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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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.  

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