The court of Queen Elizabeth I was a dour place, filled with sycophants decked out in the drab black cloaks fashionable at the time. But then Walter Raleigh showed up, dressed like a peacock in garish colors in a dizzying array of expensive fabrics like silks and damasks. Raleigh certainly dressed to impress – in 1584, he reported the theft of three clothing items worth almost £115 – which was more than enough money to run an entire household (including servants) for an entire year!
But Raleigh came to court with more than just nice clothes. He was intelligent, witty, and just plain charming. It was Walter Raleigh, for example, who allegedly laid one of his expensive cloaks over a mud puddle so that Elizabeth wouldn’t dirty her royal feet. He could play music, write poetry, flirt and talk about almost any issue in his West Country accent, which Elizabeth found perfectly adorable.
She quickly began lavishing gifts on Raleigh, from titles and royal appointments to estates and monopolies. It was the monopolies on wine licenses (granted by Elizabeth in 1583) and the export of wool (1585) that gave Raleigh immense wealth that he used to buy more of his beloved expensive clothes, to spare no expense in redecorating and refurbishing the estates that Elizabeth had given him, and to fund an entourage of 30 servants (each of whom needed their own set of fancy clothes, too!). Raleigh quickly rose from a virtual nobody to become one of the richest men in England, and he used his wealth in ways and quantities that shocked and staggered his contemporaries. Raleigh, indeed, threw money around in ways that would make even the gaudiest hip-hop mogul of today hang his head in disgust.
But Raleigh was more than just flash. He had a dream… a dream of an English colony in the wilderness of America. In 1584, Raleigh sent his first colony to Virginia (which then comprised a section of what would later become North Carolina). The colonists landed at Roanoke Island in present-day Dare County, North Carolina. The colonists would suffer greatly due to lack of food (mainly caused by poor selection of colonists) and troubled relations with local Indian tribes. The expedition ended in failure in 1586.
Raleigh found himself unable to fund a second trip on his own, so a joint-stock company was created. When enough investors had been lined up, Raleigh launched a second expedition in 1587. This group of colonists were supposed to stop by Roanoke Island and pick up a few soldiers left to guard the settlement after the first expedition left. They were then to settle somewhere north on Chesapeake Bay. However, Simon Fernandez, the captain of the colony’s main ship, the Susan Constant, unceremoniously dumped the colonists on Roanoke Island on July 22, 1587, as he wanted to get to the Caribbean as quickly as possible to loot Spanish treasure ships.
Although Raleigh and company promised the colonists a steady stream of supply ships, it wasn’t to be. By the time John White (a friend of Raleigh’s and overall commander of the expedition) arrived back in England from Roanoke, it was too late in the year to return to Virginia. Then the Spanish Armada sailed towards England, and every ocean-worthy ship was commandeered for the defense of the realm. White managed to get a special dispensation from the Queen to allow two small ships to sail to Roanoke in 1588, but the captains of these ships were greedy and tried to capture Spanish ships while in transit; instead, they were captured and the venture was a total loss.
Because of the ongoing war with Spain, White would not be able to return to the island until August 18, 1590, when he finally stepped ashore on Roanoke and found… nothing. 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children – including Virginia Dare, the namesake of today’s Dare County and the first English child born in America – had simply vanished. White and his men carried out an exhaustive search, but no trace of the colonists was found. All of their houses and fences had collapsed, and it was clear that the Indians had looted what was left… but only two skeletons were found, and it wasn’t unexpected that a few colonists would have died of natural causes or accident.
But there was one tantalizing clue.
Before he left Roanoke, White and the colonists had agreed that if the colonists should move for any reason, they would carve their destination into a tree. If they were to leave under duress, they would also carve a Maltese cross next to their destination. White found the letters “CRO” hastily carved in a nearby tree, which made him nervous… until he found the word CROATOAN (for nearby Croatoan Island) carved into a post at the colony’s fort. The carving appeared to be cut deeply into the post with considerable care, and it lacked the cross White had told them to carve if the move was made under duress. This made White feel much better about the colonists’ fate, but it also puzzled him. Croatoan Island was much smaller than Roanoke, had little fresh water, and its sandy soil prevented just about anything from growing there. Sadly, a huge storm blew up that evening which lasted into the morning and prevented White from visiting Croatoan Island.
Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, leaving James VI of Scotland to become King James I of England. Sadly for the colonists, James had little interest in Virginia, and had an almost pathological fear and hatred of the “savages”. He therefore refused to mount any return voyages back to Roanoke. He also had a deep (yet unfounded) suspicion of Walter Raleigh, planted there by courtiers jealous of Raleigh’s close relationship to the Queen.
James also deeply hated tobacco, the one crop that could have been a true moneymaker for the Virginia Colony. Although James would have been perfectly happy to ban tobacco from England completely, the English public found that they greatly enjoyed smoking their pipes – and doctors of the day considered it a “miracle cure” for all sorts of ailments. A group of investors eventually persuaded King James that tobacco was here to stay, and that it would be better for the Crown if the English public gave their money to English merchants selling Virginia tobacco than to Spanish merchants selling tobacco from their own colonies in the New World. James reluctantly agreed, and the London Company was formed.
The London Company’s brief to their colonists was simple: they were to create a colony somewhere in the Chesapeake Bay area for the purposes of finding precious metals and other things that could be sold for a profit in London… and also to look for the “Lost Colonists” of 1587. Once again, fate would intervene: the colonists chose a poor site for their “Jamestown” colony and disease, poor harvests, a lack of support ships, and violent relations with the natives quickly led to an era called the “Starving Time”, where over 80% of the new colonists died. Things were so bad, in fact, that the colonists abandoned Jamestown completely. They got 10 miles downstream of Jamestown when they ran into a supply mission, headed by a new commander, Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr (later known as “Lord Delaware”). West, in a rage, ordered the downhearted colonists back to Jamestown, where he whipped the colony into such a shape that their survival would never be in doubt again.
But what of the lost colonists?
In April of 1607, Captain Christopher Newport arrived with the first batch of colonists at what would become Jamestown. As he steered his ship towards the shoreline, he was shocked to see huge tracts of land cleared for farming in the European style. He also saw clouds of smoke from a nearby forest. Almost a year later, John Smith (the Englishman who was saved more than once by Pocahontas) was told by her father, Powhatan, that he was sick of the English constantly coming to him for food and taking his land, so he had the whole lot of them executed just days before the Jamestown colonists arrived (the smoke that Newport saw was the burning of the English settlements, which Powhatan ordered as soon as an Indian spotter saw Newport’s flotilla). But although Powhatan initially told Smith that every single English settler had been executed, he later grudingly admitted that some – he refused to say how many – had, in fact, escaped the slaughter. Perhaps amusingly, the only reason Powhatan even bothered to tell Smith about it at all was because he had an elaborate plan to kill Smith that very night, only to have Pocahontas warn Smith, thus saving Smith’s life again.
Once Jamestown settled down into a prosperous colony – thanks in large part to John Rolfe, who successfully cultivated a milder type of tobacco in Virginia… and who also married Pocahontas – several expeditions were sent out to find the remaining colonists, not only because it was the “right thing to do”, but also because, with 20 years in America now under their belts, they would be great sources of information about the local tribes, the hunting seasons, and native agriculture. Several tribes reported seeing English men and women in other nearby tribes, but conclusive proof always seemed to be just out of reach of the expeditions from Jamestown. Either hostile Indian tribes, bad weather, rough terrain, or lack of supplies to venture further (or, usually, a combination of all of the above) kept the alleged colonists just out of reach.
Other news trickled in. Sir Thomas Gates was told that four English men and women were currently living in a village called Pakerikanick, captives of a local weroance (chief) called Gepanocon. His tribe had apparently found a vein of copper, and the English were being held there to teach Gepanocon’s tribe how to smelt the ore and make it into useful objects. Sadly, Gates was not in a position to investigate it at the time, but later on a “friendly Indian” named Machumps not only independently verified the story about Gepanocon, he also said that additional English men, boys and a woman were being held by a weroance called Eyanoco at a village called Ritanoe, also for the purpose of showing the Indians how to create copper objects.
Machumps also mentioned that several Indian tribes had begun building houses with English features, such as gabled roofs and two storeys. Some of the colonists themselves would find burned-out hulks of two storey houses and European-style fencing in nearby Indian villages. The colonists found ghosts of their predecessors almost everywhere: when the colonists and Powhatan came to a (brief) peace following the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, Powhatan ordered the return of several English weapons to the colonists. Amongst the rusted old weapons were pikes and spears from the Lost Colony, although no one at Jamestown noticed it at the time.
Others claim that the Indians of present-day Person County, North Carolina are members of the Lost Colony. Subsequent settlers were astonished to find that these Indians spoke English and were Christians. The tribe’s children seemed to line up chronologically with what you’d expect from the original colonists, and many reported that this tribe had European features. Others, however, have dismissed these claims, saying that the tribe were an offshoot of the Saponi tribe. Conclusive evidence has not been found either way, however.
Others suggest that perhaps the colony was lost at sea. When Governor White left Roanoke in 1587, he left a pinnace and several small ships for the colonists, to be used for exploration or to move the colonists to the mainland if necessary. The boats were never found, and some feel that (for whatever reason) the colonists gave up on Roanoke and used the small vessels to try to get back to England, only to die in the process.
Still others say that it was the Spanish that killed off the colonists at Roanoke. There is no physical evidence of this at Roanoke either then or now, nor is there any record of such an action in the papers of the Spanish government.
Many assumed that the Lost Colonists split into two groups – a smaller one (perhaps made up of soldiers) might have stayed on Croatoan Island, which was a perfect lookout for British ships in the area, and the bulk of the group, which might have headed towards the Chesapeake Bay area (which was later “proven” by several rumors). Given Croatoan’s small size and lack of resources, ships rarely ventured near the island… until 1701, when a surveyor named John Lawson approached the island as part of his map-making process. He was astonished to find a group of “Indians” on the island that looked nothing like any other natives he’d come across in his surveying duties. They all had pale skin and light brown hair (many also had grey eyes), and in conversations with them, they claimed that their ancestors were white men that could “talk in a book” (read) as well as Lawson could. Although Lawson was extremely skeptical at first, he later concluded after additional research that these Indians had probably, in fact, mixed with the English from the 1587 colony.
This last theory was given some credence in 1998 by a group from East Carolina University known as “The Croatoan Project”. This archaeological team found an English signet ring which can be traced back via its coat-of-arms to a “Master Kendall” from the first colony, as well as a flintlock musket and two 16th century copper farthings. A new group calling itself the The Lost Colony Center for Science and Research has started DNA testing in the areas surrounding Roanoke and Croatoan islands, in hopes of finding a genetic link between the original colonists and local Indians. They have also amassed a database, which indicates that many of the local Indian people have the same family names as the Roanoke colonists, and the group has also found land deeds indicating a close connection between the local Indians and the colonists.
How amazing would it be to find out that someone, somewhere in America is still alive, descended from those Lost Colonists?
And lastly… whatever happened to Sir Walter Raleigh, the man who dreamed of a colony in America, funded it, went to prison for it, yet never visited his colonies? Well, due to a disastrous expedition in Guiana – where Raleigh and his men ignored a direct order of King James that they not engage Spanish troops – Raleigh returned home to London, where he was thrown into the Tower of London to await his execution. When that day came, Raleigh asked for (and was granted) permission to face west (towards Virginia) instead of the traditional east (towards Jerusalem). The executioner’s ax then chopped off Raleigh’s head. As was customary, the executioner then held up the severed head for the crowd, but he steadfastly refused to shout the traditional line, “Behold the head of a traitor!”. Someone in the crowd, whose identity will remain forever anonymous, shouted instead:
“We have not another such head to cut off!