18 August 1590, three years after the first English child, his granddaughter Elizabeth Virginia Dare, was born in North America, Governor John White returned to the first English colony, the settlement Roanoke on an island off North Carolina, only to find it completely abandoned and the 118 settlers gone without a trace.
“I willed them, that if they should happen to be distressed in any of those places, that then they should carve over the letters or name, a Cross in this form, but we found no such sign of distress. And having well considered of this, we passed toward the place where they were left in sundry houses, but we found the houses taken down, and the place very strongly enclosed with a high pallisade of great trees, with cortynes [curtains] and flankers very fortlike, and one of the chief trees or posts at the right side of the entrance had the bark taken off, and 5 feet from the ground in fair capital letters was graven CROATOAN without any cross or sign of distress;” (John White, “The Fifth Voyage of M. John White into the West Indies and Parts of America called Virginia, in the year 1590”)
|A19th century imagination of White and his people discovering the “Croatoan” inscription.|
The greatest colonial empire the world had ever seen somehow got out the wrong side of bed with its first colony in North America. In 1584, an island just off the coast of North Carolina was discovered by explorers who sailed at the behest of Sir Walter Raleigh to find land that might be used to establish a permanent settlement. Unfortunately, the lush island, named Roanoke, was already settled by the Croatan, probably a branch of the larger Roanoke tribe. Their chief accompanied the explorers back home to England and initially, peaceful relations were established between the indigenous people and the 100 settlers that arrived in 1585. The latters’ food situation became tense, though, since they arrived far too late in the year to cultivate crops and decided to forage on the grounds of their other neighbours, the Aquascogoc, burned down their village and, fearing retribution, left Roanoke for good. A second attempt was made to settle Roanoke a year later in 1587 under the command of John White, who was one of the first settlers, together with 150 men, women and children, including his pregnant daughter Eleanor Dare. His granddaughter Virginia Dare was born on 18 August 1587 as the first English child in North America. In autumn, White decided to sail back to England to gather more provisions for the colony and promised to return immediately. Alas, England’s war with Spain dragged on, the Great Armada sailed in the following year and White didn’t - until he finally managed to cross the Atlantic again in 1590.
|John White's eyewitness account of an Algonkin ritual from 1585|
|"Virginia Dare" Tobacco, circa 1871|