The Roanoke Voyages
The Roanoke VoyagesMore than four hundred years ago a baby girl was born in a tiny settlement on Roanoke Island, off what is now the coast of North Carolina between the barrier islands and the mainland. Her name was Virginia Dare. She was the first child of English parents ever born in what Europeans called the New World of America. Within a year Virginia and her parents, along with more than one hundred other English people living in the settlement, disappeared. Even today, nobody knows what really happened to them.
Virginia's parents, Eleanor and Ananias Dare, were members of a brave band of people sent to the New World to build homes for themselves and others like them. They wanted to make a better life than they had in England.
Life in England 400 years ago could be very difficult for people who did not own land, but there was plenty of land in America. In fact, Queen Elizabeth I of England had given thousands of acres in the New World to one of her gentlemen, Sir Walter Raleigh. She allowed Sir Walter to name the new land for her. He called it 'Verginia' in honor of Elizabeth, who was nicknamed the 'Virgin Queen' because she never married.
Sir Walter in turn offered plots of this land to individuals and to families who would sail across the ocean and build homes and live there. If enough people settled the land it would become a "new" England, with enough good land for farms and animals for anyone who was willing to work hard.
Sir Walter also believed that copper, gold, and pearls could be found in this new Virginia. They could be traded to old England and other countries for the tools, clothing, and food that the New World settlers, called "colonists", needed. It would be good business and good living for everybody.
Fighting for Land and Treasure
The Spanish were the most active, especially in Mexico, South America, in Florida and in the Caribbean Islands. They were mainly interested in finding and taking the gold and silver that had been the great treasure of the Native people for perhaps thousands of years.
When the Spanish first arrived in the New World, the Natives, whom they called Indios, or Indians, welcomed them. The Indians shared their food and houses with the strangely dressed visitors and gladly traded bits of silver and gold for the cheap trinkets offered by the Spanish.
The great Spanish ships sailed back across the ocean home to Spain loaded down with baskets and chests of treasure. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who had paid for the trip, were delighted and naturally they wanted more.
During the next eighty years or so, the Spanish took tons and tons of gold and silver from the Natives, often killing to get it. They forced the Natives into slavery and made them dig for it. Spain became very rich from the bounty of the New World.
The English, who were enemies of the Spanish, were not pleased to see all of the riches of America going to Spain. They wanted a share and began to attack the Spanish ships as they hauled their treasure back across the ocean. One of the greatest of the English sea captains was Sir Francis Drake, a friend of Sir Walter Raleigh. Sir Francis was very good at raiding Spain's treasure ships. Even though he was practically a pirate Queen Elizabeth was pleased with him because she always got part of the loot!
After years of pirating and fighting back and forth across the ocean, the English decided that they would be better off if they had a port in the New World themselves. It would be easier and safer to sail out from their port, steal the treasure, and quickly sail back to the port and hide. The loot could be carried back to England later, when the Spanish weren't looking.
But, there was another reason for having a home base in America!
Four hundred years ago England was a small, weak, backward country, without the riches, land and power that some of the other European nations had. To get some of the riches, land, and power, they had to grow. They had to get bigger and more powerful, but there was no more room to grow on the little island where England was located. There was, however, plenty of land in the New World. England wanted a permanent piece of the action. She wanted to be an owner of America.
There was only one way to do this: take a chunk of it and hang on!
Sir Walter Raleigh certainly wanted part of the New World treasure for himself but more than that he wanted England to grow into a great and powerful country. Listening to advice from fellow countrymen, Sir Walter Raleigh agreed there were certain ways to get Englishmen to help support and organize a colony. To get this help, he talked with ship owners who wanted their ships to steal treasure and cargo from the Spanish.
Some of the ship owners agreed to have their ships carry some needed supplies for the new colony. Then, in the future, when their ships stole treasure and cargo from Spanish ships, the new English settlement could offer the sea robbers some protection and support. This would be one of the early ways to gain support for a new English settlement and would give it the purpose as a base for raids against Spanish shipping.
Sir Walter Raleigh persuaded Queen Elizabeth to allow him to try to build a permanent settlement in America. Sir Walter could organize and be responsible for the adventure, said the queen, but she wouldn't let him go himself. He was much too important in the queen's court to risk being lost on the wild ocean or maybe be captured by the Spanish.
Englishmen Meet the Native Americans
The English first laid claim to the new land along the ocean beach somewhere near Bodie Island, south of where the modern village of Nags Head, North Carolina is located today. In this area, the English found a break in the ocean sand or "inlet" that could allow some of their smaller boats to go from the ocean into the shallow water that surrounds Roanoke Island.
Staying there for a few days, English were met on the beach by a group of high-ranking Native people, including Granganimeo, the brother of the Indian king, Wingina. The Natives were curious and friendly, and after the cautious English had relaxed a little, a lively trade of food, furs and English goods began.
These strange visitors fascinated the Native people and even if neither side could understand the language of the other, there was valuable communication. It was a good start but there were misunderstandings! When the English asked the Native people the name of their land, they replied "Wingandacon". It was only much later that it was discovered that "Wingandacon" actually meant 'you people wear really neat clothes'! How would you like to live in a place called Really Good Clothes, North Carolina?
In the days that followed, English and Indians exchanged visits. The king's brother dined on Captain Barlowe's ship and brought his family along. The Natives provided meat, fish, melons, and vegetables in return. It was pleasant but it was time to look around for a permanent home for the colony, which would follow later.
Captain Barlowe and seven others sailed through a narrow inlet from the ocean and crossed the inland sound, really a big salty lake. They went ashore on the small island that would, in three years, become Virginia Dare's birthplace. The English called the island "Roanoke", probably for the Natives who lived there. They came to Granganimeo's village where they were welcomed by his wife with wonderful ceremonies. Their clothes were washed and dried and a plentiful feast was set out. The Natives were disappointed when the English wouldn't stay for the night, but they packed them a great basket of food for the return journey.
From Captain Barlowe's point of view a perfect place for a "new" England had been found. He wrote glowing reports for Sir Walter Raleigh back in England. The relations between the English and the Natives had been so good that two young Indian men, Manteo and Wanchese, agreed to go back to England with the explorers. When Manteo and Wanchese returned to Roanoke Island the next year with Sir Richard Grenville's fleet, things began to go wrong.
Sir Richard Grenville was Sir Walter Raleigh's cousin. He was an experienced soldier and Sir Walter trusted him to lead his second expedition to America in 1585. Leaving England, this expedition had seven ships carrying 600 men. 108 of these men would eventually settle on Roanoke Island to become England's first colony in America.
This time the English would stay longer, do a lot of exploring, and learn more about the Natives. They could also decide on exactly where to build, or 'plant', a permanent colony. This expedition was the most important that Sir Walter ever sent to the New World because of what the English learned. It was also a sad expedition because of the violent and disrespectful way that the English treated the Natives.
The English didn't treat the Spanish very well either. On the way to Roanoke Island Sir Richard stole a Spanish ship and robbed the Spanish of a large supply of salt, which the English badly needed to preserve food. Once among the Natives of this new "Verginia", Grenville ordered attacks on them, stole their food, and burned one of their towns. Although in the beginning the Natives had welcomed the newcomers, now they began to fear and hate them.
When the English reached Roanoke Island they built strong houses and an earthen fort on the north end of the island. They began to explore all around, looking for the best place for the permanent town. Sir Richard returned to England after a few weeks, leaving a man named Ralph Lane as governor of the colony. Lane, a tough soldier, was no friend to the Natives, although he and his men still depended on them for food. He was lucky to have Manteo, who had been to England, to help keep things calm. Wanchese, the other Indian who had been to England, returned to his own people and later became a leader against the English.
Relations with the Natives were never very happy for Governor Lane and the 107 others with him but much was learned, especially by two of the Englishmen. They were John White, an artist, and Thomas Harriot, a scientist and student of language.
The English Learn about 'Pagatowr'
As an artist John White's job was to draw pictures of all of the new things he saw in America. Thomas Harriot's job was to learn as much about the land and the Natives as he could, especially their language. We can think of these two men as the news reporters of their time. They both did a very good job! Because of John White's skill as an artist we know what the Natives looked like and how they dressed. Because of Harriot, we know what they ate and how they fished and farmed. This knowledge would be very important to all of the English colonists who came to America in the years that followed.
The Natives were good farmers and grew much of their food. They especially liked corn, which they called 'pagatowr', squash, called 'macaquer', and beans. They also ate pumpkins, melons, grapes, and roots something like our sweet potatoes. For meat they had deer, bear, rabbit, and of course, lots of fish. They used the skins for animals for clothes and blankets and sometimes covered their houses with animal hides. Nothing was wasted.
Another of Thomas's jobs was to learn to speak the Native language, and with the help of Manteo, who was born on an island just south of Roanoke, he did just that. The Indians of Roanoke spoke a language called 'Algonkian'. Algonkian is similar to other Indian speech all along the coast of North America. This would be very important to later colonists, such as those who settled Jamestown years later.
The English Get into Trouble
Although John White and Thomas Harriot came to America to learn, others of the English wanted to control the Indians and find treasure. Governor Ralph Lane, a soldier, was one of these. He cared little for the ways of how the Native people lived their lives. Instead, he would take what he wanted and get into trouble with the Indians.
Since the English needed food from the Indians, Governor Lane always nagged the chief of the Roanoke tribe for more corn. The chief could not do this during the winter time when there is no more vegetables and corn to harvest and trade.
When the English traded for food with other tribes of Indians in the area, they spread a disease to the villagers, which was probably a common cold or a type of influenza. The disease began to kill dozens in all of the villages they had visited. This was not done on purpose, just like someone passes the common cold or the flu to you. But the Indians of the area began to distrust the English and stayed away from them whenever they visited again.
When Governor Lane believed that survivors of the indian villages were planning to gather with Chief Wingina and the Roanoke tribe to attack his colony, his soldiers then murdered Chief Wingina. By the time the English had been on Roanoke Island for a year, the once friendly Natives were extremely angry and refused to give the English more food or other help. They had been generous and patient but enough was enough!
The English waited much too long to learn how to farm and fish for themselves. They were getting even more hungry. The new supply ship which they expected had not come. Things were getting desperate when the great sea captain Sir Francis Drake arrived with his fleet.
Drake had been busy stealing Spanish treasure and stopped by Roanoke Island on the way back home to England. He offered to take Governor Lane and his colonists back to England. After much discussion, accompanied by the fury of a terrible storm, Lane agreed. Drake loaded up the battered colonists and soldiers and sailed away. He did not know that Sir Richard Grenville was not far behind to arrive with a new supply ship and more colonists!
When Sir Richard Grenville arrived he found the colonists gone. Not knowing what might have happened, he left 15 soldiers on Roanoke Island to hold the land for the queen and returned to England himself. None of those 15 men were ever seen alive again by Englishmen. The Natives, who had been so patient for so long, and possibly led by the furious Wanchese, took care of that! They hoped that the terrible English were gone forever.
Sir Walter Raleigh's first colony had failed, but the knowledge gained by men like John White and Thomas Harriot was taken back to England. It stirred the imagination of more adventurers. Sir Walter and his partners would try again as soon as they could find enough ships and enough people to make the trip. People seemed to forget how dangerous it was in this New World.
Go to Part II.
Last updated: April 14, 2015