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Definition: Roanoke from Chambers Dictionary of World History

The site of Sir Walter Raleigh's two attempts to found an English colony in North America. The first, in 1585, ended after trouble with the island's native inhabitants and the threat of an attack from Spanish forces. The second, an expedition of 117 men, women and children in 1587, had disappeared without trace by 1591 when a relief force found the town of ‘Ralegh’ deserted. The failures demonstrated that colonization was too expensive an enterprise for one individual to support, even with the monarch's blessing; and that settlements had to be defensible, Roanoke being an exposed island without a good harbour.


Summary Article: Roanoke Colony (1587) from Encyclopedia of Tudor England

After the voluntary return of the first Roanoke colonists in 1586, Sir Walter Raleigh sent out a second colonization expedition in 1587. Unlike the all-male first colony, the new venture, under the governorship of John White, a member of the first colony, included whole families. Three vessels carrying 89 men, 17 women, and 11 children departed Plymouth on 8 May 1587. Although intending to settle on Chesapeake Bay, the settlers were forced on 22 July to take up the first colony’s site on Roanoke Island (off present-day North Carolina) when the ships’ crews, eager to raid in the Spanish West Indies, refused to sail up the Chesapeake.

The ill will the previous colonists had left among the Roanoke Indians led quickly to tragedy. On 28 July, George Howe, who had gone alone to catch crabs, was found murdered, perhaps an act of revenge for the previous colony’s killing of the Roanoke chief Wingina. Attempts to reestablish relations with the Indians through Manteo, one of the Indians who had gone to England with the Amadas-Barlowe expedition in 1584, failed. On 18 August, White’s daughter Eleanor, the wife of Ananias Dare, gave birth to a daughter. The first English child born in North America, the baby was christened Virginia Dare by her grandfather. Poor relations with the Indians meant the colony was totally dependent on England for supplies, and the colonists decided that White was best suited to ensuring that Raleigh sent regular provisions and that the English public remained aware of, and interested in, the colony. Accordingly, White set sail on 27 August and reached England on 16 October.

In April 1588, White set out with two relief ships, but he had to turn back when the crews’ taste for piracy led to an unfortunate encounter with a Spanish vessel. The armada Crisis of 1588 tied up all shipping and prevented White from returning to Virginia until 1590. On 16 August, he landed on Roanoke but found no trace of the colony, only the word “Croatoan” carved on a tree. This seemed to indicate the colony had moved to nearby Croatoan Island, but storms prevented investigation, and White returned to England without ever knowing what became of his family and the Lost Colony of Roanoke.

See also America; Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia; Harriot, Thomas; Roanoke Colony (1585); Spanish America

Further Reading
  • Horn, James. A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Basic Books New York, 2010.
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony. Barnes and Noble New York, 1993.
  • Quinn, David B. Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606. University of North Carolina Press Chapel Hill, 1984.
  • Copyright 2012 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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