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The Lost Colony

Much has been written about the Lost Colony, the first English Colony in the America. Spain had been colonizing and hauling untold riches from Central and South America and the British Crown was trying to get a toehold in North America. That task fell to friends of the king, Sir Walter Raleigh and John White who were given land grants to portions of North Carolina

John White mounted an exploration expedition and arrived in the area near the Outer Banks of North Carolina during the summer of 1585. How he was able to get through the uncharted waters around Cape Hatteras and the dreaded Diamond shoals and find a suitable inlet was in itself a miracle. But he found the area pleasant, with bands of friendly natives and he felt that the new colony had a chance to survive. He returned to England and recruited settlers for the new world.

Two years later, they departed Bristol England for America. There were 111 settlers which included men, women, children and twenty soldiers. They ran into storms at sea which slowed their journey and arrived at Hattorask (Hatteras) Island on June 22, 1587. The island was not suitable for a town site because it was low, windswept and mostly blowing sand. They sailed up the Pamlico Sound to a protected inland island that they named Roanoke. It had sufficient water, timber and tillable land for a settlement.

They arrived too late for the growing season and within a few months, their meager supplies were beginning to run low. Like many tourists, they probably brought lots of things they didn't need and not enough of the critical things needed for living so far from home in a hostile land.

The friendly natives, who were called Indians since the days of Columbus, were glad to share their food and the bounties from the sea. As hunters and gathers, they had no use for material things as they moved from campsite to campsite following food sources, mainly fish, shellfish and wild animals which supplied all their needs.

After a short while, John White knew that the supplies would not last for long, felt that the natives would help and decided to leave for England. He hoped to return in a few months in time to save the colony.

At that time, England was involved in a war with Spain and it was three long years before he could get a ship and return with supplies. All he found of the settlement was the words "CROATOAN" and "CRO" etched on some timbers.

There was a problem with the two cultures right from the start. In the native language, there were no words for murder or thievery. In their culture, no one owned anything, everyone shared, if one of the natives needed anything, he just asked and usually got it as a gift, usually giving something in return. If the settlement was threatened by outsiders, it was not considered murder to kill the enemy. Even if someone killed someone within the community, he was just banished from the tribe.

Women were given from one chief to another, in this case the British captains as the highest gift one could bestow. During the early explorations of the Cape Fear Region, The expedition leader was presented with one of the Chief's daughters as a wife. He was already married and could not carry her back to England so he left her on the banks. As the ship sailed away, they saw her swimming towards them.

But to the British, property rights meant everything. Stealing or taking something that belonged to someone else carried harsh penalties up to and including death. East Gate Prison in London was the scene for many years of numerous hanging just for that offense.

A young lady was hung for cutting down a tree for firewood that belonged to the lord and master of the province. Even hunting birds or game that belonged to landowners was enough to send a person to prison for a long time. Murder or the killing of someone was considered an automatic death sentence, regardless of circumstance.

In the big mystery of what happened to the Lost Colony, something happened in another settlement some years later that was very similar to what happened at Roanoke Island, but with different results.

In 1656, a group of English planters from Barbados, West Indies and Charles Town, (Charleston) South Carolina arrived on the Cape Fear River in southeastern North Carolina. They wanted to start rice plantations in the ample brackish waters of the inland Cape Fear. They landed at point where a large creek emptied into the river and started a settlement which they called Town Creek.

At first the Indians were very friendly, even giving some of their young women as wives and workers to the planters and everything seemed to be going very well. Early explorers said the native men were big, strong and very handsome and the women were very pretty.

One day, they caught six natives taking some of their supplies and promptly shot them, leaving their corpses for all to see what happened to thieves. This didn't set to well with the natives because thievery was not part of their culture. They felt that since they shared their food and women, it was unfair for the newcomers not to do the same.

Now the new settlers became their enemies and fair game. The natives began to raid, burn their houses and kill or capture the settlers on the outlying plantations. Finally the surviving settlers had enough, loaded back on their ships and left the area, not to return for 60 years.

If they had been stranded without a ship, their fate could have been the same as those on Roanoke Island.

It appears from the writing of John White that a similar incident happened when they found the body of a colonist that had been killed by a native, no one seems to know why but punishment was swift and deadly.

They retaliated against the natives, killing several as a deterrent. It upset the natives but not enough to attack the settlement. John White assumed that everything was alright and prepared to sail.

Now, the poor colonists were in a real bind, but unlike the Town Creek settlement years later, their ship had sailed and they were trapped. They were definitely outnumbered by the natives and the few guards they had brought for protection was no match for the large numbers of Indian warriors.

It's very possible that they were all killed, or taken prisoner for slaves and traded to other tribes for simple merchandise such as trinkets or arrow heads, a common practice in those days. It would also account for the rumors of blue eyed and fair skinned Indians seen in the area.

No one can be sure of what happened, but for some reason, John White didn't have time to find them. He went back to England and reported that the "First Colony on Roanoke Island was Lost."

This part seems to be odd because his own daughter was among the lost, as well as his grandchild, Virginia Dare, born shortly after they arrived. Why he did not form a search party or why he had to get back to England so suddenly was never fully explained. Perhaps he found the natives to be very hostile and felt threatened.

The word Indian used to describe the natives in the Americas was coined by Columbus in 1492 when he thought he had discovered the East Indies, not realizing that there was another continent besides Europe. He called the natives Indians and it stuck. The area that he discovered is now known as the West Indies.

It was fifty years before the second settlement on the James River in Virginia was established in 1607, but learning from the mistake of the Roanoke Colony, they brought many supplies, ships and soldiers. They also spent time learning the customs and language of the local natives from the ones they had brought back to England on the earlier exploration expeditions. This time, they were able to stay and prosper.

"The Lost Colony Pageant" made famous by our native son Andy Griffith is performed in a Colorful Outdoor Theater where the audience is among the many actors. It is given daily throughout the summer months on Roanoke Island in the famous "Outer Banks" area. It tells the thrilling story of the Lost Colony and presents a vivid account of what we feel happened, a show that you will never forget.

If you leave without seeing it, then your visit to the North Carolina Outer Banks will be incomplete.


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