Arms and Armor of the Roanoke Colonists

After Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe had returned from their reconnaissance of northeastern North Carolina in the summer of 1584 bearing reports of natural bounty and guileless inhabitants, Sir Walter Ralegh prepared to seat his first colony on Roanoke Island. Its missions: to prey on Spanish shipping and to find gold and other valuable goods.

Vicki Wallace

In 1584 or early 1585, someone aware of Ralegh's intentions prepared detailed written advice on how to build, man, and run a military base in the New World. Expecting little trouble from the "naked" natives, but sharp engagements with the Spanish, the anonymous writer suggested that Ralegh establish a colony of 800 soldiers-400 arquebusiers, 150 archers, 100 swordsmen, and 150 armored men carrying pikes and other shock weapons.

About the same time, Richard Hakluyt published his discourse of Western Planting, a defense of English expansion into North America and a handbook for colonists and investors. Hakluyt recommended "provisions tendinge to force" that included not only arquebusiers and archers, but also makers of bows, arrows, arrowheads, saltpeter, and gunpowder; pike makers; and makers of doublets and targets.

Ralegh may have considered the two proposals, but he clearly reduced the suggested number of settlers. He did not send 800 soldiers to Roanoke Island; the actual number was slightly more than 100. While there is no extant narrative description of military personnel in the 1585-1586 colony, there are numerous references to arms and armor-both English and Algonquian. John White's paintings add considerable detail, especially to the latter. After the failure of the military settlement, Ralegh, in 1587, launched his second full-scale colony, again with a membership barely in excess of 100. Accounts of the settlement in 1587, and the search for the colonists in 1590 make scant reference to arms and armor, perhaps because the character of the venture differed from that of 1585.

Most of the weaponry mentioned in the reports, paintings, and proposals can be classified as either shock weapons, missile weapons or firearms.


Shock Weapons: Many English soldiers of the period carried a sword as an auxiliary weapon, sometimes with a dagger. Steel swords, though harder to make and maintain, could hold a keen edge and were useful in many sizes, both for cutting and thrusting. (They were also useful for clearing light brush and killing animals wounded in a hunt. Jean Carl Harrington, who restored Fort Raleigh, found brick fragments that colonists may have worn into odd shapes while sharpening swords or other edged weapons, but no recognizable remains of the weapons themselves.) Harriot reported that the Indians used wooden swords, or "flat edged truncheons...about a yard long." Barlowe noted that the natives he met "would haue giuen any thing" for English swords.

The pike, which military theorist Sir John Smythe called "the chiefest weapon to defend," was a small-pointed spear with a shaft of ash or other heavy wood up to 20 feet long. Developed to protect footsoldiers against calvary charges, it was also used in naval operations. An early seventeenth century work mentions "pikes of wild fire to strike burning into a ship side to fire her." Some Western navies used non-incendiary pikes well into the nineteenth century. Most expert pikemen were also adept at using the sword in conjunction with their primary weapon. The pikes in John White's drawings of the 1585 expedition are probably more manageable half-pikes, 9-10 feet long. Harrington notes that pikes outnumber firearms 3:2 in White's drawing of the "Salt Fort" in Puerto Rico. He surmises that the colonists built this fort and the one on Roanoke Island to be defended mainly with pikes.

Documents from the Roanoke ventures mention "short weapons" which undoubtedly included the battle axe, the partisan, a broad-bladed spear often 6-7 feet long; and halberds, and bills, long-shafted combinations of spear and axe designed for use against cavalry. By the late sixteenth century many of these weapons were in transition to ceremonial use (Yeomen Warders in the Tower of London still carry partisans); but because of their size, weight, an ability to cut as well as puncture, they served better than pikes in close combat. Harrington's discovery of a sickle in the fort ditch may suggest that the colonists used cutting tools as emergency weapons.

The Indians' shock weapons, in contrast, were few and simple. Besides wooden swords, they had clubs of several descriptions and knives made of stone imported from far inland. They used light spears for fishing, but apparently not for fighting.

Missile Weapons: By the 1580s, the longbow, the traditional English weapon, had fallen into disfavor. Despite royal endorsement, English armies, after 1595 use the longbow only as a backup weapon. Typically about six feet long and made of a single piece of seasoned yew, free of knots, the longbow had a draw strength of about 100 pounds, and usually shot steel tipped arrows a cloth yard (37 inches) long. A skillful longbowman could fire six aimed shots a minute, and with the wind at his back could reach distances in excess of 200 yard. Albeit unwieldy and fragile, the longbow was light and easier to fire rapidly than any other missile weapon in the English arsenal. Trained archers could fire simultaneously in ranks five or six deep without killing one another. The longbow was more accurate, and had a greater range than many firearms. It was also less affected by inclement weather-a wet bow worked after a fashion, a wet firearm did not work at all. Narratives of the Roanoke colonies make no mention of the longbow, but the colonists may have used it. White mentions a "wild fire arrowe," which could have been shot from a crossbow or firearm as well.

By the late 1500s however, the crossbow had fewer proponents and users than the longbow. Its powerful bow mounted on a stout wooden stock and drawn by a crank or lever could fire a variety of specialized bolts for piercing armor, cutting the rigging of ships, and setting fires. But power and versatility did not compensate for awkwardness. The lightest crossbow was far heavier than a longbow and incapable of rapid fire. Although the Roanoke colonists did not mention the crossbow in their accounts, they may have used it. The Spanish colonists certainly did.

In contrast, Indian bows were weaker than the crossbow or the longbow. Indian arrows, usually made of reeds or canes tipped with sharp shells, fish teeth or other non-metals, had little effect on English armor, but could pierce clothing and flesh easily enough.

Firearms: Ralegh's colonists probably had several kinds of foreign and domestic firearms. First among small arms of the period was the arquebus (harquebus, hackbut), a smooth-bore muzzle-loading weapon of fifteenth century origin, with a barrel about 3 feet long. It was so common that Barlowe and some of his contemporaries used the arquebus shot (perhaps 150-200 yards) as a rough measure of distance. Arquebusiers often supported the stock of the weapon with a forked staff, which improved their aim and absorbed some recoil. Although there was no standard size, most arquebuses were about 16 gauge. Inaccurate beyond 50 or 60 yards and useless in a rainstorm, the weapon was nonetheless effective at short range, and its flash and loud report were frightful for a while to the Indians.

The arquebus employed a matchlock. The operator ignited the priming powder with a smoldering saltpeter-impregnated cord (slow match) attached to a trigger mechanism. Quickly loading an arquebus in the proper order (powder, wadding, ball, wadding) without bringing the powder into unintended contact with the match, was difficult. Related equipment-staff, powder flasks, match, shot, shot mold-was heavy and easy to lose. Because loading, tamping, priming, blowing on the match, planting the staff and aiming consumed a considerable amount of time, arquebusiers were often vulnerable. To compensate, they, like the pikemen, usually carried swords, which only added to their burden. At Fort Raleigh, Harrington found four lead balls outside the fort, one flattened by impact; all have diameters of 14-17 mm, consistent with use in an arquebus.

Men with muskets
Men with muskets

Vicki Wallace

Ralph Lane, leader of the 1585-1586 colony reported that his men had shot the Indian king Wingina with a pistol and a petronel. Many pistols of the period had a wheel lock, which ignited the priming powder with sparks from a spring driven metal wheel striking a piece of iron pyrite. The petronel, a short arquebus like weapon, often with a wheel lock, was braced against the chest for firing. In 1586, Lane asked Sir Francis Drake, who had called on the colonists, for calivers, matchlock shoulder weapons with a larger bore than the arquebus (usually 10-12 gauge) and correspondingly greater weight and stronger recoil. In addition, the colonists used the musket, a firearm recently introduced in Spain. It was so ponderous (6-8 gauge, 5-6 feet long, 20 pounds or more) that two men were often needed to work it. The colonists may also have had the shorter bastard musket. A pistol-sized piece of gunflint unearthed at the fort suggests that the settlers had advanced flintlock firearms.

The Roanoke Island colonists had many kinds of brass, bronze, and iron ordnance with vague or overlapping names. Narratives omit the culverin (18 pounder) and the demi-culverin (9 pounder), both of which were probably mounted on the colonist' ships. But they do mention smaller guns such as the saker, with a bore of 3-4 inches, a shot weighing 5-7 pounds, and an overall weight around 1400 pounds; the minion, with a bore of about 3 inches and a four-pound shot; the falcon, with a bore of 2.5-3 inches; the slightly smaller falconet; and the breech-loading fowler, often used to clear the decks of ships. The colonist probably used these small sorts at the fort. Round shot (the familiar cannonballs, usually iron), crossbar shot (round shot joined by a spike), and trundle shot (sharpened iron bolts) would not have proved very useful against attacking Indians; but grape shot (small projectiles packed in rigid canvas bags), case shot (small projectiles packed in wooden cylinders), and chain shot (ball joined by chain, often used against rigging) would have been devastating.

On his return to Roanoke Island in 1590, John White found "foure yron fowlers, Iron sacker-shotte, and such like heauie things," but none of "the last Falkons and small Ordinance which were left with" the missing colonists. The Elizabeth II State Historic site in Manteo, North Carolina, has on display a well-preserved sixteenth century falcon, which fishermen found, still loaded, off the North Carolina coast.

ARMOR: By the late sixteenth century, improved missile weapons were gradually retiring full plate armor to decorative status; but partial armor of different kinds remained popular. Some Spaniards experienced in fighting Indians preferred light fabric armor. Writing to King Philip III in 1600, Gonzalo Mendez de Canzo recommended the quilted cotton escupil:

...for war with the Indians no other armor except this is of any value. As for the coat of mail, the arrow could go through it and the splinters of it would be very dangerous; the buffalo-leather coat [designed to absorb sword-cuts] is pierced very easily; and the corselet [a steel cuirass, or suit covering the neck, torso, and upper thighs] is very heavy armour and, moreover, if the arrow hits it will rebound and injure the next person...It is clear that the escupil is the best armour because the arrow is stopped by it and sticks.

The Roanoke Island colonists may have used buff coats and mail. Militias in Virginia were still using the latter in the 1620s. But many Englishmen seem to have preferred the corselet, which limited mobility, increased susceptibility to heat exhaustion and required aggressive upkeep. Hakluyt praised doublets, or brigandines, sleeveless leather coats with steel plates riveted to the inside, as "defensive, light, and gentle to lye in." Some of the Roanoke Island colonists probably wore these or jacks, cheap rivetless doublets often made of cloth, that proved popular a few years later in Virginia. Doublets and jacks were lighter and more flexible than corselets, but not much cooler.

To protect their heads, some of the colonists may have worn a high-ridged morion, made of steel or, less often, of cuir bouilli (stiff, waxed leather) and lined with quilted linen. Its low width-to-height ratio enabled the morion to withstand straight-on blows that would crush some other helmets, but increased the risk that a blow from the side would knock it off or break the wearer's neck. The morion was open-faced however, and so did not obstruct vision.

Swordsmen generally carried targets, small round or oval shields, usually of wood and leather. Earlier in the century shields attached to, or with openings for, firearms were popular in some circles; but they had been abandoned by the time of the Roanoke Island colonies.

The Indians of the region sometimes used light shields of wicker or bark, and armor made of sticks tied together, but may have had no protective headgear. At first they thought highly of steel plate armor. Barlowe reported that Granganimeo, a Roanoke nobleman, took up a tin dish in imitation and "clapt it before his breast...making signes, that it would defende him against his enemies arrowes." Eventually Granganimeo traded "twentie skinnes, woorth twentie Crownes" for this trifle and hung it around his neck. But having seen steel armor in use, the Indians seem to have concluded that it had no special value. White left his armor, probable a corselet, on Roanoke Island when he departed for England in 1587. On his return in 1590 he found it "almost eaten through with rust." Neither the colonists nor the Indians had bothered to take it.

THE BIG PICTURE: The English came to the New World expecting to fight an old enemy, Spain, in accustomed ways. But no one associated with the Roanoke colonies except Sir Francis Drake and the personnel on his West Indian voyage ever fought Spaniards on the North American mainland.

Despite ambitious exploring and mapping, the colonists paid little attention to the land, climate, or population. Roanoke Island, surrounded by treacherous waters and warring Indian tribes was less than ideal as a site for a settlement. Chesapeake Bay, the original destination of the 1587 colonists, offered safer navigation; but dealings with the Spanish in the 1570s and reports of the Lane colonists' actions had very likely prejudiced the Indians of the area against Europeans. In 1585 and again in 1587, the colonists arrived too late in the year to plant, and consequently relied on the Native Americans for their food supply.

The colonists considered the indigenous peoples primitives with no martial skill from whom they might extort food, labor, and information indefinitely. Even Thomas Harriot, an otherwise perceptive and humane observer in the Lane colony, dismissed them:

If there fall out any warres betweene vs & them, what their fight is likely to bee, we hauing aduantages against them so many maner of waies, as by our discipline, our strange weapons and deuises else, especially by ordinance great and small, it may be easily imagined; by the experience we haue had in some places, the turning vp of their heeles against vs in running away was their best defence.

Convinced of their own supremacy, the colonists antagonized several powerful Indian groups.

In fact, the Indians of the region were numerically, tactically, logistically, and strategically superior to any group of Englishmen that set foot here in the sixteenth century. The Chowanoke alone had 700-800 fighting men who could effectively use "ambushes or some suttle deuises" and survive on the move for long periods without cumbersome rations or long supply lines. Some Indian leaders were wise enough to set aside their disputes in order to fight a common enemy. By Lane's own admission, Wingina was at the time of his death making alliances against the colony with tribes living as far away as Chesapeake Bay. The Indians had a weapon more potent than all their bows and clubs combined-food. They could not only withhold food that they had produced, but also disrupt the colonists' halfhearted efforts to feed themselves. In extremity, whole Indians towns could relocate, leaving the colonists little to steal and no one to conquer. Nowhere are the Indians' advantages clearer than in White's third-hand account of their rout of the small garrison that Grenville left on Roanoke Island in 1586:

...30. of the men of Secota, Aquascogoc, and Dasamongueponke...conueied themselves secretly behind the trees, neere the houses, where our men carelesly liued...two of those Sauages appeared...calling to them by friendly signes... Wherefore two of the chiefest of our Englishmen, went gladly to them: but whilest one of those Sauages traitorously embraced one of our men, the other with his sword of wood, which he had secretly hidden vnder his mantell, stroke him on the head, and slewe him...the other Englishman...fled to his companie, whome the Sauages pursued with their bowes, and arrowes, so fast, that the Englishmen were forced to take the house, wherein all their victuall and weapons were: but the Sauages foorthwith set the same on fire, by meanes whereof, our men were forced to take vp such weapons as came first to hand, and without order to runne foorth among the Sauages, with whome they skirmished aboue an howre...another of our men was shotte into the mouth with an arrowe, whereof he died:...The place where they fought, was of great aduantage to the Sauages, by meanes of the thicke trees, behinde which the Sauages through their nimblenes, defended themselues, and so offended our men with their arrowes, that our men being some of them hurt, retire fighting to the water side, where their boate lay, with which they fled...whither, as yet we knowe not.

The Indians' advantages were not insuperable, as the later European conquest of North America proved. The Roanoke Island colonists could have become self-sufficient, learned native tactics, and forsaken their unsatisfactory and obsolescent material. Against a lightly armed, highly mobile enemy making full use of dense cover and familiar terrain, the colonists' eclectic arms and armor were often worse than useless. Long accepted military practices and conventional arms and armor were insufficient to preserve a small colony in the New World, much less to provide the foundation of colonial expansion.

Text based on "The Arms and Armor of Raleigh's Roanoke Voyages, 1584-1590,"
by Phillip W. Evans; expanded and edited by lebame houston and Wynne Dough.

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Last updated: April 14, 2015

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