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Sir Walter Raleigh and the Lost Colony

This illustration is a detail from a map in the 1590 edition of Thomas Hariot's Briefe and True Account of the New Found Land of Virginia. Photo Credit-
This illustration is a detail from a map in the 1590 edition of Thomas Hariot’s Briefe and True Account of the New Found Land of Virginia. Photo Credit-

Sir Walter Raleigh was riding high as a favorite of Elizabeth I.  He had come to court and smitten the queen with his admiration.  He had first gone to Ireland in 1580 to suppress a rebellion in Munster, and at that time came to the attention of the queen.  She showered him with estates in Ireland and her attention.  He used this attention to further his ambitions.  In 1575, he had traveled with his half brother,explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert, to the New World and it had planted the seed of an idea.  He petitioned the queen to support Gilbert’s cause and continue exploration of the New World.  Spain and Portugal were making millions from their colonies.  He knew the England’s future and fortune lay west.

In 1584, the queen gave him permission to explore North America in her name.  They also wanted a base from which to send privateers to take advantage of the gold ships coming from Spanish settlements.  An expedition sailed from Florida and headed north.  They landed in North Carolina and named it “Virginia” in honor of the Virgin Queen.  The sailors reported the land was fertile and full of natural resources and the natives were friendly.  Raleigh quickly followed this expedition up with another in 1585, this time with the aim of settlement.  Sir Richard Grenville landed on the coast of North Carolina with 108 soldiers.  However, Grenville may not have been the best choice for the leader of the expedition.  He quickly angered the natives by killing an important chief in a fight over a drinking cup.  Grenville high tailed it back to England “for supplies” leaving the settlers alone in a strange and hostile land.  Fortunately for them, Sir Francis Drake sailed by their camp and they got his attention.  He picked them up and took them back to England leaving the settlement abandoned.

Raleigh was undaunted and tried again in 1587.  This time he sent families instead of soldiers to settle.  150 settlers lead by John White landed on Roanoke Island and established a settlement.  They tried to establish positive relations with the native tribes they found there, but there must have still been bad blood.  Colonist George Howe was killed by a native while searching for crabs along the beach.  The colonists were scared.  They begged John White to return to England and plead their case.  They needed help- both man and material.  He agreed and left the 115 people left, including his newly born granddaughter, Virginia Dare, to hang on until he got back.

Sir Walter Raleigh Photo Credit- National Portrait Gallery
Sir Walter Raleigh Photo Credit- National Portrait Gallery

White returned to England, but found the country under the threat of the Spanish Armada.  Everyone was understandably preoccupied with war, and had no interest in the plight of the settlers.  White was not able to get back to Roanoke Island until 1590.  When he returned he found the settlement deserted.  There was no sign of a fight of struggle.  It was as if the settlers had just vanished.  The only clue was the word “CROATOAN” carved into a post of the fence around the village.  White hoped that meant the settlers had moved to Croatoan Island, what is now Hatteras Island.  However, a storm blew up and he was able to search.  They returned to England none the wiser.

Raleigh put his dreams of the New World on hold as shortly after in 1592, he was in hot water of his own.  He had secretly married one of Queen Elizabeth’s maid in waiting, which a serious no no in the Court of the Virgin Queen.  He was thrown in the tower and only released when one his ships had taken a valuable prize, Portuguese carrack “Madre de Dios”.  Mollified by gold, the Queen allowed Raleigh to retire to his estates, but he would be back.

The Lost Colony remained lost until recently.  Two archaeologists in 2015 found evidence of English settlement on Hatteras Island, which supports the theory that is what Croatoan carved on the fence post meant.  Another archaeologist found a map drawn by John White with an “X” on Albemarle Sound, where pottery matching that found at Roanoke Island was found.  Even more tantalizing was the “X” was covered by a patch.  Why would White hide the new settlement?  Even with the new information, the Lost Colony still eludes us.


Sources available on request