History of the Lost Colony
The Disappearance of the Colony • An Elizabethan Venture, England vs Spain
Relations with the Algonkians, Manteo and Wanchese • Ongoing Search for Clues
In 1587, a band of 117 British colonists, including seventeen women and nine children, settled on a small island off the coast of North Carolina in a vast region the Elizabethans called "Virginia." They and all members of their company were then lost to history.
We know for certain that one of these women, Elenor White Dare, was pregnant throughout the voyage because the birth of her daughter on Roanoke Island was recorded by her father, John White, governor of the company. Elenor was nineteen years old at the time. History books recognize her infant, Virginia Dare, as the first English child born in North America.
This was the earliest English attempt to plant a settlement of men and women in the New World. The 1607 founding of the Jamestown colony on the Chesapeake Bay would not take place for another twenty years. The Puritans who ventured on the Mayflower would not reach North America until 1620, almost forty years after Elenor Dare and her comrades vanished.
The Disappearance of the Colony
John White, the leader of the colonists, sailed back to England just a few weeks after the birth of his granddaughter, Virginia Dare, on Roanoke Island. He traveled intending to gather more ships and supplies for the settlers. He did not want to leave Virginia, but was petitioned twice, by "not only the assistants, but divers others, as well women as men." Sadly, his return to North America would be postponed for three years. His efforts to rejoin the men and women he had left behind were frustrated by uncooperative sea captains, piracy, and England's clash with the Spanish Armada.
When at last White did step foot on Roanoke Island again, he found an empty, abandoned fort and the word "Croatoan" carved into a post. In his letter describing that shadowy day, he complains that the native Algonkians had dug up his sea trunks, ruined his maps, and cast out his armor to rust. He does not mention Elenor or his granddaughter, Virginia.
A storm prevented White from visiting nearby Croatoan Island to search for survivors. He and his ships were blown back to England and the mystery left undisturbed on the coast of North America.
An Elizabethan Venture. England vs Spain
The Roanoke colonists were Elizabethans, many of them probably tradesmen, a number of them from London and the surrounding areas. Ananias Dare, Elenor's husband, one of the company's twelve "assistants," was a tiler and brickmaker. Their venture was sponsored by Sir Walter Ralegh and approved by Queen Elizabeth I.
The settlers crossed the ocean on three ships provided by Ralegh. Their flagship would have been armed with cannon, not only to defend the fleet, but also, perhaps, to attack and claim "prizes" of their own. English investors could make great sums of money if the ships they sent out captured Spanish vessels loaded with valuable goods from the Americas.
By the time the British began sending ships to North America, the Spanish had already established outposts and towns throughout the Caribbean and the southern portion of the North American continent, called Spanish Florida. Spanish ships posed a threat to the colonists, since Spain did not want the English to establish a foothold in the New World, but the Algonkian Indians were a more immediate and serious concern.
Relations with the Algonkians. Manteo and Wanchese
The Algonkians along the mid-Atlantic coast already knew to dread these white interlopers. Two companies of English explorers and soldiers had landed in the region before the Roanoke settlers arrived, the first in 1584 and the next in 1585. John White may well have taken part in the first expedition and was certainly a member of the second, during which he painted many fine watercolors of the Algonkian men and women, their villages, boats, and foods, as well as pictures of native birds and fish. But White's generous and scientific response to the Native Americans was not typical.
The 1585 English expedition camped in the region until June 1586. During their year's residence, they explored the country widely, making contact with a number of Algonkian villages and often demanding corn. But the Virginia coast was suffering a drought, and the Algonkians' stores of food were low. Tension built, fired by the aggressions and constant demands of the English company's leaders. Not long after these explorers landed in 1585, Sir Richard Grenville, the aristocrat who had funded the venture and camped on Roanoke for a short time, burned an Indian field in retaliation for the theft of a silver cup. Ralph Lane, the governor whom Grenville left in command of the company, captured and held hostage the son of a powerful local chief and later killed another Algonkian leader who had previously been his ally and had been providing the English with grain from his own fields.
The Roanoke colonists would suffer the backlash from these aggressions. Almost immediately after they landed and settled into Lane's abandoned fort, one of the company's assistants was captured on a beach and killed by Indians.
The names of two Algonkians are well known to history buffs and visitors to contemporary Roanoke, in part because two cities on the island have been named after them. Manteo, a member of the Croatoan tribe, made the roundtrip to London and back twice. He figured as John White's most important native ally, and his baptism on Roanoke Island is a central feature of the Lost Colony drama and the theatrical production featured at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. The Algonkian Wanchese also traveled to London with the 1584 expedition and then returned home. The record suggests that he came to hate the violent English and organized resistance against them in Virginia.
Ongoing Search for Clues
No one knows what happened to the Lost Colonists after White's departure or exactly what parts the women played in the settlement. Archaeologists have found bits of leather, clay pipes, copper farthings and lead shot on Hatteras Island, near Buxton, NC.
John White and his fellows called that island "Croatoan," which suggests that the Roanoke colonists carved the word "Croatoan" into the post to indicate that at least some of them had moved to that place. Scientists have examined tree rings showing that this region of North America was stricken by severe drought in the years 1586 and 1587, and John White also mentioned drought, which tells us that the Algonkian tribes at that time had no food to spare. Archaeological explorations of northern Roanoke Island continue in search of clues.
But for now, answers to these mysteries, guided by facts, must be fiction.
For additional first-hand accounts of the earliest English ventures in the New World, see materials provided by "Virtual Jamestown" at:
For descriptions of the early English colonial ventures, see: