1585: The Military Colony

If your supplie had come before the end of April and...you had sent any store of boats, or men, to haue had them made in any reasonable time, with a sufficient number of men, and victuals to have found us untill the new corne were come in... Ralph Lane to Sir Walter Raleigh

Illustration of 1585 earthwork.
Illustration of 1585 earthwork.

National Park Service

1585 Voyage

The 1584 expedition having determined Roanoke Island to be a favorable location for the first English colony in North America, seven English vessels with 600 soldiers and sailors began their voyage from England to the Outer Banks in April, 1585.

Under the command of Sir Richard Grenville, the fleet encountered a storm in the Atlantic, damaging ships and destroying one, forcing a stop in Puerto Rico for repairs. The delayed and hobbled vessels arrived at Roanoke Island on June 26th.

The stop in Puerto Rico had caused conflict between Grenville and Ralph Lane, an Irishman appointed governor of the new colony. Lane believed that Grenville’s delay in Puerto Rico, which involved privateering and trading as well as repairs to the damaged fleet, had cost valuable time for the colonists to prepare for winter. In addition to the hostilities between Grenville and Lane, one of the largest ships in the fleet, the Tiger, was too large to enter the sounds surrounding Roanoke Island. It, along with other larger English ships, were forced to anchor off the Atlantic coast, exposing themselves to more volatile weather and seas.

Almost immediately, the Tiger was heavily damaged and the majority of the colonists’ food supplies were destroyed. The initial plan of making Roanoke Island a permanent colony and privateering base had been destroyed along with the Tiger’s cargo.

With the loss of valuable supplies, Lane was left with only 100 men on the island to construct temporary shelter from which to scout for a more permanent location; Grenville, after briefly scouting the region for a more suitable location as well, would sail back to England with the rest of the men and return next year with more colonists and supplies.

Lane and his men quickly constructed a small fortification with homes surrounding it. In addition to the homes constructed along the perimeter of the earthwork, the metal-working shop of Thomas Hariot and Joachim Gans was located nearby.

Although it was initially believed the colonists could subsist on agricultural ingenuity, it soon became clear that in order to survive they would have to consistently rely on the Carolina Algonquian for assistance. This reliance may have led to an increasing paranoia in Ralph Lane; he began to exert strict control over the colonists, going so far as to construct a jail to maintain order and discipline.

In addition, what began as peaceful, mutually beneficial relationships with the Algonquian population, rapidly deteriorated into violence. Wingina, Chief of the Secoton tribe of the Algonquian across the sound from Roanoke Island began to feud heavily with Lane and his men. While the colonists’ increased reliance on the Algonquians to provide food had escalated the tension, the exposure of the Algonquians to English disease became the tipping point. Smallpox and other diseases began to decimate the native population, fueling the Algonquian notion that the English were god-like creatures intent on harm. Wingina rejected this argument on the grounds that the English could not control drought or food shortages any better than the Algonquian gods could. He decided the English should be removed from the region at all costs.

Wingina, now calling himself Pemisapan possibly to signify his new hostile stance on the English, attempted to cut off all food supplies to the colonists, forcing them to break up into small detachments in search of food, detachments that could easily be overwhelmed by a larger Secoton force. Lane heard of this plan before it could be put into action and had Wingina/Pemisapan preemptively killed, forever altering English-Native power dynamics and alliances in the region.

Shortly after the killing of Wingina/Pemisapan in June of 1586, a large fleet was spotted of the coast. Fearful that the fleet was Spanish, Lane and his men were relieved to find that it was an English fleet under the command of Sir Francis Drake. Drake, having made port at the Outer Banks after months raiding Spanish shipping along the Florida coast and West Indies, agreed to help Lane in his continual desire to search for a more suitable settlement location. However, a violent hurricane quickly changed those plans, forcing an increasingly angry and frustrated Lane and his men to abandon Roanoke and return to England with Drake. 

Ralph Lane would never return to North America. However, less than one year after Lane returned to England with Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh would send 118 men, women, and children again to Roanoke Island in his most ambitious attempt yet to establish a lasting English colony.




Last updated: May 14, 2021