Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, Manteo, North Carolina

Roanoke Island has been the scene of historical dramas spanning over three centuries. Algonquians, European settlers, Civil War soldiers, and African Americans have played their parts. Between 1584 and 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh sent three ships across the Atlantic Ocean from England to the New World. These voyages became known as the Roanoke Voyages. During the Civil War, Union troops occupied Roanoke Island, which hosted a colony where the formerly enslaved prepared for life after the war. Radio pioneer Reginald Fessenden transmitted the human voice using wireless technology on Roanoke Island in 1902. Fort Raleigh National Historic Site preserves sites and commemorates the stories connected with these events.

Map circa 1492

The Algonquian Indians inhabited this land long before the white man made it to the island. In 1584 the colonists took the first of three voyages from England to Roanoke Island. They found a land suitable for developing a colony. On the second voyage the men who came developed a friendship with the local Algonquain Indians. This began the first sustained interaction between the Indians and Europeans. 

On May 8, 1587 John White set sail with over 100 men, women and children to the New World. After a stop just off Roanoke Island, the ship's captain refused to take the colonists farther inland to their planned destination, north toward the Chesapeake Bay region, and abandoned them. 

Forced to stay on Roanoke Island, the colonists began to repair the deserted and damaged buildings from the previous settlement and to build new ones. With winter approaching and the planting season over, they were short of food. They also feared attack by the Indians.

The persuaded John White to return to England and bring back supplies. By the time he returned in 1590, John White found that the members of his colony had vanished, including his own family. They thus became known as "The Lost Colony." The only reference he found to them was a word carved on a tree: "CRO" ~ a hint, but not an answer. What happened to them remains a mystery to this day, but the legacy of the efforts of these brave men and women lives on.

Most of the colonists were recruited by John White from parishes around London. Living in crowded, dirty conditions with little possibility of improvement, middle and working class young men and women were attracted to the opportunities White promised. They agreed to leave behind families and friends that they might never see again. In exchange, they would be able to own land, worship freely, hunt, fish, and make a life White described as a beautiful land, full of abundance. Of the 17 women on the voyage, most joined husbands, along with nine boys, the youngest only 3 or 4 years old. White also brought members of his own family, including his pregnant daughter and her husband.

Over 400 years later, we still do not know what happened to the colonists. There is proof they were once here on Roanoke Island, but little evidence of what happened to them after John White left in 1587. Historians, scientists, and interested amateurs have pursued this mystery. They have examined written accounts, maps from the 1500s, archeological evidence, scientific evidence, and popular lore. 

Three basic theories have emerged as to why the colonists were not on Roanoke Island when White returned: they died of natural causes, they were attacked, or they left voluntarily. The colony's fate has intrigued scholars, artists and writers for centuries. The story of their disappearance is one of America's greatest unsolved mysteries. Fueled by this fascination, people have penned plays, built statutes, and found countless ways to honor the memory of America's first English colonists.

Map of the World 1587

Map of the World 1587
This map illustrates the theory that there was a water route, known as the Northwest Passage, across the northern reaches of the American landmass. Belief that this passage would permit commercial sea travel and trade with the Far East motivated much of European exploration of the area. A few ships eventually made it through the treacherous waters after 1903, but it is only with the current melting of the Arctic ice that it has become truly navigable. 

Sir Walter Raleigh
Voyage One: 1584 ~ Reconnaissance. Sir Walter Raleigh's first voyage was to find a suitable place for settlement and to counter Spanish domination in the New World. In July, Raleigh's two vessels arrived off the North Carolina coast, where captains Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe soon established relations with the Algonquians on Roanoke Island. The natives made the English feel welcome, trading and dining with them and teaching them much about the lands and other tribes in the area. After several weeks the English departed, taking with them two Algonquians, Manteo and Wanchese.

Voyage Two: 1585 ~ Military Outpost. In the spring, Raleigh dispatched seven ships carrying some 600 people to Roanoke Island, the land he named "Virginia." This company hoped to occupy land for England, find precious metals, and establish a home base from which to raid Spanish ships. After his soldiers help build an earthen fort, Sir Richard Grenville departed for England, Ralph Lane was left in command of 107 soldiers and colonists. Artist John White documented the Algonquians which provided Europe its first view of this native culture. However, the colonists increasingly depended on the Indians for food; Indians began to die from European diseases, and suspecting a conspiracy to rid the island of the English, Lane killed the Algonquian Chief. When Grenville failed to return with supplies by the expected time and Sir Francis Drake's raiding fleet stopped near Roanoke island, the colonists accepted Drake's offer to take them home. When Grenville later arrived to find the colonists gone, he left 15 men to maintain England's tenuous foothold in America.

Voyage three: 1587 ~ Cittie of Raleigh. The goal of this voyage was a true colony with women and children among the settlers. This "Cittie of Raleigh" was led by John White, and planned on settling on the Chesapeake Bay. In July, after the colonists stopped on Roanoke Island on a futile search for the 15 men left behind, White's pilot refused to take them any farther. Their only course was to repair the fort and dwellings left by the 1585 colonists. Troubles quickly mounted. Remembering their earlier treatment, some Indians killed a colonist while he was crabbing. Colonists then attacked a nearby Indian village, killing a villager before realizing it was a friendly group. With the situation deteriorating and food low, White returned to England for relief. The colonists promised that if they left Roanoke Island while he was away, they would carve their destination on a tree. White did not return until 1590. The colonists were gone with only letters CROATOAN carved into a post and CRO carved into a tree. When White tried to reach Croatoan Island, now Hatteras Island, a hurricane forced the ships' return to England. The fate of the colonists remains a mystery.

Elenora, daughter of John White, and wife to Ananias Dare, was delivered of a daughter in Roanoke, and because this child was the first Christian borne in Virginia, she was named Virginia. ~~ From the narratives of Gov. John White, on the birth of his granddaughter, August 18, 1587.

A year after the Civil War began, Roanoke Island fell to Union forces. Word spread through North Carolina that slaves could find "safe haven" on the island. By the end of 1862, over a thousand runaway slaves, freed men, women and children found sanctuary here. This colony, precursor to the Freedman's Bureau, was to serve as a model for other colonies throughout the South. Once again this small island, site of the first English attempt at permanent settlement in the New World, became a land of historic beginnings.

The Freedman's Colony encompassed unoccupied, unimproved lands from Manteo (Roanoke Island) to the north and west shores, including some of the land today known as Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. A sawmill, hospital, a school with black female teachers and homes were established. Able-bodied men were offered rations and employment to build a new fort. They also enlisted to form the First and Second North Carolina Colored Regiments. The colony could not remain self-supporting without men and became a refuge for 3,000 women, children, aged and infirmed.

Upon the war's end, the federal government discontinued rations and supplies to colonists and returned land to original owners. Reminiscent of early English efforts, the Roanoke Island's Freedmen's Colony was abandoned by 1867. Many freed people remained, and their descendants would become respected local residents. Others settled in communities throughout the region and would become an integral part of eastern North Carolina culture.

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