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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.

from Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History

The English settlement of North America began at Roanoke Island, off the coast of modern-day North Carolina, in 1585. Although the two Roanoke colonies of 1585-1586 and 1587-1588 did not last long, the practical experience of planting colonies persuaded the English to try again when international conditions improved during the early seventeenth century. Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English colony in the New World, founded in 1607, was a direct outcome of the earlier Roanoke expeditions.

In 1584, Walter Raleigh, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I and a leading courtier, sought permission to plant a colony in North America. His aim was to establish a privateering base from which raids on Spanish America could be launched and to stake a claim to the vast lands of the northern continent, largely unknown to Europeans. Having gained the queen's permission, he dispatched two small ships commanded by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe on a reconnaissance expedition that arrived off the Outer Banks of modern-day North Carolina in early July. Entering through the Outer Banks into the shallow waters of the sounds, they discovered many islands covered with great stands of trees and teeming with wildlife. Local Indians, the Secotans who inhabited Roanoke Island, were described by the English as a "very handsome, and goodly people, and in their behavior as mannerly, and civil, as any of Europe." (Quinn 1955, 98-99) On his return to England in the fall, Barlowe wrote an enthusiastic account of the voyage that depicted a land of plenty, ripe for exploitation. Here was Eden, where the "earth brings forth all things in abundance, as in the first creation, without toil or labor." (Quinn 1955, 108)

Delighted by the outcome of the voyage, Raleigh fitted out a fleet of five ships and two pinnaces carrying approximately six hundred soldiers and seamen under the command of Sir Richard Grenville, his cousin. The expedition arrived off the Carolina coast in June 1585 and after a preliminary exploration established a fort on Roanoke Island a couple of months later. Grenville and the fleet departed shortly afterward to return to England for reinforcements, leaving behind a garrison of 108 soldiers led by Ralph Lane, a veteran of the wars in Ireland. During the winter and spring of 1585-1586, Lane dispatched two exploratory parties to the north and west. The first discovered the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and made contact with Indian peoples along the southern shore of the bay; the second, in the spring, explored the Chowan and Roanoke rivers. During the second expedition, the English picked up stories from Indians of copper (possibly gold) mines inland. As a result, Lane concluded that the colony should be relocated to Chesapeake Bay, where deepwater rivers would make better harbors for English shipping than the treacherous waters of the Outer Banks, and from which colonists could mount further expeditions into the interior of North Carolina to find the Indian mines that had eluded him.

Lane was forced to abandon Roanoke Island in late June 1586 owing to hostilities between the English and local peoples—the Secotans, Weapemeocs, and Chowanocs—on whom Lane's men depended for food. Back in England, he reported his discoveries to Raleigh and emphasized the advantages of Chesapeake Bay as a location for a colony. Determined to make another attempt, Raleigh sponsored a final expedition and placed in command John White, who had been on the two previous voyages and had illustrated the Indian peoples, fauna, and flora of the Roanoke region, providing Raleigh with a glimpse of the New World.

In April 1587, White led a group of 117 men, women, and children to establish a settlement on Chesapeake Bay to be called the City of Raleigh. They never reached the Chesapeake, however. The mariners instructed to transport them there put them off instead at Roanoke Island and refused to take them any farther, wishing to return to the Caribbean as soon as possible to plunder Spanish shipping. After remaining on the island for six weeks, White returned to England at the end of August to raise more supplies. He was unable to get back to Roanoke Island for three years, by which time the colonists had disappeared. Although he found clues indicating that they had moved to Croatoan Island 50 miles to the south, he was unable to reach them. Where they ended up, and what happened to them, remains a mystery. White's short-lived colony is popularly known today as the Lost Colony of Roanoke.

The Roanoke colonies had an important influence on English colonization efforts in early America. The English gained valuable knowledge of the American environment, Indian peoples, and practical challenges involved in sustaining colonies on the other side of the Atlantic. These hard-learned lessons would be put to use once again when the English founded a colony on the Chesapeake Bay two decades later at Jamestown.

Bibliography and Further Reading
  • Horn, James. A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  • Oberg, Michael Leroy. The Head in Edward Nugent's Hand: Roanoke's Forgotten Indians. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.
  • Quinn, David Beers. The Roanoke Voyages, 1584-1590. 2 vols. London: Hakluyt Society, 2nd ser., Nos. 104-105, 1955.
  • Quinn, David Beers. Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
James Horn
© 2010 CQ Press, A Division of SAGE

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