In the last decades of the sixteenth century, England was prospering under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603). While other European countries had begun to establish colonies in the New World, England had none. The queen and many of her statesmen planned to change this.
In 1578, Elizabeth gave permission to explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539–1583) to travel to the New World and settle any lands that were not under the rule of other Europeans. Gilbert and his half-brother, statesman and poet Walter Raleigh (1522–1618), immediately put together a large expedition crew, but when it set out for the New World it was turned back by a Spanish sea attack. Gilbert tried again in 1583, attempting to set up a colony in the frigid lands of Newfoundland, but he drowned in a storm before anything came of it. Raleigh's curiosity and interest had been aroused, and his position as a favorite in Elizabeth's court made him the likely man to establish an English settlement in America.
A site for England's first American colony
Raleigh decided to locate his colony farther south in North America, where the climate would be more mild. He sent a small survey party to explore the proposed site in April 1584. In early July, the party arrived off the coast of present-day North Carolina . They spent several days looking for a good harbor and a place to build a small farming community and initiate trade with the local Indians. The party returned to England in September with a glowing account of the voyage. Raleigh named the new land Virginia after Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, and she elevated him to knighthood.
The first attempt
Elizabeth did not offer Raleigh any money for the development of a colony in Virginia. Undaunted, Raleigh put together a second expedition in 1585, under the command of Sir Richard Grenville (1542–1591). He gathered a group of specialists in map-making, botany, exploring, and other subjects to prepare the way for more permanent settlers. Explorer Ralph Lane (1530–1603) was chosen to govern the new colony. Among the experts were a young Oxford scholar of mathematics and the sciences, Thomas Hariot (1560–1621), and an artist, John White (c. 1540–c. 1593). These two supplied the English with their first accurate descriptions of the New World.
The colonists made a slow crossing and arrived at Roanoke Island too late in the season to plant crops. As their supplies grew short, they relied on the local native people, who helped them at first. This changed, however, as the English colonists demanded more and more food, causing the Indians to grow hostile. By summer, the colonists were out of supplies. English explorer Francis Drake (c. 1540–1596) happened to be on a raiding expedition in the Caribbean that summer, and he stopped at Roanoke Island, offering to take the colonists home. They gladly accepted, ending this attempt at establishing an English colony.
The lost colony of Roanoke
In 1587, Raleigh mounted another effort. His new expedition, under the command of White, consisted of eighty-four men, seventeen women, and nine children. The inclusion of women and children demonstrated that Raleigh intended this venture to be a permanent settlement. The settlers once again chose Roanoke Island as the site for their colony. Another supply shortage forced a reluctant White to leave the colony and his own family behind to return to England for help. Only nine days before he left, his daughter had given birth to Virginia Dare, the first English child to be born on American soil.
White arrived back in England just as war with Spain was breaking out, and he would not be able to return to Roanoke Island with supplies until 1590. When he finally reached the colony, all the colonists had vanished. The only sign of the former community he found was the word “CROATOAN” carved on a tree. No one knows what happened to the lost colony, but most scholars think it is likely that the colonists headed inland to live with the Croatans, a native tribe. After the loss of the Roanoke Island colonists, Raleigh turned his attentions elsewhere. The chief importance of his endeavors was the whetting of English interests in an overseas empire. Others who wished to establish colonies in America learned from Raleigh's failures, and the later English colonial attempts succeeded.