First Contacts: The Roanake Venture
First Contacts: The Roanake Venture
Roanoke. In March 1584 the English adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh obtained a patent to discover and settle lands in North America in the name of the English Crown. The voyages and colonizing experiments that followed during the next six years marked the first attempts of English men, women, and children to settle any part of the new continent. Although all their attempts failed, the colonists’ experiences shaped later English ventures at Jamestown and elsewhere on the Atlantic coast in the early years of the seventeenth century. The first voyage in the spring of 1584 surveyed the coastal region along the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina, selected a site for the proposed colony at Roanoke Island, and gathered information about the landscape and its inhabitants. The next two ventures, in 1585 and 1587, sent groups of English colonists to try to establish a toehold on the coast. The first colony at Roanoke had difficulty getting supplies from England and turned to the nearby Algonquians to provide them with needed corn instead. Relations quickly soured, and when ships arrived from England the following year, the survivors returned to England. The second attempt at colonization also failed. They, too, settled at Roanoke despite intentions to establish themselves farther north in the Chesapeake Bay among friendly Indians encountered by the earlier colonists on an exploratory trip to the north. After experiencing difficulties with food supplies and problems with the local Indians, the leader of the colony, John White, sailed for England to get additional provisions. Before he could return to Roanoke, all English shipping was halted and pressed into service against the Spanish Armada (1588). By the time White sailed back to the Outer Banks in 1590, the colonists had vanished.
Establishing Relations. Three groups of coastal Algonquians inhabited the area chosen by the English for the Roanoke Colony: the Roanokes, the Croatoans, and the Secotans. These Indians, like other Algonquian-speaking peoples farther north, had little in common with the European colonists who invaded their lands. Still, mutual curiosity and the desire to learn enabled the English to establish friendly relations with their non-European neighbors through the use of simple non-linguistic gestures, signs, and exchanges of goods. When the first exploratory expedition prepared to leave for home with the knowledge they had gained, they took steps to ensure future success. Following the practice of their predecessors farther north, they took two “lustie” young men along with them to England to be trained as interpreters: Wanchese (a Roanoke) and Manteo (a Croatoan).
Wanchese and Manteo. Wanchese and Manteo arrived in England in September 1584 and, in the following months, learned much about English society and culture. Thomas Harriot spent the winter with them teaching them English and learning some Algonquian from them. When the first colonizing voyage left England for Roanoke the following spring, Thomas Harriot, Wanchese, and Manteo accompanied the colonists. Harriot was placed in charge of making a study of the “naturall inhabitaunts,” no doubt because of his familiarity with their language and the knowledge he had gained from his native charges. Both Wanchese and Manteo put their newfound expertise to good use, too, though each chose a different path. Wanchese reacted against English control and may have used his knowledge of their language and culture to undermine the colonists’ position and contribute to the increasingly hostile relations between his people and the settlers. Manteo, on the other hand, took a more favorable view of the colonists. He attempted to maintain good relations between the Croatoans and the English and insisted on returning to England with the colonists when they abandoned their colony in 1586. One year later Manteo accompanied the final venture back to Roanoke, where John White appointed him the queen’s deputy in Roanoke Island and Croatoan and baptized him a Christian.
Demise of the Colony. Despite the best efforts of Manteo, Thomas Harriot, and John White, maintaining good relations between the English and the Roanokes proved impossible. Long-term occupation of Indian land by the colonists brought tensions and strains. The English expected the Native Americans to continue producing food to support the colonists throughout the year though this placed a heavy burden on the Indians’ cyclical, fragile economy. In the face of continual demands for food tempers flared, and hostility erupted on both sides. By the time the first colony left in June 1586, relations had soured beyond redemption. The next group of colonists posed an even greater threat to the local natives, for it contained not merely military men but also women and children. The implication was clear: the English intended to establish permanent homes within Roanoke territory. Under White’s direction they hoped to become self-sufficient and avoid imposing on the Indians for food. In spite of his good intentions, however, a series of mishaps destroyed most of their provisions, and they were forced to look to the local inhabitants for assistance. Violence again broke out, and, at the time of White’s departure, the colonists were making preparations to move north to Chesapeake Bay to settle among the friendlier Indians there. Whether they made it to their intended destination is unknown.
Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984);
David Beers Quinn, Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584–1606 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984);
Quinn and Alison M. Quinn, eds., The First Colonists: Documents on the Planting of the First English Settlements in North America, 1584–1590 (Raleigh: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1982).