The Lost City

Shawn Miles


In June 1584, two vessels owned by the Virginia Company were sent out from London to survey the Outer Banks of North Carolina and Virginia. The ships returned with news of a region rich in resources, warm climate, and "friendly" natives. A second expedition was sent out in 1585. The intent of the excursion, headed by Capt. Ralph Lane, was to begin a foundation for colonization of an island named Roanoke. Lane ran into extreme difficulties during his first year on the island. Relations with the native Algonquians went sour, and his supplies were dwindling. In 1586, a supply ship arrived and Lane left as soon as he could, thereby leaving behind not only a few men, but also a very unstable situation for the colonists to inherit.

In the summer of 1587, over one hundred colonists departed from England to begin the colonization of the island of Roanoke. The ships dropped off the colonists but were ordered to return to aid in the defense of the British Isles from the Spanish Armada. Three years later Sir Walter Raleigh returned to the island to find no trace of the colonists. The mysterious disappearance has baffled not only sixteenth century historians, but twentieth century historians and archeologists as well. There are a multitude of theories presented by scholars and archeologists about what might have happened to them. The theories range from an attack from hostile Indians to a viral epidemic. The question is which of these theories is likely to be the most accurate. Therefore, one must evaluate the strengths and weakness in order to come to a valid conclusion.

In order to assume that Indians assaulted the colonists one must first understand English-Indian relations during the early years of contact. The first expedition to the island was a brief period of observation with attempts to establish a cordial relationship with the Algonquian tribes. Thomas Harriot and John White made the first contact. The two men were intrigued with the native culture. The natives were also receptive and as, if not more, curious than their English counterparts. This intimate and trusting contact turned quickly for the worse. Disease carried by the Europeans spread quickly through the Indian towns. Many fell ill and died. The continued loss of Indian lives was an immense strain on English-Indian relations. The surrounding tribes began to avoid and despise the "disease infested" English. This resulted in apprehensive feelings between both peoples.

The colony was placed under the control of Capt. Ralph Lane. At the on set, Lane perceived the Algonqiuans as extremely violent savages and not to be trusted. This perception was formed from Laneís service in Ireland. He was brutal and a stout nationalist in the process of strict colonial rule. After six months fears begun to rise in the colony about the lack of food and supplies. Lane notified the settlers that provisions would arrive soon from England. In some cases, most settlers were "either unable or unwilling to plant their own crops." Therefore, Lane and the settlers lived off of the native substance farming. Patience with the English wore thin among the Algonquians. These tensions rose mostly due to the fact that settlers had constantly badgered for food and materials. In late May 1586, rumors spread that Wingina, a high chieftain, had conspired with neighboring tribes to attack and rid the island of the English nuisance. Fearing an Indian assault Lane attacked the Indian village at Dasemunkepeuc killing Wingina. According to David Quinn, Winginaís activities " can be said to have justified Laneís actions as aggressive defense." In summary, the attack by Lane inadvertently stimulated Indian hatred against the colony. Word of the attack also reached surrounding Indian nations. Therefore, there was a probability that the Indians would seek retribution for the "unprovoked" attack, thus the notion that they would unleash this "revenge" upon the feeble colonists.

The problem with this theory is that there is no evidence that the Indian tribes conspired to destroy the settlement. The only evidence that exists is Laneís own assumption that the local tribes were going to attack the colony. He believed that the Indian chief Pemisapan was attempting to organize an attack in the June of 1586. Before the Indians could do so Lane launched a preemptive strike and the attack never occurred. The surgical strike by Lane may have in fact intimidated the other tribes from making any other attacks, as Quinn has suggested. There exists no real concrete evidence that Pemisapan conspired to destroy the settlement. At most, Pemisapan was "guilty" of refusing to aid Lane and the other settlers in the winter months. Lane most likely devised the conspiracy to cover up for the failure of the colony that he was ordered to govern. In conclusion, the probability that Pemisapan and his tribe annihilated the colony is remote.

There also exists another comparable theory of an Indian massacre of the colonists. It evolves from a supposed confession by an Indian chief named Powhatan. Supposedly, Powhatan confessed to the massacre of the Lost Colonists. This "confession" was made to John Smith in December 1608. Smith never revealed this information publicly, but he did speak of it fourteen years later to Samuel Purchas. In 1623, Purchas published the confession in his book "Hakluytus Posthamus." He stated that " Powhatan confessed that he had been at the murder of that colony and showed to Capt. Smith a musket barrel and a bronze mortar and certain pieces of iron, which had been theirs." Before the publication of Purchasís book, the English Crown was aware that Powhatan had massacred the colonists. The reason for this was that William Strachey, the appointed secretary to the Jamestown colony, relayed to the Royal Council in 1609, that Powhatan had killed the colonists. According to Haywood Pearce, Stratchey reported to the Crown that " Powhatan, instigated by his priests, had caused the Roanoke colonists to be massacred." Quinn also points out that Powhatan "for several decades before 1600 had been building up his authority in the Virginia Tidewater, subjugating by diplomacy or war, or both on tribe after tribe." Stratchey even theorized that the colonists did in fact join an Indian tribe to the north. He points out that the colonists would have joined the Chesapeake tribe. An interesting point is that the Chesapeakes refused to give Powhatan any tribute. In 1607, Powhatan attacked and killed the entire tribe. Therefore, if the colonists were living among the Chesapeake they too would have been slaughtered. This would explain why there is no evidence of a battle on Roanoke Island.

The problem with this theory, like the one mentioned earlier, is that there is no real hard evidence of such attack. The "confession" given to Capt. John Smith could have been nothing more than a fabrication. Smith could have devised it in order to end a twenty-year long conspiracy. Smith had been appointed by the Crown to search for the lost colony. After many years, the King had become perturbed by Smiths inability to locate them. Therefore, he most likely used the "confession" to save his reputation and his position. The confession was also used not to prosecute Powhatan, but to force him to swear allegiance to King James. The Crown saw it more "necessary" to make Powhatan a dependant to the Crown, rather than a prisoner. According to Quinn, this meant "establishing a direct attachment to and dependence on the English because it would offer them great advantages and relieve them of many burdens imposed by Powhatan." Therefore, one can see that the "plea bargain" offered to Powahatan was an attempt by the English to consolidate their power in the region. By placing Powhatan in a submissive position, the colony of Jamestown was able to expand its land and profit without resistance.

Yet, another interesting theory is that Spanish forces attacked the colonists. The Spanish Armada had been humiliatingly defeated in 1588. Therefore, an attack on the colony would have been an ideal place to seek revenge. The Spanish knew of the existence of the colony and wished to annihilate it. One reason was that, according to Karen Kupperman, the Spanish " had claimed North America at least as far north as the Chesapeake Bay." Thus, the colony was perceived as a threat to Spanish sovereignty.

Another reason was that the colony was seen as strategically important. The island was a prime location in which to intercept treasure ships coming from the Gulf of Mexico. Sir Francis Drake used the island frequently as a launching point to plunder Spanish galleons. Therefore, the Spanish made it a great priority to seize the island. The governor of Florida, Juan Menendez Marques, developed plans to extinguish the Roanoke colony, and to establish a fortress there. He ordered his cousin, Pedro, to embark on a reconnaissance mission to collect data on the English colony. Pedro returned with much information about the natives on the mainland, but was unable to find any proof of English settlement. Hence an invasion of the island was under consideration by the Spanish Crown. In Feburary 1600, Gonzalo Mendez De Canzo, a Spanish captain, appealed for the invasion. In a letter to King Philip III, DeCanzo stressed that

In my opinion is that your majesty should order them (the colonists) to be driven out and made to leave the land which they have usurped and settled, in spite of the fact that it is yours, and great inconvenience, expense and bloodshed may result therefrom if a remedy is not sought in time.

DeCanzo requested over 1000 men, artillery, and a yearís worth of supplies and ammunition. King Philip declined DeCanzoís recommendation mostly that due to the great losses the fleet took in 1588.

In summary, the theory that the colony was destroyed by a Spanish invasion is inaccurate. The evidence obviously points out that the Spanish didnít have the resources, or the planning to attack the settlement. Spanish intelligence on the island was also very imprecise. One factor infuencing the inaccurate data was the sources that the Spanish used. Most of the sources derived from crews of plundered treasure vessels, or Spanish colonists who had been visited by English trade ships. Therefore, Spanish governors in the region usually received conflicting news of English activity in the region. Some reports state that the colony had " as many as five hundred men, and five ships." Another report declares that the colony had " over forty vessels, and in the next year one hundred and fifty were coming." Thus, King Philip didnít know who or what to believe when Pedro Menendez reported correctly that there was no evidence of a settlement. Without concrete information, an attack would be ridiculous. No general in a right frame of mind would go blindly into battle. In addition, an attack of such great magnitude as DeCanzoís would have been documented. Ship logs, stores, manifests, soldier muster lists, and official orders of an attack would exist. Kupperman further states that " by 1600 Spain was considering pulling back from its commitments in North America and consolidating the empire." This explains why King Philip denied DeCanzoís request. In conclusion, the Spanish were both unable and unwilling to carry out an invasion of the Roanoke colony.

Another theory is that the colony was lost to an epidemic. The impact of disease on the island affected not only the natives, but also the colonists and the environment. As stated earlier the majority of the colonists were either unable or unwilling to create a system of agriculture. The colonists actually did not mind resorting to borrowing, trading or even stealing to stay alive. During the winter months, both colonists and Indians alike had to forage and scrounge for food. The lack of food and the colonistís apathy caused much dissention. In some cases, a few tribes actually left the island to migrate away from the apathetic and now starving settlers. A major difference between the Indians and English was that the Indians were adept at eating less in the winters. The fact is that the settlersí perception of starvation and the Indians was quite different. According to William Cronon " To a European sensibility, it made no sense to go hungry." Cronon continues that the " colonists who starved did so because they learned too late how ill informed they had been about the New Worlds perpetual abundance." Therefore once the Indians left the island to go inland the colonists were left alone, hungry and in dire need of assistance. The only real choice for the colonists was join the Indian tribes or die.

The doubt surrounding this theory is that of the one hundred and eight settlers there were four deaths and only one died of disease in the summer of 1587. These records obviously reveal that there was no evidence of a contagion aboard the vessels. Another explanation for the lack of sickness may be that the majority of colonists came from western England. The significance of this argument is that during this time in eastern England, a "black" plague killed over ten thousand people. Yet, another deterring factor is that on his way to Roanoke Lane stopped off in the West Indies. According to Quinn, the reason for this procedure was to " prevent the spread sickness often attendant upon a long sea voyage." Therefore, a crewmember with any symptoms would have been dropped off. As stated before only one crewmember became ill and he died upon landing. In conclusion, the possibility that the colony was devastated by a European epidemic is uncommon. There exists no evidence that there was a carrier of a lethal virus. If this "hidden" carrier did exists it was extremely slow and quite unique to say the least.

Another theory that is more recent is that the colonists perished due to the worst drought in eight hundred years. According, to David Stahle the reason for the colonistís disappearance was that " the drought persisted for three years, and that it affected the entire southeastern United States, but was particularly severe in the Tidewater region near Roanoke." The discovery came from an analysis of tree rings of the region. The tree rings revealed that 1587 was the worst single year of the drought. During these years, the colonists and Indians alike would have found it nearly impossible to find food. As stated before the colonists depended heavily upon Indian surplus for survival. This drought would have had major implications upon a subsistence farming system. The Indian supplies would have been severely depleted. The Indians most likely experienced a famine, and were much less able to provide for their own families let alone the colonists. Therefore, the drought would have also led to an increase in disputes over land and available food. According to Stahle, " The Lost Colonists were reliant to a great degree on native societies, and their dependency would have aggravated any food shortage." This dependency would have major implications upon an already hostile Indian-English relationship. Stahle concludes, " the colonists could have been wiped out by local Indians, the Croatans, in a clash for food."

This theory has the most irrefutable evidence of all the theories, but science can only speculate to what human nature will do under these circumstances as these. The fact that there was a shortage of food doesnít mean that the Indians killed all the colonists. The drought of 1587 also continued into 1612. Therefore, the Jamestown colony would have experienced the same dilemma as the Roanoke colony. Thus, a comparison of the events at Jamestown, in 1606, is a proper way to understand the human reaction to the environment. According to Dr. Billings, a contributor to the drought study, " several clashes broke out between the Jamestown colonists and Indians, and a conflict over food brought out by the drought explains the hostility." Billings also points out that "malnutrition was the leading cause of death at Jamestown." In summary, the only reason that the colony at Jamestown survived was that the survivors left the colony the following winter. If the colonists stayed and died of malnutrition, there would have been evidence of burial grounds or bones around the colony. The Roanoke colonistís only real choice was to leave the island and go to the mainland in hopes of finding salvation. In close, this theory is more of a rationale for the colonistsí migration to the mainland. The colonists knew that to the north was the Chesapeake tribe, which presumably had no animosity toward them. Therefore, the drought was more of a "push" factor for the colonistís abandonment of the colony.

Another theory that exists is that the all the colonists drowned upon leaving the island. This theory centers on the fact that the colonists might have been attempting to escape an unexpected Indian attack. They would have left quickly most likely due to this supposed Indian attack. This explains why the fort structure and stone buildings were left intact. Possessions of the colony were also found to have been sacked and left with haste. According to Quinn, " the kind of boat left behind with the settlers could have been a pinnace." He continues to point out that "the boat is relatively small and only capable of probably carrying about 50 or so men." Thus a few trips would have had to been made to accommodate all the colonists.

The problem with this theory is that as stated before the pinnace was much too small to hold all the people and supplies. Another reason is that proper preparation would also have had to be made, such as getting stockpiles of food and water ready. Most importantly, the colonists were instructed by White to leave a marker of some kind to reveal their location if they had to leave the island. A marker was left behind, carved into a tree were the words "CROATAN". Therefore, the colonists would have most likely left for the Croatan peninsula to the north. Therefore, it would have been more of an escape then a voluntary migration. The hurried evasion could possibly explain why the colonists were lost at sea. In addition, the ship wouldnít have been prepped and ready for a voyage across the Chesapeake Bay. Bad weather would also explain why the ship was lost at sea, but no records are available to support this. In close, the colonists most likely did leave the island, but there is no evidence that they were lost during a voyage across the bay or sea. If they were lost at sea, the ocean currents would have taken the wreckage out to sea. Therefore, these theories like so many others mentioned before are only speculations.

The next corresponding theory is that the colonists went inland and joined an Indian tribe. It is most likely that they joined the peaceful Chesapeake tribe. The settlers would have thus moved northward into a land called Skicoac, which is about one hundred and thirty miles away. Here the English would have had a more receptive attitude from the natives. The resources and agriculture of Skicaoc were much more plentiful then at Roanoke. Therefore, the remaining settlers were able and more determined to work with the Indians. It can be assumed that these surviving settlers had no choice, but to work or perish like their prior comrades. According to Quinn, "these settlers had come determined to work for themselves, to be self-reliant." This feeling of self-reliance meant that the settlers still maintained their identity as English colonists. After two years many of the surviving settlers would have given up hope of "rescue." Therefore, most of them would have fashioned strong ties with their Indian counterparts. Most would have found Indian partners and integrated with them. Over time, the settlers would assimilate so much that they would have lost almost all English customs and traditions. As Quinn points out "After twenty years, however, their Englishness would be wearing thin, and they would be approaching virtual assimilation." In summary, a more correct assumption is that the "Lost Colonists" didnít want to be found. Perhaps, these people had as Quinn suggests become more Indian then English. There exists the possibility that these people after being forgotten for so long may have destroyed all evidence of their prior life. These people may have decided to live a new life, as Chesapeake Indians not English. Thus, this is the reason why no physical evidence exists to their location, or their history.

Compared to the preceding theories this one does have concrete evidence to support it. There exists actual physical evidence that the colony did move to another location. One such piece of evidence is a 1604 interrogation of Spanish prisoners captured, off the coast of South Carolina. The prisoners revealed that

He (the Spanish prisoner) does not know where the said place was, but he understands that its latitude is thirty-six and a half degrees, and they were to go in search of its long coast, and that he does not know how many Englishman are settled there, but he believes that they came to settle fifteen years ago, and he does not know with what authority except that they were sent by an Englishman called Guater Rale (Walter Raleigh), who himself brought them and left them the first time and now they had to go in search of them.

The interrogation reveals that the Spanish were aware of the colony, but as stated before knew nothing about it or its true location. The myth and legend of the Lost Colony had reached Europe and this may explain why the Spanish prisoners told of such a place. In 1608, Capt. Christopher Newport was given specific instructions to search for the Lost Colonists. Newportís expeditions landed to the west of Cape Henry, and upon landing were attacked by a group of Indians. The next day Newport ran across as he describes " a plain lot of ground." He continues to describe this plot as " a place five miles in compass without either bush or tree." Newport continued inland and came upon another field. This plot he describes as " a little plot of ground full of fine and beautiful strawberries, but we could neither see savage nor town." The fact that Newport came across such a plot of land doesnít mean that it was of English conception. In close, Quinn points out that the land " does have explanations in the surface geology of the district." There would also be some evidence of buildings or civilization in or around the field. The only explanation for the plot other then that of a geological anomaly was that Powhatan had wiped the area clean of all traces of Indian-English existence.

In summary, the accounts and evidence of assimilated indian-white community are the most common of all theories devised about the fate of the colonists. There are many stories of Indian buildings shaped like stone two level houses. The stories continue with stories of Indian ancestors "who could read and write like white men do." The fact that these stories combined with others of Indian massacres only reinforce the notion that the Roanoke Colonists did in fact survive.

In conclusion, there is no one theory to explain the disappearance rather an accumulation of theories. One could take events and arrange them much like a puzzle. The first piece of the puzzle is the hostile situation on the island that Lane left behind so hastily. Lane had imposed a state of control so aggressive upon the Indian tribes that they were left no choice, but to fight off the colonists. Another factor was that due to the drought the availability of food was scarce. Therefore, the Indians realized that their hunger and famine would continue if the colonists stayed. The Indians must have taken into consideration that if the colony survived there would be more English coming. Thus, the only logical action for the Indians was to destroy the colony while it was defenseless. The attack would be placed around 1588 or 1589. The reason is that the pinnace used to escape the attack would have " ceased to be viable after 1589."

The second piece of the puzzle is that the attack, by Pemisapan, left only a few survivors. These remaining survivors knew that they needed to get off the island, and that Croatan was place of safe haven from hostile Indians. The survivors would then had left with only a few possessions and luckily landed with open arms from the Chesapeakes. The survivors, around 30 or so, would then be accepted and later integrated into the Chesapeake tribe.

The final piece of the puzzle is the coming to power of Chief Powhatan. As stated before he had taken over surrounding tribes by any means necessary. The word of a white presence in his dominion would have aggravated Powhatan. In 1607, the Chesapeake tribe was attacked and killed by Powhatan. Therefore, the destruction of the Chesapeakes would also mean the deaths of the last remaining colonists. Powhatan, as established earlier, admitted to the murder of these white men, and they would have been the surviving colonists of Roanoke. Thus, this explains why no evidence of Indian-English culture existed on the Chesapeake. This short theory is just that an educated guess. The true history and occurrences are very obscure between 1589-1622. The reason is that there is no record of any European setting foot into the Chesapeake during that time. One could only use rumors and oral history to make any conclusions about what happened during that time span.

In closing, the ultimate fate of the Lost Colony is still not yet known. Their story maybe not revealed for some time or ever. This is what makes history so interesting: there is always new evidence, and new discoveries made. The mystery of the Lost Colony is one of the greatest historical issues of all time. The colony may be gone, but their story is still lives in our poetry, literature, plays and our imagination. The Lost Colony will therefore, always live on as one of the initial early American Legends.






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