The Lost Colony of Roanoke

When I was young, the legend of Roanoke captured my imagination. They spoke about it in school, in kids’ history books, on shows like “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” And there was such an air of mystery!

If you need a refresher, Roanoke was Sir Walter Raleigh’s first attempt to colonize the New World, and it failed miserably. The colonists were sent over, reported to be doing well and making great friends with the natives, and left alone for the winter. When the next supply boat came around, however, there was no sign of the colony. It was as though the entire endeavor had never happened.

Say it with me now: SPOOOOOOKY!

Of course, the most prevalent refrain – the one that was never missing from any retelling of the story – is that “we will never know what happened.”

And this is why historians are so wonderful.

If you have any interest in early colonists, I urge you to read “Big Chief Elizabeth” by Giles Milton. (Ten second review: his writing style is so engaging you can easily forget it’s a history lesson. Why can’t people like this write textbooks?)  Milton details over a century of England’s colonization efforts, but at the heart of his story are the tragedies at Roanoke.

Ready for this? There really is no mystery. Oh, sure, there was at the time, largely due to people not wanting to disclose their own less-than-heroic acts. But journals from that time period spell out the story and … sadly, there is little mystique remaining.

Among the many things they didn’t bother to tell us in school is that the colony named Roanoke was founded several times, always in roughly the same area of Virginia, as their noble experiment failed. Once, it was simply poor planning and too late of a start to the year. Then there were the famines, as they were unable to grow enough crops in one year to get them through the long winters. The Indians went from being happy to help out to understandably miffed that the English kept begging for food with little in return. And it couldn’t have helped that on the first few missions they neglected to send any women.

The first few exoduses involved the entire colony retreating to England. Then, after the famine that led to people eating the leather of their own shoes (You’ve seen the cartoons. The image of a dude with a knife and fork against his shoelaces is much funnier than the cannibalism that they tried to conceal), every able-bodied colonist hitch-hiked a ride home with Sir Francis Drake.

Unfortunately, Drake had recently liberated half a shipful of slaves when he raided the Spanish settlements in the Caribbean, so to fit the English aboard, they ousted the slaves and a handful of the English. Did they leave them at the colony with the housing they’d built? Heavens, no! They were trying to outrun a hurricane, so they dumped the 100+ men on an outlying island with no protection at all against the coming winds.

Nobody survived. This, of course, is not the mystery. This is the shake-your-head-at story that polite society does not mention.

Back to the mystery, then. The English sent settlers once more, again with mixed results. And again the leaders of the expedition abandoned their charges in America so they could spend a warm winter at home. They intended to send supplies in early Spring, not anticipating that the war with Spain would keep all English ships close to home for several years. When new colonists finally arrived at Roanoke once more, it was deserted.

Was it “as though they had never existed”?  Not in the least. Their structures remained – all the items they could not carry with them when they moved.

Was it a surprise to find them gone? Not at all. They had announced their intention to move further inland before the ships left. They even carved some instructions in the trees to lead the new colonists to their new location. If the ship had returned a few months later as planned, there would likely have been a happy reunion.

Milton’s book contends (backed up with great proofs, mind you) that the colonists made a happy new life for themselves North of the Roanoke site … until they were wiped out by an Indian raid. This is not at all unexpected in those times, but a sad ending to our first real colony.

Ah, but it’s not at all mystical, is it?

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