In the 16th century, racing to colonize the Americas, Queen Elizabeth I granted Sir Humphrey Gilbert a charter in 1578 to “inhabit and possess all remote and heathen lands not in actual possession of any Christian prince.” Although Gilbert’s expeditions failed, his efforts paved the way for his half brother Sir Walter Raleigh to establish the first English settlements in the New World. Raleigh’s expeditions not only led to the founding of the first Virginia colonies, but also to the English encounters with the American Indians of Roanoke Island and the Chesapeake Bay. Today, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site interprets the history of Raleigh’s settlements and the cultural heritage of the American Indian communities on the east coast of North Carolina.
In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh obtained Gilbert’s charter from Queen Elizabeth to establish the first colony in Newfoundland, but instead Raleigh sought to establish a colony further south. Captains Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe led Raleigh’s first expedition, sailing to America on April 27 1584, to determine whether the region was suitable for Raleigh’s first English colony. When the captains landed on the continent’s eastern coast, in present day North Carolina, they immediately made contact with the local Indians. The Roanoac and Croatoan Indians were two of many tribes of the Algonquian speaking people, whose communities spanned from North Carolina to the Great Lakes region.
Their towns were usually small, with private and public dwellings arranged around a circular common area, traditionally located adjacent to shallow waters of the eastern seaboard. The Algonquian lived in fixed houses, which they covered with bark to insulate. Since bark was difficult to obtain, the Algonquian reserved these houses for kings, noblemen, and their families. Lower ranking tribe members often lived in mat covered houses. Inside their homes, they usually had a table or sleeping bench. They also had structures for public use, especially for ceremonial gatherings. Other than the king’s home, the temple was usually the second largest building in the Algonquian towns. Although the size varied, Algonquian villages typically had about 18 buildings and one to two hundred residents.
Living on the waterways of the North Carolina coast, the Algonquians ate fish caught with spears and weirs. The weirs were nets attached to the bottoms of poles dug into the sand. To navigate the waters, they dug out trees to build canoes long enough to hold 20 people. They also raised crops, traded with neighboring tribes, and used bows and arrows for hunting deer and black bears. The men were responsible for hunting, fishing and fighting, while the women farmed, cooked, and took care of the children and elderly.
These were the Carolina Algonquians, as described by Amadas and Barlowe. According to expedition records, the people were peaceful, welcoming the Englishmen and helping Amadas and Barlowe explore their lands. After concluding that Roanoke Island was suitable for an English colony, the captains invited their two Algonquian guides, Manteo of the Croatoan Tribe and Wanchese of the Roanoac Tribe, to join them on their journey to England. In the spring of 1585, after Amadas and Barlowe returned with reports of “a most pleasant and fertile ground,” Raleigh’s cousin, Sir Richard Grenville, set sail with 500 men to Virginia, which Raleigh named in honor of the Virgin Queen. The first Virginia colony was on Roanoke Island, which to the colonists’ disappointment, proved to be unsuccessful as a privateering base. Anxious to relocate, especially after the once peaceful relations with the Roanoac Tribe of the Algonquian speaking Indians turned hostile, the colonists abandoned the settlement and returned to England with Sir Francis Drake.
By the time the colonists arrived in England in the summer of 1586, Raleigh had planned a third expedition to found a second colony in Virginia. Unlike the first settlement, which England established as a military post, the new colony would be more agrarian. Three ships carrying 17 women, 9 children, and 110 male colonists set sail in May of 1587 to establish a permanent settlement in Virginia. Raleigh’s third expedition established the “Cittie of Ralegh” on the lower end of the Chesapeake Bay, where Ralph Lane--the governor of the first colony-- reported meeting a friendly village of Algonquian. The local Indians, who blamed the English for the depletion of their population, were not as welcoming to the colonists as they had been to past expeditions.
To improve relations, John White, the governor of Raleigh, arranged a peace conference with the local tribes, but the English attacked a local Algonquian village after a misunderstanding over the date of the meeting angered the colonists. The attack increased tensions, and the Indians and the colonists uneasily coexisted until the community of Fort Raleigh disappeared. In August 1590, upon his return from England with supplies for Fort Raleigh, Governor White discovered that the community had abandoned the site. Assuming the colonists had relocated to a nearby island after White found the word CROATOAN carved on a post, Raleigh and White made several attempts but never found the residents of the Lost Colony of Fort Raleigh, who may have fallen victim to Indian attacks or assimilated into nearby Algonquian communities for survival.
The reason for the disappearance of the Lost Colony remains a mystery. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site stands as a monument to England’s first agrarian colony and its encounters with the Carolina Algonquians. Fort Raleigh preserves the history of the men, women, and children--including Virginia Dare, the first English baby born in the New World--of the Lost Colony. It also tells the story of the African Americans, who in the face of the Civil War found a safe haven on Roanoke Island. Protected by the Union Army, this Freedman’s Colony of Roanoke Island gave African Americans a first taste of freedom. Today, many descendants of the freedmen community continue to live and work on Roanoke Island.
At Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, visitors may begin their tour at the Lindsay Warren Visitor Center before seeing the Earthen Fort and walking the park’s Nature Trail and Hiking Trail. The Waterside Theater at Fort Raleigh features performances by the Lost Colony outdoor symphonic drama that bring to life the story of the colony.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 1401 Park Drive in Manteo, NC. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The visitor center is open daily, except on Christmas Day, from 9:00am to 5:00pm, and until 6:00pm in the summer. The park grounds are open daily from sunrise to sundown. There is no admission fee. For more information, visit the National Park Service Fort Raleigh National Historic Site website or call 252-473-2111.
Many components of Fort Raleigh National Historic Site have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, including Fort Raleigh, the Entrance Gate, the Visitor Center, and the Waterside Theater.