Christian Homeschool Resources & Homeschooling Advice

The Lost Colony of Roanoke

  • Amy Puetz Home School Enrichment
  • 2011 2 Feb
The Lost Colony of Roanoke

On April 26, 1587, a group of brave settlers departed from England to establish a colony in Virginia. Among the colonists were 14 families, including 87 men, 17 women, and 11 children. The promised 500 acres of free land were a welcome incentive to the men and women who joined the group. Their destination was Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately, their Portuguese navigator and pilot, Simon Fernandez, took them to Roanoke Island instead. Once Fernandez reached Roanoke he flatly refused to take them further, despite the orders he had received from Sir Walter Raleigh. By then it was July of 1587, and the settlers planned to remain at Roanoke until arrangements could be made to reach Chesapeake Bay.

What is commonly called the lost colony was not actually the first colony to inhabit Roanoke. In 1584, Raleigh sent Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlow to explore the new world and locate a place with a harbor that would be ideal for a colony. When Amadas and Barlow returned, they brought with them two Indians, Manteo and Wanchese, along with glowing reports of North America. The land they investigated was named Virginia in honor of Queen Elizabeth, who was known as the virgin queen. Raleigh dreamed of taking a group of English men and women to the new land. From the queen he received a seven year patent to establish a settlement in Virginia, but Raleigh himself did not guide it.

In 1585, the second voyage to Virginia began, this time to establish a long-term colony.  Sir Richard Greenville and Ralph Lane led seven ships and 500 men, many of whom were colonists. Ralph Lane served as governor. Regrettably, the Englishmen never tried to establish friendly relationships with the Indians. They brought the two captive Indians with them when they returned to Roanoke. While Manteo proved to be a good friend to the English, Wanchese remained loyal to his native tribe. The trouble began with a silver cup stolen by the Indians. Lane sent Amadas and a group of soldiers to the neighboring village, and they burned the houses and crops.

Many similar events took place over the next few months. The king of Roanoke, Winginia, gathered together the neighboring tribes and plotted to annihilate the invaders.  Learning of the plan, Lane decided to strike first. A night attack was organized—the soldiers were told to leave their shirttails out so they could recognize each other. In the following skirmish Winginia was slain, and the Indians were temporarily checked.

The situation might have escalated again if it had not been for the arrival of Sir Francis Drake in 1586. Supply ships were long overdue, and Drake offered to take the colonists back to England. Initially Lane and the settlers wished to remain, but when a dreadful hurricane hit Roanoke, they changed their minds. The storm seemed to Lane a judgment on them for their harsh treatment of the Indians. Lane and the colonists abandoned their fort and sailed with Drake. They arrived in England on July 27, 1586.

When the second colony arrived the following year, they began rebuilding the abandoned fort and houses left by Lane. Leading this group of men and women was John White, who had served as painter and scientific advisor for the first colony. This settlement was to be completely different from the previous attempt. Families had been selected instead of single men in the hopes that it would become a permanent home to the settlers.  Among the colonists were Governor White’s pregnant daughter, Eleanor Dare, and her husband, Ananais Dare.

All too soon hostilities with the Indians resurfaced. One of the colonists, George Howe, had gone fishing and was later found dead. The English retaliated by attacking a group of Indians at night. As it turned out, the Indians belonged to Manteo’s friendly tribe, the Croatans.

On August 18, 1587, Eleanor Dare gave birth to the first English child born in America.  The governor’s tiny grandbaby was christened Virginia in honor of her new home.  About a week later, Margery Harvie also gave birth to a baby.

Supplies began running low, and it was decided that Governor White should go to England to get aid from Raleigh. White returned with Fernandez, and a small ship was left behind for the colonists. On August 27, 1587, White departed. He never saw his daughter and grandchild again.

White arrived in England at the worst time to obtain help. Quarrels between England and Spain had finally erupted into a war. Although White did manage to employ two small ships in 1588, the captains were more interested in privateering than in relieving the colony. The two ships were separated, and the rash captain of the Brave—the ship White sailed with—was foolish enough to attack a larger French ship. They limped back to England glad to still be alive. Again White waited. In 1588, the Spanish Armada attacked England. Every available ship was needed to defend Britain.

It was not until 1590 that White again sailed for Roanoke. The journey took longer than expected because once more the lure of rich prize ships laden with American goods from Spanish colonies was a great draw for the captains and sailors.

When White finally arrived at Roanoke, he found the fort deserted. On a tree near the fort were carved the letters CRO, and on a post of the fort was the word CROATAN. It had been prearranged that if the settlers moved during White’s absence, they were to carve their whereabouts on a tree and to place a cross above the word if there had been a conflict. There was no cross, so apparently the colonists had not experienced trouble. White had left behind three chests. These had been dug up, and the books, painting, and maps they contained were torn and damaged by rain. White and the captains planned to explore Croatan Island the following day, but a storm hit, which prevented any further investigation. On October 24, 1590, White was again in England. He never returned to Virginia, and it must have tormented him to remain in ignorance about the fate of his daughter and her child.

The lost colony of Roanoke is one of the great mysteries of history that is still open to speculation. What happened to the colonists? Why did they leave Roanoke? They may have gone to live with the Croatan Indians. As early as 1703 the Croatan Indians said they had white ancestors. Some think the colonists divided into two groups, one going to Croatan and the other settling somewhere in the Chesapeake Bay area.

When Jamestown was established, John Smith was told to find out what he could about the lost colony. Chief Powhatan told Smith the colonists had been massacred by his own men. Such news would have alarmed the feebly established colony at Jamestown, so Smith did not mention the news for some years. There were other rumors, too. Apparently a group of whites—two men, four boys, and a maid—were being held as slaves by the Indians. Smith and others never made any attempts to rescue them. One day some men saw a yellow haired Indian boy in the forest. He darted away before they could question him. Even if Powhatan had killed the settlers, these stories seem to indicate that some of the colonists may have survived and were living with the Indians, or perhaps these people were other whites who had been stranded.

Interest in the lost colony of Roanoke surfaced again in 1937, when some stones were found with names of the settlers carved on them. It seemed the mystery might be solved, but the stones turned out to be fakes. The fate of the lost colony many never be solved, but the sacrifices made by that settlement paved the way for future colonies to be established by England. 

Published on February 4, 2009

Amy Puetz, a homeschool graduate, loves history, sewing, and working as a graphic designer for her company A to Z Designs. She is the author of an ebook series for young ladies called Heroines of the Past as well as a growing number of historical books.  Visit her Web site at to see many resources relating to history. Join her mailing list and receive a free ebook! You can also check out her blog at

This article was originally published in the Jan/Feb ’09 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Get more great homeschooling help by downloading our FREE report entitled “The Secret to Homeschooling Freedom” by visiting