With the blessing and assistance of Queen Elizabeth of England, Sir Walter Raleigh sent two ships west from England on April 27, 1584, well furnished with men and with food, to explore the North American coast with the idea of founding an English empire beyond the seas to be colonized by the English people. The company of explorers landed on the North Carolina coast on July 13, 1584.
The explorers climbed to the top of hills (so described that they could be the Nags Head dunes of today), discovered that they were on a barrier island, and moved on to the northern end of Roanoke Island where they were entertained in a palisaded Indian village by friendly natives. The group eventually returned to England, taking with them two Indians to help convey the story of this new land.
Queen Elizabeth was pleased; the undefined territory was given the name Virginia to memorialize the Virgin Queen; and Sir Walter Raleigh was the chief lord of the new area.
The next spring Raleigh sent out another colony of 108 persons to Roanoke Island. This expedition sailed from Plymouth on April 9, 1585, in seven ships. In the party were men of varied talents, including artists, scientists, and persons of humbler talents. The two Indians also returned to their native haunts. After stop at Puerto Rico, where the expedition picked up needed supplies and breeding animals for their new colony, the explorers reached what is now Ocracoke on June 26. They explored the coastal islands and adjacent mainland and finally, on July 27, anchored off Roanoke Island. Meantime they sought to strike terror into the hearts of the Indians by burning an Indian village in retaliation for the theft of a silver cup stolen by one of the Indians.
A colony was established on the north end of the island and Ralph Lane was made governor. Letters that went back home to England when boats returned for supplies indicated how greatly impressed were the colonists with the vast and unknown extent of the American continent as it stretched away to the west.
Lane built a fort near the shore on the east side of the island, between the north point of the island and a creek that had a mouth large enough to provide anchorage for the boats. This is the present Fort Raleigh National Historical site and the Waterside Theatre, where "The Lost Colony" production is to be seen each year. The remains of this fort were visible as late as 1896 and can be described by many of the older natives on Roanoke Island. The skilled laborers of the expedition made brick, sawed boards, and built carefully. Pieces of this early brick could be found on the fort site as late as 1860.
The colonists' relations with the Indians became more and more strained, until by June of 1586 a state of actual warfare existed, cutting off the source of most of the native supplies. The ships that had gone to England were delayed in returning. The colonists were in a desperate predicament by the time Sir Francis Drake anchored off the coast with a fleet of twenty-three ships on June 9, 1586. Drake offered assistance to the colonists. He said that he would leave a ship, new skilled help, and supplies, or that he would take the entire expedition back to England with his fleet.
Lane was loath to give up the Roanoke Island project and decided to stay, with new supplies. And then, while the supplies were being made ready, a storm struck, causing Drake's fleet considerable damage. So, in the face of troubled conditions in Europe and America, and the unaccountable delay in the arrival of the supply ships from home, Lane finally asked for passage to England and Drake sailed on June 18, taking the colonists home with him.
Shortly after Drake sailed with the colonists, the supply ships from England did arrive at Roanoke Island and searched in vain for the colonists. Finding no one and nothing--save the desolate settlement--and not wishing to lose possession of the land for England, Sir Richard Grenville, in charge of the supply fleet, left fifteen men on Roanoke Island, with provisions for two years, to hold the country for the Queen while he returned to England.
In the year 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh organized another colonial expedition consisting of 150 persons. This group included women and children--evidence of the true colonizing character of the project. Planters who signed on for the expedition were to receive five hundred acres of land and up in the New World. The whole thing was less military in nature than the earlier projects, and more of a genuine colonial expedition. Governor John White, who had been the artist of the first colony, was in charge.
Three ships left Plymouth on May 8 with this group and their possessions and supplies. There were persons on board who had been out on the earlier expeditions, and this gave continuity with the earlier attempts.
But when the colonists reached Roanoke Island, the fifteen men left there by Grenville were gone. The bones of one, apparently killed by Indians, were found. The fort had been razed, the houses were overgrown with vines, and hope of ever finding the men quickly vanished.
The season was late; so Governor White and his men began to dig in for the fall and winter ahead. The fort was rebuilt, the homes were repaired, and new cottages erected. The Indians were more hostile than ever, and many difficulties faced the study band from England.
In this setting and amid these circumstances, on August 18, 1587, Governor White's daughter Eleanor, wife of Ananias Dare, gave birth to a daughter. She was named Virginia because she was the first child of English parentage to be born in the New World. Another child was born to Dyonis and Margery Harvie shortly afterwards. And on the earnest entreaty of the planters and colonists, Governor White sailed homeward on August 27, nine days after his granddaughter's birth, taking the fleet with him to get supplies for the colony.
With Governor White's departure on August 27, 1587, the history of events in the Roanoke Island colony became a tragic mystery which the generations since have vainly sought to explain. There had been talk of moving the colony fifty miles inland, and White had arranged for appropriate indications of their whereabouts if they removed from Roanoke Island before his return.
But because of England's war with Spain, which broke out meantime, White could not return as soon as he expected. A new fleet, that was to have gone to Virginia, was ordered into service against the Spanish Armada. The men concerned with Virginia were assigned tasks connected with England's defense, and no one could give more than thought to the colony on Roanoke Island.
At length the Queen's Privy Council gave permission to use two small ships not required for service against Spain, and White sailed with these on April 28, 1588. But the ships were small, poorly equipped, and inadequately provisioned. Partly because of these circumstances and partly because of their running after Spanish treasure ships, these ships were unable to reach America.
So while Grenville's larger ships contributed to the defeat of the Armada, the Roanoke Island colony was doomed for the lack of them. And although the Armada was defeated in the summer of 1588, the Anglo-Spanish battle of the Atlantic continued for several years. Meanwhile Raleigh deeded his interest in the New World enterprise to a group of London merchants and adventurers--including Governor White and nine others then on Roanoke Island--on March 7, 1589. One of the nine was Ananias Dare, father of Virginia Dare.
The months slipped by, months that must have been maddening for Governor White, who thought of his daughter and granddaughter, and the others, on Roanoke Island, perhaps suffering for supplies, perhaps embroiled in bitter warfare with the Indians. But the London merchants who had purchased the enterprise seemed unable to get a fleet organized for the relief and strengthening of the colony.
Finally, on March 20, 1591, Governor White sailed for America, but without supplies or newly recruited planters. In fact he was little more than a passenger on another's ship. After nearly five months of operating in the West Indies, this expedition, headed by Master John Wattes of London, finally anchored toward the evening of August 15 just off Roanoke Island. Smoke was seen rising from the island, and that must have strengthened the sagging hopes of John White. On the following morning, August 16, Governor White and a small company set forth in two boats for the island. En route they saw another column of smoke rising to the southwest. This seemed to come from the general area occupied today by the Nags Head dunes. They decided to investigate this latter smoke column first. It was a wearisome task and consumed the whole day and led to nothing, since no human beings were at the scene of the woods fire.
The next day, August 17, they prepared to go to Roanoke Island. The party put off again in two boats. One of these capsized in a treacherous inlet and seven men were drowned. A fresh start was made; but before they could reach the place of settlement, it was so dark that they overshot their mark by a quarter of a mile. On the north end of the island they saw a light and rowed toward it. Anchoring opposite it in the darkness, they blew a trumpet and sang English songs, but received no answer. In the morning they landed but found only grass and rotten trees burning. From here they made their way to that part of the island where the colony had been left by Governor White. On this long trek along the shore they saw nothing of interest except a few footprints which two or three natives had made in the sand during the night.
And then they climbed a sandy bank that gave them their first view of the settlement they had left four years before.
A great change had taken place. The houses had been torn down and the area strongly enclosed with a palisade of tree trunks. As they drew nearer they saw that one of the chief trees in this fort-like arrangement had been peeled of bark, and carved in the bare wood was the single word: CROATOAN!
And all about was a great and oppressive silence. Not a single colonist remained. Not a sound or a sign or a communication--other than the one word cut in a tree. Just the wind from the ocean, the birds in the trees, and a great void where men, women, and children had been left four years before.
The Devil's Tramping Ground is available at bookstores for $18.95 (hardcover) and $9.95 (paperback), or from the University of North Carolina Press. 1-800-848-6224. Say you saw it on the internet.
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