Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

The Lost Colony of Roanoke

In the year 1584 two wandering vessels, like the caravels of Columbus a century earlier, found themselves in the vicinity of a new land; not, as in the case of Columbus, by seeing twigs and fruit floating on the water, but in the more poetical way of being visited, while far at sea, by a sweet fragrance, as of a delicious garden full of perfumed flowers. A garden it was, planted not by the hand of man, but by that of nature, on the North Carolinian shores. For this was the first expedition sent out by Sir. Walter Raleigh, the earliest of Englishmen to attempt to settle the new-discovered continent, and it was at that season as truly a land of flowers as the more southern Florida.

The ships soon reached shore at a beautiful island called by the Indians Wocokon, where the mariners gazed with wonder and delight on the scene that lay before them. Wild flowers, whose perfume had reached their senses while still two days' sail from land, thickly carpeted the soil, and grapes grew so plentifully that the ocean waves, as they broke upon the strand, dashed their spray upon the thick-growing clusters. "The forests formed themselves into wonderfully beautiful bowers, frequented by multitudes of birds. It was like a Garden of Eden, and the gentle, friendly inhabitants appeared in unison with the scene. On the island of Roanoke they were received by the wife of the king, and entertained with Arcadian hospitality."

When these vessels returned to England and the mariners told of what they had seen, the people were filled with enthusiasm. Queen Elizabeth was so delighted with what was said of the beauty of the country that she gave it the name of Virginia, in honor of herself as a virgin queen. The next year a larger expedition was sent out, carrying one hundred and fifty colonists, who were to form the vanguard of the British dominion in the New World.

They found the land all they had been told. Ralph Lane, the governor, wrote home: "It is the goodliest soil under the cope of heaven; the most pleasing territory in the world; the continent is of a huge and unknown greatness, and very well peopled and towned, though savagely. The climate is so wholesome that we have none sick. If Virginia had but horses and kine, and were inhabited by Englishmen, no realm in Christendom were comparable with it."

But they did not find the natives so kindly disposed as in the year before, and no wonder; for the first thing the English did after landing on Roanoke Island was to accuse the Indians of stealing a silver cup, for which they took revenge by burning a village and destroying the standing corn. Whether this method was copied from the Spaniards or not, it proved a most unwise one, for at once the colonists found themselves surrounded by warlike foes, instead of in intercourse with confiding friends.

The English colonists had the same fault as those of Spain. The stories of the wonderful wealth of Mexico and Peru had spread far and wide over Europe, and the thirst for gold was in all hearts. Instead of planting grain and building homes, the newcomers sought the yellow evil far and wide, almost as if they expected the soil to be paved with it. The Indians were eagerly questioned and their wildest stories believed. As the natives of Porto Rico had invented a magic fountain to rid themselves of Ponce de Leon and his countrymen, so those of Roanoke told marvellous fables to lure away the unwelcome English. The Roanoke River, they said, gushed forth from a rock so near the western ocean that in storms the salt sea-water was hurled into the fresh-water stream. Far away on its banks there dwelt a nation rich in gold, and inhabiting a city the walls of which glittered with precious pearls.

Lane himself, whom we may trust to have been an educated man, accepted these tales of marvel as readily as the most ignorant of his people. In truth, he had much warrant for it in the experience of the Spaniards. Taking a party of the colonists, he ascended the river in search of the golden region. On and on they went, finding nothing but the unending forest, hearing nothing but cries of wild beasts and the Indian war cries, but drawn onward still by hope until their food ran out and bitter famine assailed them. Then, after being forced to kill their dogs for food, they came back again, much to the disappointment of the Indians, who fancied they were well rid of their troublesome guests.

As the settlers were not to be disposed of by fairy-stories of cities of gold, the natives now tried another plan. They resolved to plant no more corn, so that the English must either go away or starve. Lane made matters worse by a piece of foolish and useless cruelty. Wisdom should have taught him to plant corn himself. But what he did was to invite the Indians to a conference, and then to attack them, sword in hand, and kill the chief, with many braves of the tribe. He might have expected what followed. The furious natives at once cut off all supplies from the colonists, and they would have died of hunger if Sir Francis Drake, in one of his expeditions, had not just then appeared with a large fleet.

Here ended the first attempt to plant an English colony in America. Drake, finding the people in a desperate state, took them in his ships and sailed with them for England. Hardly had they gone before other ships came and the missing colonists were sought for in vain. Then fifteen men were left on the island to hold it for England, and the ships returned.

In 1587 Raleigh's last colony reached Roanoke Island. This time he took care to send farmers instead of gold-seekers, and sent with them a supply of farming tools. But it was not encouraging when they looked for the fifteen men left the year before to find only some of their bones, while their fort was a ruin and their deserted dwellings overgrown with vines. The Indians had taken revenge on their oppressors. One event of interest took place before the ship returned, the birth of the first English child born in America. In honor of the name which the queen had given the land, this little waif was called Virginia Dare.

Now we come to the story of the mysterious fate of this second English colony. When the ships which had borne it to Roanoke went back to England they found that island in an excited state. The great Spanish Armada was being prepared to invade and conquer Elizabeth's realm, and hasty preparations were making to defend the British soil. The fate of the Armada is well known. England triumphed. But several years passed before Raleigh, who was now deep laden with debt, was able to send out a vessel to the relief of his abandoned colonists.

When the people sent by him landed on the island, they looked around them in dismay. Here were no happy homes, no smiling fields, no bustling colonists. The island was deserted. What had become of the inhabitants was not easy to guess. Not even their bones had been left, as in the case of the hapless fifteen, though many relics of their dwelling-places were found. The only indications of their fate was the single word "Croatan" cut into to the bark of a tree. Croatan was the name of an island not far from that on which they were, but it was the stormy season of the year, and John White, the captain, made this an excuse for not venturing there. So he sailed again for home with only the story of a vanished colony.

From that time to this the fate of the colony has been a mystery. No trace of any of its members was ever found. If they had made their way to Croatan, they were never seen there. Five times the noble-hearted Raleigh sent out ships to search for them, but all in vain; they had gone past finding; the forest land had swallowed them up.

It has been conjectured that they had mingled with a friendly tribe of Indians and become children of the forest like their hosts. Some tradition of this kind remained among the Indians, and it has been fancied that the Hatteras Indians showed traces of English blood. But all this is conjecture, and the fate of the lost colonists of Roanoke must remain forever unknown.