The Magazine

Paradise Lost

What happened to the first English settlers in America.

May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By NELSON D. LANKFORD
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A Kingdom Strange

Paradise Lost

The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke
by James Horn
Basic Books, 304 pp., $26

The Lost Colony of Roanoke Island has long enjoyed a favored niche in histories of early America. A sturdy band of men, women, and children brave the fierce Atlantic in tiny ships to scratch out an Anglo-Saxon toehold in the New World. Their patron names the effort for England’s virgin queen, Elizabeth, for this is the first Virginia, despite being located in the lee of the barrier islands we know now as the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But when the settlement’s leader returns there from a voyage home to seek reinforcements, he discovers the colonists have vanished into thin air. 

James Horn places this familiar tale in the larger European diplomatic and military context, and speculates about the mysterious disappearance. An accomplished author, Horn is vice president of research and historical interpretation as well as director of the Rockefeller Library at Colonial Williamsburg. The strength of his approach to his subject lies in his mastery of sources. He shuns the layers of secondary works that, after four centuries, have piled up rumors and half-truths on top of one another. Instead, he prizes only documents written close to the events he relates. Even without the embellishments of popular writers, this is still a story of overweening ambition, heartbreak, greed, and repeated failure that only much later, and in ways unimagined by the original advocates, stamped Britain’s culture and power on North America.

Walter Ralegh (that is how he spelled his name) attracted Elizabeth’s favor, and royal generosity raised him from ordinary courtier to “insufferably proud” grandee. By 1583 he became the chief promoter of English settlement in America as a means to exploit the New World’s natural riches and a base from which to plunder the Spanish Caribbean. His initial foray probed the Atlantic coast the following summer and imprudently identified Roanoke Island as the best prospect for a permanent colony. 

Back in England, sentiment at court for all-out war with Spain allowed Ralegh “to marry his personal ambitions with Elizabeth’s foreign policy.” The English assembled a fleet under Sir Francis Drake to ravage the West Indies while Ralegh planned an outpost for privateers on Roanoke Island. Early in 1585, the queen knighted Ralegh and allowed him to name the new land for her, while he took the title “Lord and Governor of Virginia.” However, she forbade him from leading the enterprise in person, and he had to content himself with managing it from afar.  

 Under Sir Richard Grenville’s command, the expedition landed a force of soldiers at Roanoke that summer. Friendly at the beginning, local Indians gave the English permission to build a settlement on the island. John White, an artist in Ralegh’s London circle, was on hand to paint enchanting images of the natives and wildlife. For him, Virginia offered a new Eden, and he spread that gospel on his return to London. Even more enchanting to his pragmatic countrymen—filling their heads with visions of gold—was the news that Grenville had captured an immensely rich Spanish treasure ship. 

Gradually, relations between the settlers and the Indians frayed. The Englishmen remained dependent on the locals for food, while European diseases ravaged native villages. Ralph Lane, the leader of the colony, came to believe that Roanoke Island and the sandy ribbon of barrier dunes that sheltered it were ill-suited as a permanent site. He began to think he should relocate to the north by the Chesapeake Bay.

In the meantime, Drake and his fleet reached the West Indies bent on gold and glory. He pillaged Spanish outposts; but fevers sapped his crews’ strength and denied him the force to seize greater prizes in Panama or Havana. Instead, he charted a course for Roanoke, looting St. Augustine along the way. Drake’s arrival gave the colonists the means to carry out the move to the Chesapeake, but a hurricane so battered the fleet that Lane abandoned both Roanoke and his plans for the move northward.

Ralegh remained obsessed with colonizing the American mainland. Besides stacking the odds in his favor for raids against the Spanish Main, a base there might serve as a beachhead for locating the Indian treasure he expected to discover farther inland, and for finding a route to the Far East. Late in 1586, he formulated plans for another colony with the hindsight provided by Lane’s experience. The first settlement’s failures, he reasoned, stemmed from the poor harbors of the Outer Banks and the unruly soldiers and artisans chosen for the task. For the next effort, Ralegh looked to civilian colonists, especially whole families, whom he would plant along the protected shores of the Chesapeake. As leader of this new venture he chose John White, the artist whose paintings remain to this day our best first glimpse of the native peoples of Virginia. 

The ships bearing White and his hundred-plus settlers followed the established route to take advantage of currents and winds, sailing south from England to the Canaries and then west to the Caribbean. They intended to stop briefly at Roanoke to gather intelligence from the token guard remaining after the first colony had abandoned the site. They found no one there—only, ominously, the bleached skeleton of one of the 15 men left behind. Unexpectedly, the ship captains disembarked their passengers at the old settlement instead of taking them on to the Chesapeake. Horn says the sources are unclear about this turn of events: He theorizes that White may even have agreed with the mariners that the first priority was to harry their enemies in the West Indies. Unencumbered by the civilians and their baggage, the sailors could scourge the Spanish and then return north at their leisure to move the colonists to the Chesapeake. 

Despite this change in their plans, the settlers were buoyant with optimism for their enterprise. A supply ship arrived precisely as planned, and every one of their number enjoyed remarkable good health. A delay at Roanoke for a few weeks or even months, it seemed, could hardly impede their journey toward the Chesapeake where they meant to found the city of Ralegh. 

All was not well in John White’s Eden, however. Skirmishes with hostile Indians going back to the days of Ralph Lane’s settlement should have tempered the colonists’ enthusiasm. An English reprisal raid for the murder of a solitary colonist made matters worse when it mistakenly targeted the village of a friendly tribe. While they waited to move farther north, the colonists decided to send an emissary back with the supply vessel to report on their tenuous progress, and organize a second wave. Reluctantly, White agreed to that role. He was the only one close enough to Ralegh to make the case for another expedition. 

On his return to England, White succeeded beyond his dreams. Ralegh responded by gathering a large fleet, but then the Privy Council abruptly countermanded his orders. Events a year before had presaged this reversal. In February 1587, while White was still in London enlisting settlers for the voyage, the capital lit bonfires of joy over the news of one long-awaited death. The executioner’s axe had at last severed the neck of Mary, Queen of Scots. England’s delight at the demise of this supposed Catholic menace to Protestant rule prompted Spain’s Philip II to set in train his “Enterprise of England.” Threatened by the Spanish Armada, England could spare no ships for the New World. 

White did not find a ship captain to take him back to Virginia until 1590. By then, three years had passed since he had left his family and friends, including his granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America. When White finally returned to Roanoke Island, he found no one. The settlement was intact, abandoned, yet he discovered none of the prearranged signs to indicate distress, only the name of an Indian town, “Croatoan,” carved into the palisade gatepost. A malign star shone on White’s fortunes: His ship’s captain refused even to look further for the missing colonists and returned with the embittered artist to England. Nearly 20 years passed before Englishmen revived the dream of settling Virginia.  

Readers who hope this account might unveil conclusive, newly discovered documents that outline precisely what happened to the Lost Colony will be disappointed, but that is the fault of neither author nor publisher. The press release for A Kingdom Strange describes it as “a compelling examination”—not a definitive resolution—“of one of the great unresolved mysteries of American history.” What Horn does show is dramatic enough. When the English founded another colony in 1607 at Jamestown, upriver from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, Captain John Smith heard Indian stories about where the Roanoke colonists went after abandoning their settlement. Smith’s 1608 map even shows the locations where the Indians said different parties of settlers had moved. Nothing is known, however, of the results of Smith’s efforts to contact them. A Virginia Indian taken to London in 1609 gave similar details, including an account of the attack that killed most of White’s survivors.

Horn believes that, though no direct evidence had come to light in the two decades since White left Roanoke, these fragments demonstrate that survivors did still live “in the interior of North Carolina.” The author theorizes that the colonists split up into four groups and lived with friendly Indians until being massacred in 1607 by Wahunsonacock. This was the Indian paramount chief, sometimes called Powhatan, who feared that the survivors would encourage the Indians with whom they lived in North Carolina to ally with the newly arrived English at Jamestown. 

This is fascinating speculation presented persuasively by a leading scholar of early America. Horn’s contribution is twofold. First, he places the small Roanoke colony in the bigger picture of England’s geopolitical struggle against Spain. Second, he shows how this insignificant, failed effort influenced the focus of later, bigger efforts that did bear fruit and resonate down to the present. It was the Chesapeake, as the English belatedly discovered, that would give their American enterprise a firm foundation, not the Outer Banks of North Carolina—which remained a remote, sandy backwater into the 20th century, to the delight of vacationers.

Nelson D. Lankford, editor of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the quarterly journal of the Virginia Historical Society, is the author, most recently, of Cry Havoc! The Crooked Road to Civil War, 1861.

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