance, Menatoan, and a bunch of other important Croatoans. It’s a horrific mistake to make. Manteo has to be just beside himself. These are his people, his family. He tries to rationalize it. He’s like, “well if they had come to the peace meeting, this wouldn’t have happened.” But y'all he’s grasping at straws. They straight up mistook their allies for enemies and killed their only friends on the islands. It’s whack.
They head back to Fort Raleigh like “okay, let’s just lay low, pretend that never happened, it’s fine. It’s gonna be fine.” And now I’m just picturing them getting back to the fort and everyone’s like “how’d it go?” and White’s just like “uhh, could have gone better” and Manteo is just like shook. Sorry to make light of a really tragic event but holy cow, what an epic fail that was.
On August 18th, White’s daughter Eleanor gives birth to a baby girl and names her Virginia. And this is significant because Virginia Dare was the first English child born in the Americas. The first baby of English descent. And if you’ve visited the Outer Banks, Roanoke Island, you know this is a big deal. It’s like our claim to fame. That and the Wright Brothers of course. This event, the birth of this baby, has been mega glorified throughout history like she’s the second coming of Christ or something. It’s all very eurocentric but anyway, it had to have breathed a bit of new life into the colony which was clinging to survival at this point.
Very soon after this, Simon Fernando is ready to sail back to England. So it’s been a month, roughly since they arrived. Like, dude if you can putter around for a month making repairs and such, surely you can squeeze in a quick trip up to Chesapeake. It’s not that far, but whatever. So the ships are about to set out. They are about to be really and truly stuck here. They accidentally killed their friends. This is where we’re at. The colonists start demanding that John White return to England with the ships to get more supplies. They can’t feed themselves here. They don’t know how to grow corn in a drought. They sure as heck can’t ask the Croatoans for corn. They basically force White to return to bring back provisions. White does not want to go. He doesn’t want to leave his daughter and granddaughter for one. But honestly, in his journal, he’s more concerned about leaving his stuff behind. Because they had made a plan to move quote “50 miles further up into the mayne” which would put them somewhere near the Chowan River. White worries that his personal belongings will be left behind or destroyed in the move and that he will be quote “forced to provide himself of all such things again or else at his coming again to Virginia, find himself utterly unfurnished.” Which who cares? But that’s what he’s going with. Despite his hesitation, he does sail back to England with Fernando but he plans to return as soon as humanly possible with more supplies.
But, when he finally arrives in England late after a rough journey, he learns that his country is preparing for war with Spain. Queen Elizabeth I proclaims that no ships, no boats, no seafaring vessels should be used for any other purpose but defense against the fearsome Spanish Armada which is basically an army of ships that the Spanish are pretty well known for at this point. Elizabeth has to defend the English channel and she needs all the ships in the whole country apparently, to do this.
White and Raleigh are begging her for a ship to resupply the colony but months turn into years as the war wages on. In 1588 White managed to get his hands on two pennances which are like smaller sail boats but they are attacked by a larger French ship on the way and, badly injured, have to flee back to England. He doesn’t manage to get his hands on more ships until 1590. We’re talking 3 years after he left the colony behind on Roanoke. The voyage back is super treacherous. One of the ships capsizes trying to pass through an inlet into the sound and 7 men drown. So they are shook already at this point.
They see a big pillar of smoke coming from the north end of Roanoke Island, where the settlement was. So White’s probably like “Oh thank God, they’re still here.” They head that way, rowing up the sound, they sound a trumpet, they’re singing English songs, jubilantly announcing their return. They are met with silence. When they arrive on the island on August 18th, his granddaughter Virginia’s third birthday, yeah chills, there is no one there. The fire they saw just started naturally, lightning or something. They head up the beach towards the fort. Before they reach it, carved in a tree are the letters C R O. They get to the fort. Carved into one of the posts of the palisade is the word CROATOAN. White had to have been relieved. He knows where they are now. Before he left, they had agreed that if the colonists were to leave Roanoke Island, they would carve the name of the place they were going. If they left in distress, they would carve a cross above the name of the place. There is no cross. The houses had been carefully disassembled and carried with them. There was no sign of struggle or violence. There are no bodies. White breathes a sigh of relief. Here’s what he wrote in his journal of that discovery: Bill Rea clip
It did seem as though Wanchese’ men had returned to the settlement after the colonists left though. They had dug up a chest of White’s belongings that he had buried before he left and dumped it, ruining most of his things. So there you go, the very thing he was afraid of. He was overly concerned about his stuff. Although, when he had fled Roanoke with Sir Francis Drake back in 1586, he had been forced to throw many of his things overboard to lighten the load so, I mean, there’s some pre-existing trauma there I guess.
So, White thinks he knows where the colonists are. They told him themselves. They headed down to Hatteras Island to seek refuge with the Croatoans who were Manteo’s people and maybe, possibly still accepted them despite the accidental slaying of their leader and them begging for corn after they promised they wouldn’t. So end of story, right? Where’s the mystery?
Well, White attempted to head down to where the where Croatoans lived, to find the colonists, confirm their whereabouts, of course. But was never able to get to them. Basically a series of storms blew their ships back and back and back until they were forced to turn around and head back to England. And I don’t know why every single time they decided to come to Roanoke, it’s like August which is hurricane season. Can we just have one single voyage not during hurricane season guys? I know meteorology has come a long way but, still, they had to have been picking up on those weather patterns. Anyway, White wants to keep trying but the crew basically overrules him. They already lost 7 men on their way in, remember, and this is the graveyard of the Atlantic. He has no choice but to sail back to England abandoning his daughter, his granddaughter, his colony to their mysterious fate.
Mysterious to us anyway. When White and his men pulled their boat up on that sound beach near Fort Raleigh, there were fresh footprints in the sand. Someone had just been there. Someone who likely knew exactly what happened to the colonists. Who could confirm whether they did indeed go to Croatoan, or possibly somewhere else, 50 miles into the main perhaps, as they had been planning, whether they were alive, whether they were dead. The indigenous people likely knew exactly what happened to the lost colonists of Roanoke. It was no mystery to them. But in our eurocentric view of history, they are lost, disappeared, a mystery.
We’re left piecing together the clues to try to unravel that mystery. White failed to confirm that the colony moved south with the Croatoan, though, based on the carving back at Fort Raleigh, it seems that’s what at least some of them attempted to do. Whether they succeeded or not is unknown but there is some evidence to suggest that they made it. When English explorer John Lawson visited the Outer Banks in 1701, he encountered a small group of indigenous people just 60 to 80 living on Hatteras Island. These descendents of the Croatoan called themselves the Hatteras Indians and told Lawson quote “several of their ancestors were white people, and could talk in a book, as we do; the truth of which is confirmed by gray eyes being found frequently amongst these indians, and no others.” end quote. So, if this account is true, it seems at least some of the colonists did make it to Hatteras and assimilated with the Crotoans living there. Archaeological excavations have revealed 8 Croatoan villages on the sound side of Hatteras Island near the present day town of Buxton. They also found a metal sword hilt and a signet ring. The ring, especially, was a very exciting find at the time. It was originally thought to belong to a colonist listed as Master Kendall because it had a little lion engraved on it and that was the Kendall family crest or whatever. But further analysis of the ring has proved it is actually made of brass, not gold as originally thought, and was likely just a cheap trade good traded with the Native Americans long after the colony disappeared and eventually made its way to Hatteras. Plus Kendall was part of the 1585 colony not 1587 so that doesn’t really prove anything other than trade anyway. It’s not like Kendall left it there himself. So it really proves nothing.
But there are other plausible theories as well. One not very likely theory is that they were found and killed by the Spanish who were their number one enemy at the time and actively at war with their homeland. But if this happened, it seems like there would be some record of it. The Spanish would have recorded this event in some way that we likely would have discovered by now. Also, the settlement was carefully disassembled and there was no cross carved above the word CROATOAN. They were clearly not in distress, not being attacked, when they left, by Algonquian or Spanish or anyone.
Another theory is that they moved 50 miles west into the mainland which was, of course, the plan they had made before White returned to England. That would put them somewhere up the Chowan river at the head of the Albemarle sound near where the Choanoac people lived. If you recall from part 1, Ralph Lane had paid a not very friendly visit to the Choanoacs where he temporarily abducted their leader Menatonon and took his son Skiko captive. And yet they somehow ended up being sort of allies with the Choanoac, despite all of that. Possibly just because they had a common enemy in Pemisapan… it’s complicated but it’s not crazy to think that the group made their way up the Chowan River and established a settlement near the Choanoacs.
In 1937 an unnamed tourist driving through eastern North Carolina discovered a strange stone on the eastern shore of the Chowan River. There was writing carved into the stone and it appeared to be very old. He took it with him and eventually handed it over to Dr. Haywood Pearce at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. They were stunned with this discovery. Someone had carved a cross into the stone above the words Ananias Dare & Virginia went hence unto heaven 1591. Okay so Virginia Dare, we know her. Ananias Dare was Eleanor’s husband, Virginia’s father. The back of the stone reads “Father soon after you go for England we came hither. Only misery and war two year. Above half dead ere two year more from sickness being four and twenty. Salvage with message of ship unto us. Small space of time they affrite of revenge ran all away. We believe it not you. Soon after ye savages faine spirits angry, sudden murder all save seven. Mine child, Ananias too slain with much misery. Bury all near four miles east this river upon small hill. Names writ all there on rock. Put this there also. Salvage show this unto you and hither we promise you to give great plenty presents. EWD” EWD being of course Eleanor White Dare.
So this is huge, if it’s real. Because, you see, it’s not the only “Dare stone” that was found. Over the next few months 46 more Dare stones were found, mostly in South Carolina and Georgia, and these were all determined to be fake, a hoax. But the original Dare stone found near the Chowan river has not been definitely disproven as fake. It could still possibly be authentic. Although it is a little weird that it just happened to be discovered in 1937 around the time of the 350th anniversary of Virginia Dare’s birth when the topic was “trending” so to speak. This is also the year Paul Green’s Lost Colony outdoor drama began on Roanoke Island and President Franklin D Roosevelt gave a speech before the opening night show. So there was a lot of buzz already when the stone was found. I find that a bit too convenient. What are the chances?
So I don’t know that I would consider the Dare stone hard evidence it’s too sketch. But the theory itself is solid. [Michael Oberg Interview]. So let’s talk about that map. In 2012 a map of the area created by John White called the Virginea Pars map was reexamined by the British Museum where it resides and they made a surprising discovery. The First Colony Foundation made this official announcement in May of 2012 quote “Portions of a unique late 16th-century map in the British Museum (which documents voyages to North America for Sir Walter Raleigh), have recently been examined to reveal hitherto unseen lines and symbols that have been hidden for centuries. Using a variety of non-contact scientific methods carefully chosen to be safe to use with early paper, researchers at the British Museum in London are peering at and through two small ‘patches’ of paper applied to an Elizabethan map of parts of modern eastern North Carolina and tidewater Virginia. The first patch (number 1 at the southern end of the map) appears to have been applied primarily to allow the artist to alter the coastline. The second patch (number 2 at the northern end of the map) offers even more exciting finds. It appears to cover a large ‘fort’ symbol in bright red and bright blue and, and has a very faint (just barely visible to the naked eye) but much smaller version of a similar shape on top. There is also a red circle under the patch that may represent an Indian town.” end quote.
So we have a fort symbol and a symbol marking an indigenous town, both covered up with a patch right where the Albemarle Sound meets the Chowan River. And the patch itself is pretty obvious. I’m really not sure why they waited until 2012 to try to figure out what was under the patch. All they did was expose it to light, like put it on a light box basically. So, yeah don’t know why that took 425 years. But the fort symbol is significant. It suggests that the English really may have attempted to resettle 50 miles into the main, near an indigenous town. Or, maybe it was just John White imagining where they might have settled if they had gone 50 miles west. You know, he covered it up. So was there a fort there or not? Why did he draw it? Why did he cover it up? It’s an interesting clue but it doesn’t really confirm anything. What might, though, is future archaeological excavations at that site. 27:30 - 27:47 - going to be hard to find anything, archaeological work at the head of the albemarle sound is promising.
The location of White’s hidden fort symbol is referred to as “Site X.” It’s basically a finger of mainland that juts out into the Chowan River at Salmon Creek in Bertie County and it’s approximately 55 miles from Roanoke Island. So, basically exactly where they said they would go. Recent excavations at that site have uncovered Algonquian artifacts but also some very good evidence of an early English presence there. English artifacts found there include a 3 inch aglet which covered the end of a 16th century shoelace, a snapuance firing pan which is a type of flint lock, and pieces of North Devon plain baluster jars which were used to preserve food during the sea voyage, they were canning jars. But all of these could have reasonably made there way to an indigenous village without the actual presence of English there. The find that really has people convinced is a pottery shard. Not indigenous pottery which is everywhere. It’s a specific piece of pottery from England, a piece of Surrey-Hampshire English Border Ware. Apparently, the English supplier of this specific type of pottery changed in 1620, making it easy to distinguish between pre-1620 Border Ware and post 1620 Border Ware. Now, for me I’m like, okay it’s pre-1620 but so is Jamestown. Couldn’t this have been traded with Jamestown settlers to the north and just found its way down? According to Clay Swindell, an archaeologist with the Museum of the Albemarle, it isn’t likely that the border ware was traded. Native Americans had their own pottery, tons of it, they were more interested in finished metals and glass beads, not something they could easily make themselves. This means that that small shard of pre-1620 Border Ware was most likely left by English settlers at site X. It’s the hardest evidence we have.
There are also witness accounts of white people in this area, just like on Hatteras Island. When John Smith arrived in coastal Virginia to establish Jamestown 20 years later, he learned from the Powhatan that there were men clothed like himself living farther south. A Jamestown colonist named George Percy reported seeing a light skinned child with blonde hair in one Powhatan community.
Some of these eyewitness accounts also suggest that the Roanoke colonists met with violence, likely at the hands of the Powhatan, possibly near the Chesapeake Bay or farther south at site X. According to reports by chronicler Samuel Purchas, Chief Powhatan admitted to John Smith quote “that he had bin at the murder of that Colonie: and shewed to Captain Smith a musket barrel and a brasse morter, and certaine pieces of iron which had bin theirs.” But, you know, Powhatan had reason to lie about this. If you listened to episode 24 about Pocahontas, you know the Powhatan were in open conflict with the Jamestown settlers. They did not want them there and if they could appear more intimidating and fearsome and deadly to the English, it would only help them drive the English off which they very much hoped to do. Michael called this using “scary stories” to help rid themselves of these malevolent English invaders
So I think, when you consider all of the evidence, it is actually quite clear what happened to the Roanoke colonists. They went exactly where they said they were going to go. They went 50 miles into the main to site X which was the plan they had made with White before he even returned to England. And then I think some of them at least went with Manteo to live with the Croatoans on Hatteras Island, which is why CROATOAN was carved into the palisade post. In both places they would have assimilated with the native people living there, the Choanoac to the west or the Croatoan to the south. These are both groups that we know they had at least somewhat friendly relations with. [Michael Oberg Interview]. I agree with Michael. After enough years had passed, there would be nothing English left to find aside from that pottery shard and a piece of an old shoelace. They weren’t English anymore. They intermarried and interbred with the indigenous people and gradually accepted their way of life. They had become really and truly Carolina Algonquian.
So why the question mark? Why the insistence on this mystical fantasy-like mystery of the Lost Colony of Roanoke? Well, if you look at it through the very eurocentric lens that pretty much all of history is told through, people have been very resistant to the idea of assimilation. They would rather believe that the colonists were massacred, horrifically slaughtered by the brutal, violent, devil worshiping indigenous people than that they simply decided to join the natives and adopt their culture and customs. Because you see, that wasn’t the plan. That’s the opposite of the plan. They were supposed to infiltrate this civilization, set up their own better Christian civilization and force the indigenous people to assimilate with them. They were supposed to turn the natives English and not the other way around. This attitude is obvious in the words of Joseph Blount Cheshire, an episcopal bishop in North Carolina who, in 1911, said quote “never let anyone persuade you to believe for one moment that a colony of one hundred and eighteen Christian English people, men and women, husbands and wives, parents and children, an organized Christian community - your kinsmen and mine - were, within the short space of no more than 20 years, from 1587 to 1607 when the Jamestown settlement was made, swallowed up and amalgamated with half-naked heathen Indian savages, so that no remnant was left which could be recognized by their white brethren of Virginia… the Roanoke colony had been exterminated by Indians and so they were.” He concluded with this statement quote “The descendents of those first Christian inhabitants of our land are not to be sought in the mongrel remnants, part Indian, part white, and part negro, of a decaying tribe of American savages.” end quote.
So, yeah a little bit resistant to the idea of assimilation in the most horrifically racist way possible. Why is it always Christians making horrible hate filled statements like this? I don’t understand. It’s the exact opposite of what the religion preaches and it’s really a bad look. Now this was 1911. I like to think we’re past this. But it’s this attitude that has helped to twist the Roanoke Colony into the mysterious Lost Colony.
On the north end of Roanoke Island, you’ll find Fort Raleigh National Historic site. There they have a recreation of the earthwork fort built by the 1585 colony and a small museum with some artifacts that have been unearthed there. But it’s likely the site of the actual settlement is now underwater as the sound has encroached on the island, swallowing more and more of the coastline over the last 400 years. It doesn’t really matter though. You won’t find them there anyway. They were forced to leave, forced to retreat. That has been viewed as a tragedy, a misfortune ever since but there’s another lens with which to view this story we have mostly neglected to consider.
[Michael Oberg Interview].
Thank you all so very much for listening to History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. A huge huge thank you once again to Professor Michael Oberg, author of the book The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand, Hannah West author of Remarkable Women of the Outer Banks (I have links to purchase both of these books in the show notes, by the way) and Bill Rea for sharing their knowledge and talents with us. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see some images that go along with this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d rate and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in this episode was sourced from The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand, Remarkable Women of the Outer Banks, Coastal Land Trust, The First Colony Foundation, Smithsonian Magazine, and the National Park Service, Links to all of these sources can be found in the show notes along with those links if you’re interested in purchasing The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand or Remarkable Women of the Outer Banks.