The Lost Colony — England’s First Colony in North America on Roanoke Island

1585–1590

Roanoke Colony was the first English colony established in the New World. The colony was located on Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina. The colony was started in 1587, but disappeared by 1590, almost exactly three years later. The mystery of the "Lost Colony" remains one of the most intriguing legends in American history.

Sir Walter Raleigh, Portrait, 1590

Sir Walter Raleigh. Image Source: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

What was the Lost Colony on Roanoke Island?

The Roanoke Colony — often referred to as the “Lost Colony” — was an English settlement that was established in 1587 in present-day Dare County, North Carolina, with financial backing from Sir Walter Raleigh. Roanoke was the first English colony in North America, and the colonists were able to successfully build homes and plant crops. Governor John White sailed to England to secure additional supplies for the Roanoke Colony.

Unfortunately, White’s return voyage was delayed until 1590. When he arrived, the colonists were gone and he found cryptic messages carved into a tree and the fort. White conducted a brief search for the missing colonists but was forced to abandon it due to harsh weather conditions. He returned to England and the fate of the colonists remains unknown.

17 years later, Jamestown was established, north of Roanoke, and became the first permanent English settlement in North America. The mystery of the Lost Colony continues to be one of the most intriguing stories in American history.

Lost Colony, Roanoke Island, Croatoan Carving
This illustration depicts John White finding the word “Croatoan” carved into a tree in 1590. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Lost Colony of Roanoke Facts

  1. The Roanoke Colony was the first English settlement in the New World.
  2. It was first established in 1586 on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what would become the North Carolina Colony, by Sir Richard Grenville and Governor Ralph Lane.
  3. The first colony was abandoned in 1586 due to conflicts with Native American Indians and a lack of food.
  4. The first colonists were taken back to England by the privateer Sir Francis Drank and his fleet of ships.
  5. A second set of colonists, led by John White, sailed to Roanoke Island in 1586.
  6. White returned to England in 1587 for supplies and his return was delayed by England’s war with Spain.
  7. When White returned to Roanoke Island in 1590, he found the colony deserted with the word “Croatoan” carved into a tree. He tried to find the colonists, but a storm blew his ships out to sea and they were never heard from again.
  8. The disappearance of the Roanoke Colony is one of America’s oldest unsolved mysteries.
  9. There have been various theories about what happened to the colonists, including that they were killed by Native Americans, that they attempted to sail back to England and got lost at sea, or that they were absorbed into a friendly tribe.
  10. Some historians speculate the members of the Lost Colony were Separatists who sought religious freedom in the New World.

Roanoke History

Sir Walter Raleigh — Founder of the Lost Colony

The Roanoke Colony was funded by Sir Walter Raleigh, an English explorer, soldier, and writer, who was granted “Letters Patent” — written permission — by Queen Elizabeth I to establish a colony in the New World. Raleigh was given permission to build a settlement on any land that was “not actually possessed of any Christian Prince or inhabited by Christian People.”

At the time, there were several other attempts by European nations to establish settlements in the New World. The Spanish established colonies in Florida and the Southwest, while the French established settlements in Canada and the Great Lakes region. 

Queen Elizabeth I. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Spain and France also explored the middle region of the Atlantic Coast, around the Chesapeake Bay, but failed to claim any territory as their own. In 1524, Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano passed by the area while he explored for France and King Francis I. The same year, Pedro de Quejo explored the Chesapeake Bay on behalf of Spain. Another Spanish expedition visited in 1566.

Although the region was claimed by Spain, no nation showed significant interest until Raleigh decided to establish a colony there. Raleigh was supported by prominent Englishmen, such as cousins Richard Hakluyt the Elder and Richard Hakluyt the Younger, who argued England needed to colonize the area.

At the time, colonies that provided natural resources were a key part of the Mercantile System, and England needed to add colonies in order to compete with the other European powers. Further, colonies in the New World would inhibit Spain’s ability to expand further in North America and could be used as bases to attack Spanish ships.

In 1578, Raleigh’s cousin, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, received a grant from Queen Elizabeth to explore North America and claim land for England. Gilbert assembled a small fleet and sailed toward Africa. Raleigh was part of the expedition. Unfortunately, the ships were forced to return to England by harsh weather.

Two years later, in 1580, Gilbert organized another expedition. He hired a known pirate, Simon Fernandes, to lead the expedition to explore the Atlantic Coast, including present-day New England and the Mid-Atlantic.

Gilbert led another expedition in June 1583 that explored present-day Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island. However, Gilbert was killed during a storm. By then, Raleigh was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I and determined to fulfill Gilbert’s plans for glory in the New World.

Armadas and Barlowe Expedition of 1584

In 1584, Raleigh sent an expedition, led by two men — Captain Philip Armadas and Master Arthur Barlowe — to find a place to establish a colony in the Chesapeake Bay. There were two ships in the expedition. The flagship was commanded by Armadas and piloted by Fernandes. Barlowe commanded the second ship.

The ships sailed from Plymouth, England on April 27, 1784, and sighted land on July 4. They sailed north to present-day Oregon Inlet where they landed on July 13 and claimed the land in the name of Queen Elizabeth I, calling it “Wingandacon.” When they returned to England, the area was given the name “Virginia” in honor of England’s “virgin queen.”

During their explorations, they encountered local Algonquian Indians from the Croatoan and Roanoke tribes. According to the English accounts, the expedition was on friendly terms with the Indians and successfully traded with them. However, those accounts may have been embellished to convince people to emigrate to Virginia.

The Roanokes were led by Wingina and lived in various towns, including Secotan and Dasemunkepeuc, which were on the mainland. There was also a Roanoke village on the north end of  Roanoke Island. The Croatoans lived on Croatoan Island, about 50 miles south of Roanoke Island. 

When the expedition returned to England, two Indians — Manteo of the Croatoan Tribe and Wanchese of the Roanoke Tribe — went with them. They lived in a mansion on the Thames River and taught their language to Thomas Harriot.

Armadas and Barlowe suggested to Raleigh that Roanoke Island was a suitable location for the first English colony in the New World. They believed the location of the island — between the mainland and the Outer Banks — made it a well-protected site. Roanoke was approximately 10 miles long, 2 and a half miles, wide, and the lone inhabitants were Indians who were friendly to the English.

Barlowe also described the land on the island as rich with “…soil is the most plentiful, sweet, fruitful, and wholesome of all the world.”

Hakluyt the Younger wrote a pamphlet called Discourse on Western Planting that supported the establishment of a colony in Virginia and Raleigh gained support for the idea from Parliament. Queen Elizabeth was also pleased with Raleigh and knighted him on January 6, 1585. She also bestowed on him the title of “Lord and Governor of Virginia.”

The Grenville Expedition — Raleigh’s First Attempt to Establish the Roanoke Colony

Raleigh organized a second expedition to Roanoke Island. It was a military expedition led by Sir Richard Grenville — Raleigh’s cousin — and Ralph Lane. As before, Simon Fernándes was the pilot for the flagship. The purpose of the expedition was to establish a military colony on Roanoke Island that would serve as a base to launch attacks on Spanish ships and also search for gold and other valuable resources.

Manteo and Wanchese returned to Virginia with the expedition, which consisted of 600 men, half of them soldiers, and seven ships. The expedition set sail on April 9, 1585, and the voyage was plagued by severe weather that separated the ships. However, five of them were all able to reach Ocracoke Island on June 26, 8 miles southwest of Roanoke Island.

Key members of the expedition were:

  • Thomas Harriot — A scientist and mathemetician hired by Raleigh to study the Indians, plants, and animals.
  • John White — An artist hired by Raleigh to draw maps and paint pictures of what he saw.

At first, the colonists settled on Ocracoke but one of the ships carrying supplies ran aground and was damaged. A significant amount of the supplies were lost in the accident. 

Grenville led two scouting expeditions to explore the region.

The first set out on July 3 and traveled to Roanoke Island where they met with Wingina. Around the same time, Wanchese left the English camp, traveled to Dasemunkepeuc, and warned the Indians living there the English posed a threat to them.

Grenville’s second expedition started on July 11. He traveled to the mainland with 60 men, including Manteo, and visited several villages. One of the villages he visited was Pomeiooc, which was where Piemacum, Wingina’s rival lived. While visiting the villages, White made detailed drawings of what he saw.

Unfortunately, during their visit to the village of Aquascogoc, the English accused the Indians of stealing a valuable cup. Grenville responded by sending Philip Armadas and some men back to the village, which they burned to the ground.

Despite the hostilities, the chief of the village Dasemunkepeuc, Granganimeo, met with Grenville and Manteo on July 21. During the meeting, Granganimeo gave the English permission to settle on the northern end of Roanoke Island. 

On August 17, Lane and around 107 colonists disembarked on Roanoke Island where they built Fort Raleigh, some small houses, and a metal-working shop. Grenville returned to England with the rest of the men and for supplies. He told the colonists he would return in April 1586. It was too late in the year to plant crops, and the English living on Roanoke Island were dependent on trading with the Indians for food.

Lost Colony, Roanoke Island, Fort Raleigh
This illustration depicts Fort Raleigh. Image Source: Wikipedia.

After Grenville left, Lane organized two scouting expeditions to explore the area. Harriott and White were involved in the expeditions, which they documented in various ways, including the first watercolor illustrations of Indian culture.

The first expedition was carried out in the fall. It mapped the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and visited the Chesapeake Tribe at the village of Skicoak.

The second expedition was in the spring of 1586 and explored the Chowan River and Roanoke River. During the expedition, Indians told the English about copper mines that were further inland and hinted there was also gold. 

Lane was a strict disciplinarian and kept tight control over the colony — he even built a jail. His approach was unpopular with the colonists and also created tension with the Indians. Over the fall and winter, the relationship with the Indians deteriorated and hostilities broke out between the English and the Roanokes. Around the same time, smallpox spread through the Indians, which reduced their population. 

April came and went and Grenville did not return. Food was scarce. According to Lane’s account of events, Wingina, also known as Pemisapan, decided to disrupt the food supply as part of a scheme to eliminate the English. He intended to force the English to forage for food, which would expose them to attacks from his men. 

Soon after, Lane was warned about Wingina’s plan and the English attacked Dasemunkepeuc on June 1. Wingina fled into the forest where one of the colonists, Edward Nugent, caught him and killed him.

On June 8, Sir Francis Drake arrived at the island with his fleet of ships. Drake was in the area because he was on a raiding mission against Spanish ships. Lane decided to evacuate Roanoke Island and move to another location. He asked Drake if he could help move the colonists, and Drake agreed to transport them off the island to a new location on the mainland.

Sir Francis Drake, Portrait, Gheeraerts
Sir Francis Drake. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, a hurricane blew in and forced them to change their plans. Lane decided to abandon the New World and Drake offered to transport him and the colonists back to England — which they accepted. For a second time, Manteo left the New World and traveled to England.

England’s first colony in the New World was abandoned, and Drake’s fleet arrived at Portsmouth, England on July 28. Lane met with Raleigh and told him about the possibilities of copper and gold mines. He also suggested a settlement on the Chesapeake Bay, instead of Roanoke Island, would be a better location.

Grenville’s Supply Fleet Arrives

Roughly two weeks after Drake left the island, ships loaded with supplies for the Roanoke Island Colony arrived. Finding the settlement abandoned, the ships left. In July, Grenville and two supply ships arrived. Seeing the fort abandoned, he left 15 men at Fort Raleigh to guard the settlement and the provisions and returned to England.

Accounts of Early Expeditions to Roanoke Island

Barlow wrote a report of the first expedition for Raleigh, which was published in 1589 by Richard Hakluyt in Principall Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation. Barlow’s report is called The First Voyage to Roanoke, 1584.

Lane’s account of the journey — The Account of Ralph Lane — was also part of Hakluyt’s book.

The work of Harriot and White was published in A Briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia.

Roanoke Colony Location

Roanoke Island, Lost Colony, Map, John White
This map by John White shows the location of Roanoke Island. Image Source: Wikipedia.

John White Establishes the Lost Colony on Roanoke Island

Raleigh organized a third expedition, this time with John White as Governor. Instead of a military expedition, Raleigh decided to take a new approach by sending civilians — men, women, and families — instead of soldiers.

There were 117 colonists in the expedition, including White’s daughter, Eleanor Dare, and her husband Ananias Dare. Manteo, the Croatoan chief, was also on the journey. As with the Armadas and Barlow Expedition, Simon Fernandes served as the pilot of the flagship. Manteo returned to Virginia as well.

White intended to return to Roanoke Island, find the 15 men left behind by Grenville, and then build “the Citie of Raleigh” at another location in the Chesapeake Bay area. When the expedition set sail on April 26, 1587, Eleanor Dare was pregnant.

White’s expedition arrived at Roanoke Island on July 16, however, the 15 men were gone. All that was left behind was a human skeleton at Fort Raleigh. As hurricane season approached, Fernándes decided it was necessary for the ships to leave. However, White accused him of abandoning the colonists so he could return to privateering activities.

The colonists unloaded their supplies and belongings on Roanoke Island and moved inside the walls of Fort Raleigh. White met with Manteo and learned the garrison at Fort Raleigh had been killed by hostile Indians. Unfortunately, tensions with the Indians increased when one of the colonists, George Howe, was killed by members of the Roanoke Tribe.

White decided to retaliate and Manteo led an expedition to attack a Roanoke village on the morning of August 8. However, it was actually a Croatoan village and the English had mistakenly attacked their allies. In the attack, the village chief, Menatonon, was killed.

Five days later, on August 13, Manteo was baptized as a member of the Church of England and was named “Lord of Roanoke and Dasemunkepeuc.”

On August 18, Eleanor Dare gave birth to her daughter, Virginia — the first English child born in the New World.

Last Colony, Roanoke Island, Virginia Dare Baptism
This illustration depicts the baptism of Virginia Dare. Image Source: Wikipedia.

As tension increased with the Indians and supplies dwindled, the colonists voted to have Lane return to England for help and supplies. Lane had them put their request in writing. By then Fernandes and his men had unloaded what was left on the ships and were ready to sail back to England.

On August 27, the fleet set sail for England. White intended to return to Roanoke Island as soon as possible. When he sailed away, it was the last time he saw the colonists, and no one recorded hearing from them again.

White Delayed in England

White arrived in England on November 8, 1857 — at a time when the Anglo-Spanish War was intensifying. Before his arrival, Queen Elizabeth I ordered all ships that could be used for combat to help defend England against the threat of an attack by the Spanish Armada. Nearly all ships in England were commandeered per the Queen’s order.

In 1588, Raleigh and White found two ships that could not be sued by the English Navy that could take White back to Roanoke. After they left England, they were attacked by French pirates who took the weapons, ammunition, and supplies. White was forced to return to England.

White Returns to Roanoke Island

In August 1588, the Spanish Armada was battered, defeated, and retreated to Spain. Ships were released and White returned to Roanoke Island. He arrived on August 18, 1680 — the third birthday of his granddaughter, Virginia Dare.

When he arrived, he found no trace of the colonists at Fort Raleigh. What he did find was cryptic and unclear. The word “CROATAN” was carved into a tree, and the letters “CRO” were carved into a post at the fort. To White, it indicated the colonists had moved from Roanoke to Croatoan Island, which was 50 miles south, and the home of Manteo and his tribe.

According to some accounts, before White left, the colonists agreed that if they left the island before he returned they would carve the name of the location into a tree. They also agreed to carve a cross above the name of the location, which would indicate they were in trouble. As there was no cross above the name and letters, White apparently assumed they had safely left Roanoke Island and moved to Croatoan Island.

White’s fleet set sail for Croatoan Island, but a violent storm blew the ships out to sea. White was forced to abandon the search and returned to England.

Raleigh Abandons Roanoke Island

In 1602, Raleigh sent his last expedition to Roanoke Island. It was led by Samuel Mace and the purpose was to find the lost colonists. Mace was unable to find any information and returned to England in September. With that, Raleigh’s effort to establish a colony on Roanoke Island ended. However, 5 years later the first permanent English colony in North America was successfully established at Jamestown, Virginia, north of Roanoke Island.

Theories About What Happened to the Roanoke Colony

Investigations into the fate of the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke have continued over time, but no one has come up with a satisfactory answer. Theories range from the colonists being killed by Indians to being absorbed into local tribes.

  1. The colonists were killed or abducted by the Croatoan Tribe.
  2. They tried to sail back to England on their own and were lost at sea.
  3. Spanish explorers from Florida found them and killed them.
  4. The colonists moved further inland and were absorbed into a friendly Indian tribe.
  5. They died from disease or starvation.

Lost Colony of Roanoke Island Significance

The Lost Colony of Roanoke is important to United States history because it was the first attempt by England to establish a permanent colony in North America. The mysterious disappearance of the colonists remains one of the great unsolved mysteries in American history. However, England continued to try to establish colonies in the New World and was eventually successful with Jamestown and Plymouth.

Lost Colony Frequently Asked Questions

Who funded the Roanoke Colony?

The Roanoke Colony was funded by Sir Walter Raleigh, an English explorer, soldier, and writer, who was granted a charter by Queen Elizabeth I to explore and colonize North America. Raleigh was not the sole investor, but he was the driving force behind the expeditions.

What did John White find when he returned to Roanoke Island in 1590?

When John White returned to Roanoke Island in 1590, he found that the colony he had left behind three years earlier had disappeared. There was no trace of the colonists or their possessions, except for the word “CROATOAN” carved into a tree and the letters “CRO” carved into a post. The disappearance of the Roanoke colonists remains one of America’s oldest unsolved mysteries.

What was the significance of the birth of Virginia Dare in the Roanoke Colony?

The birth of Virginia Dare in the Roanoke Colony in 1587 was significant because she was the first English child born in the New World. She was the granddaughter of John White, the governor of the colony, and her parents were Eleanor and Ananias Dare. The naming of Virginia after the “virgin queen” Elizabeth I and the settlement after the queen’s name “Virginia” played an important role in the promotion of colonization of the New World.

What is the significance of the “Croatoan” inscription found on Roanoke Island?

The “Croatoan” inscription found on Roanoke Island is significant because it is one of the few clues left behind by the colonists of the Lost Colony. The inscription was carved on a wooden post or a tree and was the only sign left behind by the colonists. Theories abound about what the word might mean, but the most likely explanation is it refers to nearby Croatoan Island, which was inhabited by Indians of the same name. The inscription may have been intended as a message to John White, who was the governor of the colony, indicating where the colonists had gone. However, White was unable to verify this theory because he was unable to sail to Croatoan Island due to a storm that blew his fleet of ships far out to sea, forcing him to return to England.

Roanoke Island APUSH Review, Notes, and Terms

Use the following links and videos to study the Roanoke Colony, the Middle Colonies, and the 13 Original Colonies for the AP US History Exam.  Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Roanoke Island APUSH Definition

The definition of Roanoke Colony for APUSH is the first English Colony in North America. It was established on Roanoke Island off the coast of present-day North Carolina in 1587. The first attempt at colonization in 1585 was unsuccessful, but the second attempt in 1587 led by John White resulted in the birth of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas, and the start of a settlement. However, when White returned to England for supplies, he was delayed by the Spanish Armada and did not return until 1590, only to find that the colony had disappeared, leaving no trace except for the word “Croatoan” carved into a tree. The fate of the “Lost Colony” remains a mystery.

Roanoke Island Video for APUSH Review and NOtes

This video from the History Channel provides an overview of the Lost Colony.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Lost Colony — England’s First Colony in North America on Roanoke Island
  • Date 1585–1590
  • Author
  • Keywords Roanoke Island, Lost Colony, Sir Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth I, Roanoke Island APUSH, Who was the Leader of Roanoke Colony, What happened to Roanoke Colony, Where is Roanoke, Why is the Lost Colony of Roanoke Important, How did the English Colony on Roanoke Island End
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 16, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 7, 2024

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