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The story of Jamestown was one of America’s first documented mysteries. There are clear facts about this voyage that have been documented. In 1587, John White did make a temporary establishment on or near Roanoke Island, and that after leaving for three years did return to the island in 1590. On his return, all traces of the colonist having lived there for those three years had vanished. No Jamestown colonist is known to be seen from again. So what happened to them during those three years?
Jamestown, which was led by Governor John White, landed on Roanoke Island between April and late July 1587 and was a royal grantee of Sir Walter Raleigh. Jamestown was a small, self-supporting community that was suppose to be protected by the Chesapeake Indians who were know to help English visitors. The colony was made up mostly of people on the middle to lower social and economic ladder. These people were willing to work for a living, farming or do crafts to form an English society on American soil. Each colonist was in turn given 500 acres for their trouble.
150 persons intended to start the voyage to America in the spring but because of financial troubles only 118 were finally able to set sail. The voyage was an unhappy one because White and his chief pilot, Simon Fernandes, spent a majority of the time quarreling. Fernandes was a suspected of wanting to steal the Spanish ships, but White interfered with his plans and the ship arrived safely at Hatarask Inlet on July 22, 1587. Fernandes was not finished yet, he left the settlers on the island and did not go on the Chesapeake Bay as the arrangements stated. This distraction was only a minor disaster compared to the ones to come.
Summer was ending and it was getting late in the year to establish a new settlement. They would have to make the supplies they had last all winter up to the following summer, which meant they would have to depend on the Indians for more surpluses. On top of all that, the Indians had become hostile to the last English settlers that tried to set up a new settlement.
Manteo and Towaya were two Indians that accompanied the settlers and gave them advice. Manteo was the colony’s most important advisor to the new land. His community was located on the Croatoan Island.
It did not take long for the colonist to realize that they needed supplies as soon as possible, but since they did not land at the specified location the supply ships would not be able to get effective directions to deliver the new supplies. So it was decided that White must sail back to England to ensure that the supplies would get to the colony. It was then agreed that a small party of colonist would stay on Roanoke Island with a few small boats to await the supply ships and guild then to the new settlement. The group, though not known for sure, consisted of around twenty-five unmarried men. This left the settlement on Chesapeake Bay with only sixty men together with twenty-seven women and children, to survive.
The Hardships for White at sea were no less. He had to leave his family, his colonist and the fate of the whole enterprise in other hands. His return trip to England was no easy thing either, the weather was bad and he had to land in Ireland instead of England. White returned to Southampton six months after his departure from Roanoke.
White went and talked to Raleigh about a return trip to the colony. Raleigh wanted it to be soon as possible and also wanted to establish a fortified post on Chesapeake Bay, but because of the Great Armada threatening England’s very existence the American exhibition was put to aside. All squadrons were forbidden to sail, but on April 15, 1588 White slipped away bearing only fifteen additional men. The travelers got only half way across the ocean before they were beat, robbed, and wounded by pirates, but lucky they worked their way back to England barely alive. On there return, White was ready to voyage out again but Raleigh was unable to secure the right money for another voyage. A year went by before William Sanderson, a merchant banker, gave White his ship the “Moonlight” to take supplies to the colony, but White could not ride on the ship back to America. So Raleigh, on White’s insistence secured him passage on a privateer, the “Hopewell”. Therefore White returned to the colony just under three years, instead of five to six months which he had promised.
After this there are no more documented writing about what happened at Jamestown, but there are many theories on what exactly happened at Jamestown.
The first question is where the colonist first went to establish their colony. James Lasie and John Wright were the guilds for the colony, they were to help the colonist from Roanoke to Chesapeake Bay. Once they got to the designated clearing eighty to one hundred men, men women and children erected pole and frame shelters. They lived on their limited supplies and what the Indians could spare. They also probably killed deer and bear for meat. So it is the assumption that the Chesapeake Indians were friendly and cooperative.
In the spring of 1588 the colonist most likely planted gardens as well as corn, beans, and tobacco which was obtained by the Indians. Increasingly they would lack European amenities such as cooking utensils, iron, and metal objects. But their hopes were high that White would appear with a fresh set of supplies.
In making these guesses, the location of the two villages (Apasus and Chesepiuc) on Whites map that Lasie and Wright had can be tentatively eliminated. Recent Archaeological investigations have identified two Indian sites in these general eras, but no European artifacts have been found to conclude that the Jamestown settlers had ever settled there.
On the other hand how long did the men awaiting Whites return stay on Roanoke Island? Old Frame houses and a commanding building had been on the island from an earlier trip in 1585 and were restored by the colonist along with an enclosure and a main entrance. This construction of the palisade involved considerable labor and must have taken some time to build. So from this most assume that the English men lived fairly conformably on the island, surviving the winter without any serious loss. This can not be established but the solidity of the barrier they build suggests it. These men expected White anytime after Easter and probably grew impatient, so there is no assurance that they stayed on the island any time after June 1588.
There are only two pieces of evidence throughout the Outer Banks between 1587-1590 of the Jamestown colonist. The first was the landing of an Irish captain, William, most likely in August of 1587. Sir George Carey, a probable backer of White’s expedition, governor of Isle of Wright, had sent the privateer, “Swallowe”, out of its way to check on the colonist. It was on its way back to Ireland when it stopped to look for the Roanoke settlers. The Irish reported finding a stray mule and stray cattle, but no people. The Irish did try to establish contact with the colonist, but at what specific point along the Outer Banks is in question.
The other piece of evidence is a little more specific. The Spanish, at St. Augustine, had for several years been planning an expedition to find an English settlement which they knew about farther north. In 1588, Vincent Gonzalez succeeded in piloting a “barco luengo” into Chesapeake Bay. He made it through the Bay, the first to do it on record, but found no traces of an English settlement and saw few Indians. On his way back through the Bay he kept close to the shore, and eventually found Roanoke Island. He reported, “on the island shore, on the inside of the little bay I entered, there were signs of slipways (shipyards) for small vessels, and on land a number of wells made with English casks and other debris indicating that a considerable number of people had lived there.” Gonzalez saw no one, but did not pause long to look. From this it can be concluded the English colonist had either hid from the Spanish ships or that they were on Croatoan with Mantoe. If they had not moved yet and were hiding then the sighting of a Spanish ship would probably have scared them into moving.
Whenever the small group did leave for the Croatoan they did not take with them the heavy gear that the main body of colonist had left behind; brass and iron guns, bars of iron and chests of personal property. The metal was simply left where it lay and White’s chest was placed in the bottom of a trench in 1589. The men left their marks for White to follow if he did come back. The letters “CRO” were carved on a tree on the way from the landing near the old fort site. “CROATOAN” was more decisively carved on the hole of one of the debarked trees that form the part of the entrance to the compound. There is little reason to doubt that they would remain with Mantoe over the winters of 1588-1589 and 1589-1590, because after this time of being with the Indians for so long it would be easy for the colonist to identify with the Indians. They may have even intermarried with the Indians. They would most likely have already been taught the Indian ways of fishing, hunting and farming, so by 1590 they had at least party, been incorporated into the Native American society.
The stories of these three years contain little facts: the building of a protective structure, a visit of a Spanish expedition, indications of the men’s destination after leaving the island and many assumptions.
When John White returned on the “Hopewell” along with what was left of the “Moonlight” (it had been overturned in a storm drowning six men along with the captain) they landed on the northwest point of Roanoke. They first found the tree with “CRO” marked on it, then reached the place where the men were suppose to await his arrival. All they found were the compound standing intact and the debarked tree with “CROATOAN” marked on it with no other sign of distress. Before White left in 1587 he told the men to add a cross to their inscription if they were in danger. Since there was no mark of that kind, White was almost completely certain that the residual party was in Croatoan with Mantoe, but what if they were attacked before they left?
White proceeded to uncover the remains of his own possessions, his pictures and maps had been spoiled by rain and his armor was rusted because scavenging Indians had dug the storage chest from the ditch in which they were buried and then had left them.
White made it clear in his narrative that they did not try to sail to Croataon because the water had become so rough that the anchor cables were no longer adequate to hold the ships. The “Hopewell” was driven south and eventually lost three of its four anchors and had to return to England. The “Moonlight” and White steered ahead and on Oct. 24, 1590 landed of Plymouth.
After this White wrote as one who had given up all hope of seeing his family again, he could only commit them to God’s mercies and leave it at that. The sadness of this letter have remained his testament from its publication in the new “Principal Navigations” in 1600 to this day. For White the colony was lost indeed.
Assuming that the party awaiting White’s return left and went to Croatoan, they probably would not have made anymore contact with the rest of the colony. So, the two groups were divided by a substantial stretch of land and water. These men probably intermarried and integrated into the respective Indian community.
All contact with the Lost Colonies the main body, which we can assume with some confidence to have settled in what is now Norfolk County, Virginia, is lacking from 1587 to at least 1603. In those years, Virginia Dare, if she had survived, would have been more than fifteen years old and be of the marrying age. This gives us some perspective on the time frame that had passed. Those original settlers would no longer be in there twenties, but have aged into there forties. So if the eighteen females stayed healthy and barring there was no conflict with Indians, may have had between one and two children. If the deaths had stayed between eighteen and thirty, the colony would have stayed around its original number of eighty and a hundred. Under favorable conditions more, under bad conditions less. This does not say much but to put a scale on what the possible number of survivors might have been. However there were about seventy males in the group and only eighteen females, this left fifty males who would have either married Indian women or remained without partners. We might assume that with these part-English colonists the group could have grown in number to around 150.
It seems logical that, as the years past, they would have settled more firmly and built community structures, along with wells, outhouses and enclosing for breeding or livestock. A small segment of a village recently excavated in 1981-82 on the west side of Broad Bay and linked with Lynnhaven Bay, is likely to been a Chesapeake community of some size. It’s farther south than White’s Chesepiuc, but might have been one in the same. However if they lived with the Indians for any number of years there settlement would have taken on a more Native American style
Weather a site on which they lived will ever be found we can not tell, but if one were ever to be found, it would contain at least some English artifacts. Even if they were killed by Indians soon after settling there would be at least pottery fragments or remains substantial enough for identification.
From 1603 to around 1609 there are substantial but yet circumstantial indications. It does seem likely, although it remains to be proved by precise evidence, that second hand news had reached England of the survival of the settlement in the vicinity of Chesapeake Bay. Some voyages were sent out to look for the Lost Colony but no evidence was ever found.
Over the next hundred years other people were looked for the Colonist, and in that time many Indians were asked if they ever encountered by an English colony. Most were friendly and cooperated but had nothing to say of the Lost Colony.
In 1701 the last recorded sighting of the group awaiting White’s return were made. Some Indians in the Hatteras area were thought to be of a mix ancestry, these people had features and traditions of a mix of English and Indian ancestry. If these Indians were from White’s group is not for certain because many ships have wrecked in that area and survivors could have taken up refuge with the Indians.
Not much else is known about the Jamestown colonist, but there are hundreds of speculations on what could have happened. Were they killed or did they survive to inter-marry with the Indians, no evidence is for sure. However Virginia and North Carolina both hold true that on their land was the first English settlement in America.
Quinn, Beers David. Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606,
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Quinn, Beers David. The Lost Colony: Their Fortune and Probable Fate,
Raleigh: North Carolina Departmental Cultural Resources, 1984.
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