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In 1584, Spain dominated the coasts of Central and South America, the Caribbean, and modern day Florida. England, under the rule of Elizabeth I, sought to disrupt and overthrow this control by establishing colonies in the New World. Not only would these colonies help provide a buffer against Spain’s control, but it also helped set up a home base for England’s privateering, which allowed English ships to attack Spanish ships, stealing treasure and gaining control of Spanish trade routes in the region. One of England’s most famous privateers, Sir Walter Raleigh, with the blessing of Queen Elizabeth, sent a reconnaissance expedition to the New World in April, 1584, they arrived in present day North Carolina in July of 1584, and would go on to establish the first English colony in the united States, Roanoke Colony, in 1587. At this site today, Fort Raleigh, named after Sir Walter Raleigh, preserved the history of Roanoke Colony and National Park Ranger Josh Nelson joins us to today to tell us about the Elizabethan history of Raleigh, North Carolina, and to share some of the archaeological finds still there today that you can see from Shakespeare’s lifetime.  

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Josh Nelson is a Park Ranger with National Park Service currently working on Roanoke Island in North Carolina.

Learn more about Josh

Explore Fort Raleigh with a video series

I’ll be asking Josh Nelson about:

  • What potential colony sites did they discover when they arrived? 
  • Was Roanoke originally setup as a military colony and how is that different from a colony like Jamestown, for example?  
  • When they arrived at Roanoke, were they able to make contact with the Carolinian Algonquin, and what was their relationship like? 
  • …and more!

Brief and True Report of the Newfound Land in Virginia by Thomas Hariot

The Secret Token by Andrew Laller

Roanoke the Abandoned Colony by Karen Kupperman

A Kingdom Strange by James Horne

The true and lively portraiture of the honourable and learned Knight Sr. Walter Raleigh | The plate was used as the frontispiece to the third edition of Raleigh’s History of the World in 1617, but was also separately published. | by Simon van de Passe (1595–1647) | Public Domain | Source

Fort Raleigh established at at Roanoke Island

When the first English arrived at Roanoke Island in 1584, they were performing an exploration visit to see what was there and if it would make a good location for a settlement. England was interested in setting up colonies in the New World to compete with the Spanish and other European countries who were already colonizing the area.

The English arriving back on Roanoke island in 1584, there are two small ships and their job is to try and learn if this is a good place to settle and they spent a few weeks in this area. They did find there was a good location on Roanoke. It’s situated behind what we call the Outer Banks, which is a strip of sand bars. That protected Roanoke Island from weather to a certain extent, but also it would protect them from the eyes of the Spanish, At the time England was primary rivals with the Spanish and they were trying to establish the colony before the Spanish knew where they were. Roanoke was good for the reason, and the Roanoke natives were very welcoming the they first arrived and invited the English to build right next to their village. 

Fort Raleigh: Military Colony or Settlement Colony

There were two groups who settled in Roanoke and only the first was a military colony. The second one was made up of men and women, with the intention of setting up a colony that was very similar to Jamestown.

There were actually two colony attempts on Roanoke Island the first one in 1585 was primarily military. There were 600 men coming over to the new World, and they didn’t leave all 600 in the settlement, they left just over 100 and most of those were soldiers., One thing that ties into the park at Fort Raleigh is a workshop, Thomas Hariot and Joaquim Gans…the soldiers were interested in learning about the new place, they had no idea what they could find, and they were looking for materials to export back home o England. Gold and sliver come to mind quickly, but they were also interested in lumber and medicines that might be there. They were set up pretty well to learn about those things. What we see between the Roanoke voyages hare and Jamestown about 20 years later is almost a continuation. Even though Roanoke ended up failing, what they learned helped them down the road when they build Jamestown. Jamestown was different. They did have soldiers, and it was initially all men, but once of the biggest differences is the shift towards the commercial venture is greater at Jamestown than at Roanoke, which was more of a noblemen and indirectly monarchy sponsored colony. 

Map showing the coast of Virginia with many islands just off the mainland, two Native territories, Secotan and Weapemeoc, and the Native community of Roanoak on an island at the mouth of a river. | 1590 Illustration by John White | Public Domain | Source

Fort Raleigh Colonists Relationship with the Alogonquin

There are several native tribes in the area where the English are settling and while some of the relationships are positive, others were more tense. Josh shares that initial contact between the groups was friendly on both sides.

Algonquin is the language these groups are speaking. The Roanoke is one group within this broader umbrella of Carolinian Alqonquin, also interacting with Roanoke, Croatoan (lived on present day Hatteras Island), Weapemeoc (lived north of Roanoke Island on the mainland), and Chawanoac (lived north and west of Roanoke Island). All of these tribes were Algonquian speaking groups and those are the primary ones that they meet. For the most part, the interactions were really positive in the beginning. If you can step back and think about it from the perspective of the Algonquin, they’ve seen the ships and even shipwrecks from the Spanish vessels, for the last almost 100 years, so this wasn’t completely new. This was however the first time they had prolonged contact and they are trying to understand the news comers as much as the English want to understand the area. They are eager to trade with the English and to learn from them. This peace doesn’t last. One really big reason is the illnesses that the English are unintentionally spreading through the native populations. One quote from Thomas Hariot sheds light on the situation:

Powhatan held this state & fashion when Capt. Smith was delivered to him prisoner 1607.” Cropped part of John Smith’s Map of Virginia used in various publications, first in 1612. | 1606 Engraving by William Hole | Public Domain | Source

“There was no town where we had any subtle devise practiced against us. We leaving it unpunished were not reengaged because we fought by all means possible to win them by gentleness. But that within a few days after our departure from every such town, the people began to die very fast, and many in short space; in some towns about twenty, and some towns forty, and some towns sixty, and in one, six score, which in truth was very many with respect to their numbers.” 

–p. 28 of Brief and True Report of the Newfound Land in Virginia by Thomas Hariot 

After they visit, scores of the natives become sick and die. It’s seen by both sides, but they don’t understand what’s happening., It causes distrust with the English, and that’s the root cause of the Roanoke relationship dissolving into war. 

The Lost Colony, design by William Ludwell Sheppard, engraving by William James Linton. This image depicts John White returning to the Roanoke Colony in 1590 to discover the settlement abandoned. A pallisade had been constructed since White’s departure in 1587, and the word “CROATOAN” was found carved near the entrance. White explained to his men that this was a prearranged signal to indicate that the colony had relocated, but was unable to search Croatoan Island for further information. | No known copyright | Source

Funding the voyage and English investors in Fort Raleigh

Saying there’s no love lost between Spain and England at this time is a complete understatement. For the first part of Shakespeare’s lifetime, England is on the cusp of war with Spain in a stark tension and competition. Josh explains that this tense relationship is the backdrop for why England was motivated to try and colonize the New World, because it would give England an advantage against Spain.

In the early parts of the Roanoke voyages, they are just a few years from outright war between Philipp and Elizabeth. That’s the backdrop. Spain has conquered a lot of land in central and south America, extracting resources there. England wants to accomplish similar wealth in a similar way and they want to disrupt Spain’s resources. Roanoke Island is very close to the Gulf Stream, which existed back then as well, and they are using it to take treasure fleets back to Europe. The English want to privateer that shipping route, take those resources, and hurt their enemy. Elizabeth is interested in this happening, but she doesn’t directly say that. She grants a charter to Raleigh, gives him the monopoly on any English settlements in North America and their resources. 

A depiction of the town and fortifications of Plymouth in Devon, from a chart dated 1540. | Johnson, Steve, “Ye Olde Maps of Ye Plymouthe of Ye Merrie Englande” | Unknown author | Public Domain | Source

Unfortunately, the Roanoke colony was not successful and was ultimately a loss for England, which explains why there was relatively little in the way of support for the colonists that had gone there.

From the English perspective, it doesn’t succeed because there’s no permanent settlement, so it becomes a loss in that way for England. The amount of information that was learned from these voyages, it sets England u for success in the future. That’s a long path (the next one wasn’t easily successful, too, and there was also one in Popam in Maine that failed as well) so it wasn’t easy, but it was educational. Example: Copper. The Algonquin prized copper and it was. Status symbol for them. They had copper before th English, but it was a readily available source for them, so they bring copper with them to Jamestown in large part to be their trading with the tribes in that area for their food and their survival in the first two years they were there. 

Related Episode From the Back Catalog

Having been considered lost for centuries, and a huge mystery for historians, our guest Scott Dawson believes he has located the final resting place of the Lost Colony and has uncovered artifacts that suggest they were never lost in the first place.

Governor John White Leaving in 1590

One key figure of Roanoke Colony was the governor, John White. He had children in the colony and when he left in 1590 to return to England in search of supplies and additional support, he was risking his own future as well as the lives of his personal loved ones. That decision helps you understand how dire things must have been for the colonists.

“CRO” written on a tree, part of the Lost Colony performance at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. | Sarah Stierch, 2011 | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. | Source

John White did travel here multiple times, with the military colony, gets promoted to the Lost Colony, the civilian group that arrives in 1587. He only spends a short few weeks there We think a lot of that has to do with the need for more supplies and people, so he was appointed by the colony to be the one to go home. Perhaps they think he’d have the most influence with Raleigh or investors to send more supplies and people. He’s there for just under 5 weeks. When he sails, he’s the last European to have contact with tech loony. He returns later than he expected. He was hoping to be back within a year. They wanted to follow the pattern of leaving in the Spring, arrive in the Summer, and arrive before Hurricane season in later summer/early Fall. It ended up being three years before he returns to Roanoke Island. He reaches the Island and discovers CRO has been carved on a tree. He had arranged with them to carve where they were going and to carve a cross if something had gone wrong or they’d ben attacked The settlement had been enclosed with a wall, and he found “CROATOAN” carved on the wall, but the home sewer taken down. It means they were disassembled and moved to a new location. He knows CROATOAN is an island south of Roanoke, but the ship he travelled on was a privateering ship, whose main mission was not the colony. A storm hits and forces that ship back into the ocean, and the Captain doesn’t return, so Joh nWhite is on his own for less than. Day to search for the lost colony. To this day it’s unclear where they end up.

Building the Pinnace. small pinnace. | 19th century illustration of the colonists on their pinnace ship | Bryant, William Cullen, 1794-1878 Gay, Sydney Howard, 1814-1888 | No known copyright | Source

The Ships of the Roanoke Voyages

The ships that were used to transport the English colonists were relatively small compared to images we have of other large sailing vessels. They were actually ill equipped for the broad Atlantic ocean, but were selected on purpose because they were better than any other vessel at navigating the narrow waterways the colonists knew would wait them on the Eastern Seaboard of North America.

The Pinnace—it’s like a ship’s boat abut it’s very small. It was the smallest vessel that did travel across the Atlantic to get here but it was more substantial than the ones you see in the late 1700s and 1800s. It was 20 tons, so it was the amount of cargo it could hold. It had a crew of 10-12, and quite frankly it’s not anything I’d want to go across the ocean in. It was tenders to the fleet. It was vessels that could go between larger ships, and it was really useful to explore coastal waters, so it was beneficial once they arrived on the coast of North America. THe island there on Roanoke, is surrounded by sound water (mix of salt and fresh water connected to the ocean through inlets, and the water is very shallow—6 or 8ft deep on average. The larger ships couldn’t even come in to Roanoke island. 

The First Colony Foundation conducts an archaeological dig in autumn 2009 at Fort Raleigh National Historical Site, to find artifacts related to the English colonies at Roanoke Island in the 1580s. | November, 2009 | National Park Service Image | Public Domain | Source

Artifacts from the Lost Colony

While much of the story of The Lost Colony is a mystery, there are certain details that are discoverable on Roanoke Island and that archaeologists still today are working to uncover.

Outside the earthen fort is a workshop site, it’s worth noting Thomas Hariot wrote “A brief and sure report of the newfound land in Virginia” his workshop along with the metaller—it was 20 ft by 18 feet, open structure with thatch roof, and probably open on a few sides to allow for the smoke for the smelting. That structure was connected by wooden palisade walls, a very small area, connected to a watch tower they had on site. There’s some evidence of charcoal production and small scale brick production has been discovered. There’s a small workshop, but no site of their houses….[Copper necklace discovered 2008/2009], it was a trade item they brought over with them. It’s a 13 piece necklace. There’s tools discovered and there’s also small items like shards of glass or pottery that shows the story of the work happening there. Because it is an archaeological site and the evidence is underground, it’s a great opportunity to find one of these staff of the park to learn more…

Related Episodes

Here are some recommended episodes from our show that are related to the topic we’re covering this week. If you like today’s conversation, you might enjoy these as well!

Hear some of the history of the interactions of Plymouth Colonists with the Powhatan people, one of the Algonquin speaking tribes traditionally from eastern Virginia.

Andrew Buckley, descended from Stephen Hopkins, shares the story of the man that may have inspired Stephano in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!