Croatoan & the Mystery of Roanoke
Though the English government officially declared the colony of Roanoke “lost” in 1597, no official explanation as to the fate of the colonists has ever been accepted. However, the facts surrounding the establishment of this ill-fated settlement and its relations with neighboring Indian tribes may shed some light on this somewhat perplexing mystery. The only clue as to the whereabouts of the colony was the word CROATOAN, which was carved in large ominous letters on a tree in the center of the abandoned settlement. But, what did it mean? Was this message intended to inform Governor John White as to the colony’s destination after abandoning the settlement? If so, did they go of their of their own free will, or were they forced to retreat—and if this was the case, by whom? This article will explore both the changing historical interpretation of the events surrounding the colony’s disappearance and the external relations between the colonists and their Indian neighbors. Here are the facts of the case as history and subsequent investigation have revealed.
Roanoke was a dream given form; the vision of one man dedicated to establishing a permanent English presence in North America. Sir Walter Raleigh inherited the project of a permanent settlement in the region from his elder half-brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert. Sir Humphrey perished in an attempt to reconnoiter the territory pursuant to a royal commission. Raleigh saw the continent as an opportunity for England to expand its scope and cement its place in world history. Having already gained experience at establishing an English presence in Ireland, through brutal and almost genocidal military tactics, Raleigh pursued his American campaign with the same amount of vigor. As Raleigh was a rising star in the court of England’s Queen Elizabeth, he was well placed to accomplish their goal. In 1584, Raleigh commissioned an expedition to the coastal region of North America for the express purpose of scouting possible locations for a temporary settlement. Arriving along the coast of North Carolina in July of that year, the explorers Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe encountered a friendly tribe whom the named from the island that they had landed on, Roanoke. This would be their first encounter with the native culture of America. Welcomed ashore by these people, Amadas and Barlowe reported that the region was not only aesthetically pleasing but also ripe for a permanent settlement.
In April of 1585, Raleigh dispatched seven ships containing 100 colonists to establish a settlement in this same region. Another veteran of the Irish campaign, Ralph Lane, was appointed governor of the first Roanoke settlement. This would be the first of a series of mistakes that would endanger colonization efforts and damage relations with Native American nations. Lane’s idea of diplomatic relations with the Indian nation that had given the settlers succor was to abduct the son of Chief Menatonon and hold him as a hostage. The purpose of this overtly hostile action was to obtain information from the chief about the defensive capabilities of the surrounding Indian nations. This action only served to alienate the tribe and force the settlers to depend on the fruits of their own labors. This enmity would fester and prove a hindrance to the peaceful establishment of the second colony. Within months, the first Roanoke colony was in disarray and the settlers were near starving. They would have perished had not Sir Francis Drake and his fleet arrived in the spring of 1586. Though Drake had hoped to use Roanoke as a base of operations for future efforts against the Spanish presence in North America, he was instead forced to ferry the defunct colony back to England. Sir Walter Raleigh, however, was not dismayed.
This time Raleigh chose a man with little military experience to head up his expedition. John White, an artist whom Raleigh respected, was chosen to be the governor of the second expedition. In addition to the choice of a less authoritarian leader, Raleigh also invited colonists who were well versed in farming techniques as opposed to the less agrarian soldiers who populated the first colony. Everything seemed to be in order and the colony seemed destined for success. However, something went terribly wrong.
In May of 1587, 117 men, women, and children set sail from Plymouth, England for what was then a relatively unexplored and harsh realm. They were sailing into the unknown, but they faced their task with a sense of bold curiosity. Though their intended destination was actually the Chesapeake Bay area, the colonists were forced to disembark on the same site of the failed Roanoke colony. Simon Fernandez, the captain of the colonial transport vessel, informed the governor that the North Carolina coastal region was a more hospitable location for the colony. To Governor White, however, this decision was brought on by Fernandez’s avarice and his desire to join in privateering efforts against the Spanish. Whatever his reasons, Fernandez brought the colonists to Roanoke.
The efforts to rebuild the dilapidated English fort began almost as soon as the party disembarked. Governor White began preparing his report on the progress of the colony and efforts were made to establish a dialogue with the neighboring Indian nations. Unfortunately, the Roanoke tribe was in no mood to sit down with the colonial administration, having experienced the aggression of Governor Lane just two years before. Undaunted, Governor White sent out a message of peace to the neighboring Indian settlements. This effort bore fruit in the establishment of friendly relations with a nation known as Croatoan—located on an island just south of Roanoke colony.
The Croatoan (also referred to as Pamlico) were an Algonquian people who populated the islands on the outer banks of North Carolina—just south of Roanoke. An emissary sent from the colony to the Croatoan nation generated positive relations between the two distinctly different groups of people. Although this was good sign, it was still altogether necessary for the governor to return to England in search of supplies and a possible relief effort should evacuation become a necessity. Governor White left Roanoke in August of 1587 with hopes of returning within a few months. Before leaving his post, the governor instructed the colonists to leave him a sign should they feel the need to remove themselves from the region under any circumstance. He instructed them to place a cross on a tree as an indicator that they were in distress and their evacuation was necessary for their survival. This would give the governor some intimation as to the colony’s status and assist him in locating them. It would be the last message he would give, and the last time he would see the colonists.
Manteo was a key figure in the establishment of peaceful relations between his people and the settlers of the first Roanoke colony. Although Governor Lane had alienated the leaders of the Roanoke Indian nation, his relationship with Manteo had helped to foster a friendship with the inhabitants of the settlement’s southern neighbors. Manteo even returned to England with the colony and eventually adopted European customs. When the second expedition was dispatched, Manteo came along in order to assist Governor White with his diplomatic efforts and also to keep an eye of the governor for Sir Walther Raleigh. In essence, Manteo was Raleigh’s personal representative. He would be essential to the efforts to sustain the colony and re-open ties with the people of Croatoan; and shortly after the establishment of the colony, his skills as an ambassador would be put to the test.
When White returned to the island in 1590, he set out to find the people of Croatoan—for with them was the salvation of his colony. A sudden coastal storm forced the governor’s rescue ships to return to England and he was unable to make the trip to the island. He made a second attempt months later, but that vessel was also turned back due to bad weather. Dismayed and utterly heartbroken, the governor returned to his native Ireland and died in obscurity. No one knows what happened to the people of the Roanoke colony. The only one who still believed that they were alive, even after all evidence spoke to the contrary, Governor White never ceased to believe that they were with the Croatoan. Was this the idle hope of a broken man?
What is well known is that the descendants of the Croatoan tribe, the modern day Lumbee, began to appear some 50 years after the disappearance of the colony. Observers described these people as having European features and speaking English. The Lumbee have remained in North Carolina, even populating the same region as their Croatoan ancestors. They were accepted by both the United States and the state of North Carolina as an officially mixed tribe. Unfortunately, this has resulted in the U.S. government not recognizing them as an Indian nation. However, the state of North Carolina does recognize the Lumbee as the true descendants of Croatoan. It would not be that much of leap to conclude that the people of Croatoan were true to their word and accepted the embattled colonists into their nation. Though the disappearance of the Roanoke colony is still considered a mystery, it has been accepted that the colonists came to live among the people of Croatoan.