The Lost Colony of Roanoke

By Rosemary Bailey

This article was published in the December 2018 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

In last December’s journal there was an article I had written about coming across a couple of people with our surnames whilst on holiday. Well the same happened this year while we were on holiday on the beach in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Before we went I had a quick look at what there was to do in the area; we were actually staying about a mile from where the Wright Brothers had taken the first powered flight and there was also something called the Lost Colony of Roanoke about 9 miles away.
The Wright Brother’s Memorial was excellent and later in the week we visited Roanoke Island Festival Park to find out about the Lost Colony. Briefly, in 1587 an attempt was made to start an English colony in the New World when 117 men, women, and children were left on Roanoke Island. The plan was to keep them resupplied with more colonists and goods. However three years later in 1590, when English ships did return to bring supplies, they found the island deserted with no sign of the colonists. And after nearly 450 years the mystery of what happened to the colonists remains unsolved.
Roanoke Island Festival Park was very interesting, as well as a museum there was a replica of Elizabeth II, one of the ship that brought the colonists, a replica of a Native American village and some examples of how the colonists might have lived. As we were leaving we followed some other visitors into the Outer Banks History Centre, which we discovered was like our County Record Office. Ever on the lookout I thought maybe I could find something that I could turn into an article for the journal. The first thing the archivist did was look on the list of the Lost Colonists to see if there was anyone with one of our surnames. Little chance of that, I thought; however to my absolute amazement there was a William Sole (and a couple of Baileys)!!! So I did a bit of research both at the centre and on the internet.
The story starts in the early 1580s when, realising that England was being left behind in colonising the American continent, Elizabeth I granted a charter to Sir Walter Raleigh to
‘discover, search, find out, and view such remote heathen and barbarous Lands, Countries, and territories… to have, hold, occupy, and enjoy..’
…as well as to set up a base from which to carry out privateering!
On April 27, 1584, an initial expedition led by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe left England to explore the eastern coast of North America. They arrived on Roanoke Island NC in July and soon made contact with the local natives, the Secotans and Croatans. They returned to England with two Croatans who, having learned English, were able to describe the politics and geography of the area to Raleigh.
Following Amadas’ and Barlowe’s favourable accounts of the area a second expedition led by Sir Richard Grenville left in April 1585 taking out colonists and supplies they would need. After a bad journey in which the flotilla became separated in the Bay of Biscay and the main ship was flooded losing most of its food supplies they landed on the Outer Banks in late June. Relations with the local Native American population were not good on this occasion, with Grenville destroying a native village after a silver cup was stolen.
Despite this incident and a lack of food, in August 1885 Grenville left 107 men led by Ralph Lane to establish a colony at the north end of Roanoke Island in Pamlico Sound. The plan was to return the following April with more colonists and supplies. A small fort was built on the island.

Arrow show approximate position of Outer Banks, NC. Photograph lithograph reprint of a 1621 map by Anthony Jacobsz. PD – US
Arrow show approximate position of Outer Banks, NC. Photograph lithograph reprint of a 1621 map by Anthony Jacobsz. PD – US

April 1586 passed with no sign of a relief fleet. Grenville’s attack on the native village had the effect of angering the natives who on the visit by Amadas and Barlowe had been friendly Now they were unwilling to help the colonists in any way, even going so far as to attack the colonists’ fort. When Sir Francis Drake stopped at the island on his way home from a raid in the Caribbean (yes really!), the colonists, lacking food and other supplies, returned to England with him. Grenville’s relief fleet arrived shortly after they had left with Drake. Grenville returned to England but left fifteen men to maintain an English presence and to protect Raleigh’s claim to Roanoke Island.
Artist John White was part of this failed attempt at colonisation and his drawings provide the first information about the native people and the local landscape. He was to be the leader of the second attempt, The Lost Colony.
Also part of the colony was Thomas Harriot whose skills as a naturalist were of particular use to the colonists. After studying the areas flora and fauna Harriot compiled a notebook, which unfortunately did not survive. He also wrote an account of the time on the island which, although considered as over enthusiastic has proved an invaluable resource for Roanoke’s history.
The Lost Colony
The plan for the third expedition, led by John White the artist, was to land first on Roanoke Island and then at some point later to sail north to the Chesapeake area to set up a new settlement there in a more favourable area.
White’s pregnant daughter Eleanor Dare and her husband Anainas Dare were to accompany him along with others making a total of 113 men, women and children who left in May 1587. The expedition’s navigator was Simon Fernandez who by all accounts was not amenable to instruction by John White for he landed the colonists on Roanoke Island and refused to take them any further saying that ‘Summer was farre spent’.
The colonists repaired what they could of the 1585 settlement and also looked for the 15 men left by Grenville’s relief fleet – of which there was no sign. In general, relations with the Native Americans weren’t good although there were friendly ones, and from one group they learned that the 15 men were killed by native warriors. Relations with the locals deteriorated further when the English attacked a native village and killed friendly natives instead of the hostile ones they were expecting to be there.

Native mother and child by John White
Native mother and child by John White

Virginia Dare, daughter of Anainas and Eleanor Dare was born in the colony on 18th August 1587. She is considered to be the first English child born in the New World.

Baptism of Virginia Dare, lithograph by William A Crafts, 1876
Baptism of Virginia Dare, lithograph by William A Crafts, 1876

All this time Simon Fernandez had remained in the area and when the time came for him to return to England with his ships the colonists decided that John White should return with him ‘for the better and sooner obtaining of supplies and other necessities’. The main problem facing the colony was that they were expected to have been landed by Fernandez in the Chesapeake area and so resupply ships already despatched would have been looking for them there rather than on Roanoke Island.
Unfortunately for all involved when John White returned to England, hostilities had broken out with Spain and it wasn’t till 1590 that White was able to return to the colony and his family as part of a privateering operation which agreed to stop there on its return to England. On landing on Roanoke Island there was no sign of the colonists and the only clue to their whereabouts was the word ‘Croatan’ carved onto a tree. This was the previously agreed way of the settlers indicating where they had gone – in this case to the Croaton tribe. The other signal was to be a cross which would be carved if they went there under duress. The fact that there was no cross and that all the settlers’ houses had been dismantled suggested that they had gone of their own accord. A big storm was brewing and unfortunately the decision was taken not to explore further.
Two further attempts were mounted, in 1602 and 1603, to find the colonist both of which failed to even land on the island.
Jamestown, Virginia, was founded in 1607 and attempts were again made by the English to find the lost colonists. The first news came from Chief Powhatan, of the Tsenacommacah tribe, who told the then governor of James Town, Captain John Smith, that the settlers had been living with Chesepians tribe about 120 miles north of Roanoke Island and had been killed by Powhatan’s warriors. It was reported that the English had been living peaceably with the American Indians for over 20 years and that they were massacred because of a prophecy that Chief Powhatan would be overthrown by people from that area. However no bodies or archeological evidence was ever found. One theory is that the English slaughtered by Powhatan were the 15 left behind by Grenville in 1586.
Also around the time of the Jamestown settlement there were reports of English living with Native American tribes, one of which reportedly had two-story houses with stone walls. Again these may have been the 15 men left by Grenville.
In the 17th to mid 18th centuries there were reports of Native Americans living in the area of Roanoke Island with blond hair and grey eyes. One group could reportedly ‘read in books’ and speak English.
It is generally thought now that, in accordance to what was carved on a tree at the abandoned colony, some settlers moved to Croatan and some either directly from Roanoke Island or later from Croaton moved inland, possibly in two or more groups. If Powhattan had slaughtered some of the colonists he would have been likely to have spared the women and children. It is likely that some of the colonists remained alive for many years, possibly as late as the time the Jamestown Colony was established. It is therefore likely that there were descendants of the settlers and a DNA project is trying to find them.
So who were the Colonists, and can we identify William Sole? Well, we don’t know who William Sole is because the records are too scant, but we have clues to what kind of man he might have been.
London at the time was plague ridden, crowded, violent and dirty and it is understandable that people would have wanted to leave the city. However to be prepared to take a perilous trip in by today’s standards a small wooden ship to help set up a new community in a new land took some doing. So colonists were likely to be brave, fit, resourceful and importantly have some kind of skill. The adults were likely to have been aged 18 – 35. The kind of skills that would be needed were smiths, carpenters, surgeons, wheelwrights, farmers, tailors and a few people with fighting experience would have been useful. Many needed to be wealthy as although they were guaranteed 500 acres in the New World by Sir Walter Raleigh they would have had to fund themselves and any dependants, including servants, on the journey. It is likely that they sold any businesses and property before leaving England. There would obviously have been the servants of those paying for their passage, and William may have been one of these.
There had recently been an attempt to colonise Ireland by setting up plantations following confiscation of land by the English crown and the taking over the land with settlers from the island of Great Britain. The Munster Plantation, which hadn’t been entirely successful had recruited settlers from Cheshire, Lancashire, the south west and Hampshire so it is unlikely there were many from these areas left who would be willing to travel to the New World. It is thought that John White recruited the Roanoke settlers from London and the south east, and at least some would have been known to him prior to the enterprise. He may well have looked within the trade guilds for people having the kinds of skills needed. In London there may have been skilled and unskilled labourers from the provinces competing illegally with the established craftsmen who would have been pleased to start a new life.
All this is speculation and with so few records of the time it is unlikely we will know any more about who William Sole was. However I was absolutely caught up in the story and thoroughly enjoyed all the research involved in putting together this article. The archivists at the Outer Banks Research Center were particularly helpful (and of course loved my accent!). Thanks also to Jaye Massecar of Friends of Elizabeth II who not only provided an image of the ship but kindly sent me a t-shirt saying Don’t ask the locals for directions, they’ve already lost one colony!

Elizabeth II, replica of a pinnace, the type of vessel left with the Lost Colonists by Simon Fernandez. Photo courtesy of the Friends of Elizabeth II,
Elizabeth II, replica of a pinnace, the type of vessel left with the Lost Colonists by Simon Fernandez. Photo courtesy of the Friends of Elizabeth II,

Roanoke Island, the Beginnings of English America, by David Stick
The North Carolina Historical Review, April 1957, article: Roanoke Colonists and Explorers by William S Powell