Monday, July 26, 2010

Week 29: The Lost Colony of Roanoke

I am on my way to the Outer Banks, North Carolina for the first time. As regular readers may have realized by now, my posts are often inspired by the people, places and events around me. While driving through Chesapeake, my girlfriend's parents told me about what is now called The Lost Colony of Roanoke. Apparently Jamestown was not the first English settlement in the New World. A small group of settlers preceded both the Jamestown settlers and the Pilgrims. But these settlers disappeared mysteriously, never to be heard from again.

It began in 1585 with the arrival of about 100 former soldiers to Roanoke. This voyage was the result of a mandate given to Sir Walter Raleigh, one of Queen Elizabeth's favorite explorers. Raleigh had convinced the Queen that a footprint in the new world was important in combatting the ever-expanding influence of the Spaniards. The first settlers were very harsh with the Croatoan, a local and by most historical accounts, friendly group of Native Americans. It is thought that after blaming the natives for stealing a silver goblet, they burned the tribe's leader to death. Soon after these tensions, the settlers hitched rides back to England. It wasn't until 1587 that a second group of 116 settlers, this time consisting of agrarian men, women and children, crossed the Atlantic and landed in Roanoke. They had planned to land in Chesapeake but due to poor weather ended up farther south.

Due to the terrible treatment by the English a few years earlier, the Croatoan were initially very skeptical of these new settlers. It was only due to the cool heads of Governor John White and the Croatoan leaders that larger fighting didn't break out when one of the settlers was killed by natives while crab fishing. In spite of better relations with the tribes, a better mix of settlers (full families with farming skills), and a more competent leader, the settlers still had a major problem: there simply were not enough supplies. So they decided to send White back to England to arrange for more support from the Queen. He was leaving behind a very vulnerable population: in addition to a dearth of supplies, the settlers were also faced with the constant risk of attack by Native Americans, a harsh winter, and inconsistent crops at best. Before departing, White and the settlers agreed that they would leave signals if, for whatever reason, they had to leave the area. In particular, they agreed to mark crosses on trees in the event of a forced evacuation.

Unfortunately for the settlers, White returned to England just as the Queen was preparing for war with the powerful Spanish Armada. All English ships were directed to the battles, and White was unable to secure any supplies or transport back to Roanoke for the next three years. Upon his return he was heartbroken to find nothing but a deserted stockade around a nonexistent town. Even the sturdiest buildings were simply not there. The only clue was the word CROATOAN written on a tree at the center of where the town had been, and three letters on surrounding trees: C R O. White took this to mean they had moved to nearby Croatoan Island. But his efforts to sail there were thwarted by bad weather, and he was forced back to England, where he died. Future voyages to the island, however, found no trace of settlement.
The fate of the Roanoke settlers is to this day a mystery. None of the settlers were heard from or seen again. Initial theories were that either the Spaniards or the local tribes had killed them. But if this were the case, there would be some kind of remains. Furthermore, a thorough check of the meticulously kept Spanish archives found no reference to any killings of English settlers. And neither hypothetical would explain the disappearance of the buildings. Another theory is that the settlers built a boat and tried to sail back to England, but died at sea. However it is unlikely the settlers would have attempted such a voyage given a lack of supplies, no nautical equipment or expertise, and the extremely dangerous weather conditions of the area (Cape Hattarus was called the "Graveyard of the Atlantic").

Far more likely is that the settlers joined with a Native American tribe. It could have been the nearby Croatoans - there are reports of North Carolina tribes with members who spoke English, and who had European features like blue eyes. Alternatively, they could have gone south and joined the Hattarus tribes. In this case they would likely have been wiped out with the tribe during a smallpox epidemic in the 1700s. Finally, they could have headed north and joined the Chesapeake tribes, who were massacred shortly before John Smith settled Jamestown. This version is supported by John Smith's memoirs, who in speaking with Pocahontas' father learned that some white settlers had joined with certain tribes.

The fact is, nobody knows. Why was there a stockade left around a deserted town with no buildings? Why would the settlers leave a message saying CROATOAN, with no cross SOS symbol for Governor White, unless they left voluntarily? Why didn't they leave better clues? My best (uneducated) guess is that they joined with the Croatoan tribes. Regardless of what happened, it is clear that what I was taught in grade school - that Jamestown was the first new world settlement - is revisionist history at its finest.


No comments:

Post a Comment