Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Roanoke Island - 1587 and Now

by Jenny Barden 

When America's first English colonists arrived at Roanoke Island in 1587 they expected to find a land of bounty, with a benign climate, sparsely populated by gentle savages. Arthur Barlowe had described the region in glowing terms following his voyage of discovery with Philip Amadas in 1584. 'I thinke in all the world the like aboundance is not to be founde,' he wrote. He described finding an island 'of many goodly woods, and full of Deere, Conies, Hares and Fowle,' as well as 'the highest, and reddest Cedars,' waters teeming with fish, and 'handsome' people, 'in their behaviour as mannerly, and civill as any of Europe.'

This view from modern day Hatteras Island is the kind of landscape the colonists would have seen on their way to make landfall in America, passing through a channel in the long thin strip of sand dune islands that fringes the vast shallow lagoon now known as Pamlico Sound. They would have used boats and their pinnace to reach Roanoke behind the outer barrier islands.
Raleigh's colonists were recruited to form a permanent English settlement in Virginia, to follow on from the garrisons that had been stationed on Roanoke Island during the previous two years, encouraged by the promise of going to a veritable Eden. Women and children were enlisted too, and men with the practical skills to create an enduring community, many of them tempted by the prospect of owning 500 acres of prime fertile land. In total, 113 colonists are recorded as having left England for a region which Richard Hakluyt the younger described as 'this paradise of the worlde.'*

Virginia as it was in 1587, based on John White's Virginea Pars map, showing areas controlled by native Algonquian Indian tribes.

On arrival, the first impressions of the colonists were probably consistent with having been brought to a promised land. They were set down at Roanoke, rather than in the Chesapeake Bay area where they had expected to settle, but all seemed to be well. They encountered no savages at first, and they landed in the height of summer. The Governor, John White, described the scene on approaching the garrison buildings. He wrote that they were: 'standing unhurt, saving the neather rooms of them, and also of the forte, were overgrowen with Melons of divers sortes, and Deere within them, feeding on those Mellons.'

But this image of tranquility masked a sinister reality. The fort had been razed down, and the small contingent of soldiers that the colonists expected to meet was nowhere to be found. Only gradually did the truth become clear after a parley with the friendly Croatan tribe. The soldiers had been driven away, some of them killed, slain by warriors led by Wanchese of the Roanoke tribe who had turned against them. That enmity was to plunge the colony into crisis.

One of the colonists was murdered only days after disembarking, and subsequent efforts to forestall further attack proved disastrous. In the end, John White left for England to summon help after less than six weeks, and by the time he returned three years later Roanoke Island was deserted. The fate of the 'Lost Colony' has remained a mystery ever since. White never found out what had become of his daughter, Eleanor, or his granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first child of English parents to be born on American soil.

The reconstructed galleon Elizabeth at Roanoke Island Festival Park, a ship similar to the Lion in which the first colonists sailed to Virginia in 1587, though the Lion always remained in deep water beyond the Outer Banks.

Can the Eden that was Roanoke be found today? As regards the exact places that the first colonists inhabited, the answer is almost certainly 'No'. The Outer Banks of North Carolina, of which Roanoke Island now forms a part, are like a delicate chain of long thin beads, possessed of a fragile geology which is in constant flux. The shape, position and topography of the islands has changed substantially in the four hundred years and more since they were first mapped by John White. Hurricanes and the sea have closed some channels and opened up others.

The site of the principal settlement of the Croatan tribe, Croatoan on the island of that name, is thought to be located near present day Buxton on Hatteras Island, though most of the old island of Croatoan now forms part of the island of Ocracoke. The north coast of Roanoke Island has been considerably eroded, and the 'Creeke' to the east of the 'Citie of Ralegh' where the colonists once moored their boats appears to correspond with a submerged sandspit. It is quite possible that the first English city in America now lies under the waters of Pamlico Sound, one reason, perhaps, for the dearth of remains despite numerous archaeological excavations in and around the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. This site, and the Roanoke Island Festival Park, provide excellent displays of the history and lifestyle of the early colonists and the Algonquian Indians whose lands they tried to colonise, but they do not really show Virginia as it was.

The end of the road - a temporary bridge spanning New Inlet on Pea Island, opened up (again) by Hurricane Irene in 2011, just one of many new channels that have formed while others have silted up.

Drive down Highway 12 over Hatteras Island and you'll see dense development of three and four storey clapboard houses on stilts beyond the protected Pea Island Wildlife Refuge, but get off the road where the houses thin out, or take the ferry to Ocracoke Island, and climb over the sand dunes for a view of the ocean with a wild backdrop of white sand and beach grass, a view which must look much the same now as it did in 1587. There are no tall red cedars left, all felled for timber long ago, but the maritime forest of Buxton Woods is a delight, and here, with the smell of the sea in the loblolly pines, or inland in quiet places, such as the swampy backwaters of the Chowan and Roanoke rivers, it's possible to find timeless landscapes that breathe the spirit of the New World as it must have appeared to the first English explorers.

Bald cypress in a Chowan swamp

'It is the goodliest and most pleasing territorie of the world,' wrote Ralph Lane to Richard Hakluyt the elder in 1585, 'for the soile is of a huge unknowen greatnesse,' he added. 'To conclude, if Virginia had but Horses and Kine in some reasonable proportion, I dare assure my selfe being inhabited with English, no realme in Christendome were comparable to it.' Prophetic words. Though the colony at Roanoke was lost, with horses and cattle, America was to be transformed.

Along the Roanoke River
* In Hakluyt's narrative of the two voyages to Virginia made in 1586 first published in The Principal Navigations... of the English Nation in 1589

** Other quotations from the original accounts are as reproduced in The First Colonists: Documents on the Planting of the First Settlements in North America 1584-1590 edited by DB Quinn and AM Quinn

*** All images copyright of Jenny Barden


Jenny Barden's second novel, The Lost Duchess, is an epic Elizabethan adventure-love story set against the backdrop of Raleigh's 'Lost Colony' of Roanoke. It will be released on 7 November and can be pre-ordered from Amazon UK

More about Jenny and her writing can be found on her website:


  1. There'll be a giveaway of 'The Lost Duchess' on this site the week beginning 11 Nov...

  2. It's so sad to hear of the colony disappearing--but native Americans had a great share of trouble from Europeans, too. Not a win-win situation.

  3. The native Algonquian Indians certainly did suffer terribly, Debbie - and ultimately they lost everything to the European invaders. The first Elizabethan colonists thought they were bringing enlightenment and civilization - in a way they did - they also brought devastating diseases, weapons of mass destruction (a modern term but appropriate to the relative power of firearms and artillery) and notions of ownership completely alien to the indigenous people. But those first settlers had ideals of sharing and mutual respect far in advance of the norms of the time. These ideals can be seen in the writings of Harriot and Raleigh and they are echoed in the ideals on which America was founded - and in the spirit of the pioneers that continues to this day. The conflicts that surfaced in that first encounter between settlers and native people are both dramatic and fascinating. We can see extremes of both good and evil - the best and worst of humanity - and the dreadful consequences of misunderstanding. They underpin much of the narrative drive of The Lost Duchess - though it's a classic love story too.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.