Saturday, August 30, 2014

I have had to repost this blog entry.  The August 1 entry disappeared while I attempted to make a correction in its content.  The revised entry is below.

John White's "Lost Colony"

William Sanderson’s Moonlight and John Watts’s Hopewell arrived three leagues off Hatorask Island August 15, 1590. Watts’s five ships had wasted considerable time in the Caribbean harassing local shipping while they had waited for the great Santo Domingo treasure fleet’s appearance. Occasionally, one or two galleons of a great fleet lagged. These were the prize ships that privateers like the Hopewell’s Captain Cocke and other ship captains craved. As they had waited, July had passed into August. John White’s anxiety had reached its apex. Assuming that the Hopewell did sail to Roanoke, it would need to leave the Outer Banks no later than the end of August to avoid a winter crossing of the Atlantic.

It was August 18, the third birthday of White’s Roanoke-born granddaughter Virginia Dare, when White, Captain Cocke, and a contingent of sailors set foot on Roanoke Island. Climbing a sandy bank, they sighted on a tree branch the Roman letters CRO, signifying, White interpreted, the word “Croatoan,” the name of Manteo’s village of birth, some 50 miles distant on the southern part of Hatarask Island. White explained to the mystified sailors that prior to his 1587 leaving-taking, the settlers “had considered relocating.” Fear of further reprisal by local Algonquians for wrongs done to them and of sudden discovery by Spanish ships were weighing on them. “… they were prepared to remove from Roanoke 50 miles into the main.” And if he were unable to find them upon his return, “they devised a plan, a secret token agreed upon” that they would “write or carve on the trees or posts of the doors the name of the place where they should be seated. … I willed them, that if they should happen to be distressed in any of those places, that they should carve over the letters or names, a cross” (Miller 13).

Entering the village compound, they saw not a door, house, shed, board, or even a nail where the 1587 structures had existed. Standing before them instead, in the center of the compound, was “a high wooden palisade, artificially constructed of trees with curtains and flankers very fort-like. … On one of the chief trees or posts at the right side of the entrance to the palisade, where the bark is scraped away … was engraven CROATOAN … without any cross or sign of distress” (Miller 14). We can imagine White’s exhilaration, his anticipation of seeing his daughter and granddaughter and, God be willing, all of his friends and associates a day’s travel by ship thereafter.

Out at sea a great storm was building. With some difficulty the sailors rowed their scallops back to the Hopewell and Moonlight, anchored off Port Ferdinando. “Night passes fitfully, the ships plunging in the mounting swells. The next morning, despite the weather, Captain Cocke agrees to set a course for the island of Croatoan … The anchor spins away, taking a second down with it. Untethered, the ship drives fast into the shore. Toward the shoals. … By accident, sheer luck, they fall into a channel or deep water and avoid being dashed to pieces on the bar. … Only one anchor remains of an original four, and the weather grew to be fouler and fouler; our victuals scarce and our cask and fresh water lost” (Miller 16).

The idea of wintering in the Caribbean was considered. Decisions were made. The Moonlight would return directly to England, its crew declaring it to be “weak and leaky.” The Hopewell would remain in the West Indies! Hope yet! White could join his settlers in the spring! But then, “August 28 it happens. The wind shifts. … The storm blasts up off the Carolina coast from out of nowhere. … A wild storm, full of malice and greed. Howling winds buffet the ship, coiling the sails around the masts. … Wrenching the Hopewell away from its destination [Trinidad]. … The Hopewell is forced east in a direct line with the Azores. Away from the eye of the storm” (Miller 17-18).

“At Flores in the Azores the Moonlight is spotted riding with four English men-of-war. A surprise. The leaky hull only an excuse to rejoin the fray, dodging inactive duty at Roanoke. … And all the while, the enemy sea and her ally the wind continue to play havoc with his [Cocke’s] plans, preventing a landing for provisions … The Hopewell finally surrenders and sets a course for England.” The ship reaches Plymouth October 14. “The voyage is over. White’s last chance to contact the planters had come and gone” (Miller 18).

Sir Walter Raleigh could no longer help him. The continuous attacks directed at Raleigh by the young Earl of Essex and his friends had reduced considerably the Queen’s regard for him. And then, Raleigh utterly destroyed that which was left. In the summer of 1591 he seduced secretly Elizabeth (Beth) Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth’s maids of honor. In July they conceived a child. In the autumn they were secretly married. Beth left the Court in February 1592, gave birth to a son in March, and returned to Court in April. Rumors circulated. In July, “Queen Elizabeth, in a rage, hurls the lovers in the Tower. Raleigh’s disgraces leave him fair game for his enemies” (Miller 203). The radical English Jesuit Robert Parsons led Raleigh’s debasers. He had already, in February, charged Raleigh with atheism. A rash of vicious publications followed. Raleigh “is accused of the loss of life of voyagers and mariners, and of damaging England while enriching himself through militarism and ambition.” He is “an epicurean. A free-thinker. Separatist sympathizer. A loose cannon” (Miller 203).

Raleigh was released from the Tower in August (Beth in December) but was barred from the Court. “Nor did her {Elizabeth’s] displeasure abate, for he was obliged to live quietly … for the next five years at Sherborne Castle” (Weir 413) in Devon and on his estates in Ireland.

In February 1593 Richard Hakluyt received a letter from John White, who was residing on one of Raleigh’s Irish estates. Nearly two and a half years had passed since his tragic return from Roanoke. The letter detailed the events of his 1590 experience. “He commits his colonists to the merciful help of the Almighty. … White was never heard from again” (Miller 204).

Nor would John White’s settlers make contact with any European, as far as historians know. Working with only scraps of information, historians do speculate where John White’s “lost colony” may have relocated and what may have happened to them. Here is one historian’s theory.

David Beers Quinn, the author of Set Fair for Roanoke, believed that a small segment of the settlers went to Croatoan to await John White’s expected return, while the vast majority, perhaps 88 individuals, sailed to the south shore of Chesapeake Bay, the intended location of White’s voyage to Roanoke in 1587. Governor Ralph Lane had sent a detachment of soldiers to that area to live among the Chesapeake natives during the 1585-1586 winter. The success of that expedition was a major reason why Sir Walter Raleigh chose not to resurrect the Roanoke Island colony. Quinn stated: “it was not until Jamestown had been established for a year and a half that clear evidence emerged that the main body of the colonists had indeed joined the Chesapeake Indians as early as 1587 and had lived and perished with them” (345). Quinn estimated that the pinnace in their possession probably made three trips to the Bay and the 15 miles up the Elizabeth River to Skicoac, their chosen location.

“The moving of the colonists northward in September 1587 would make sense, as they would wish to be established before winter. … There would need to have been messengers sent, probably overland, to warn them [the Chesapeake Indians at Skicoac] of the approach of the colony, and one or two men must have spoken enough of their language to be able to communicate effectively with them, with, perhaps, the guidance of one of Manteo’s Indians. … The first winter and the first growing season would be crucial. It may be that a permanent village site was carved out in 1588 at some distance from the main Chesapeake town to allow the settlers to develop their own community life. … The settlers would have been buoyed up with hope that sometime in 1588 White [told of their location by colonists at Croatoan] would appear with wives and children and single men and women to add to their strength and increase the size of the colony” (347, 349). Because White never appeared, intermarriage and assimilation with the natives had to have taken place over the succeeding years.

The Chesapeakes had successfully resisted the growing power of the Powhatan and their ambitious chief Wahunsonacocks. Quinn wrote: “For several decades before 1600 he had been building up his authority in the Virginia Tidewater, subjecting by diplomacy or war, or both, tribe after tribe along the James and York rivers and on the Virginia Eastern Shore. Not all the tribes on the south bank of the James or the southern shore of Chesapeake Bay were prepared to acknowledge his authority … Among the tribes that evidently did not pay him tribute were the Chesapeakes. Moreover (if our assumptions are correct), they were harboring and making marriage alliances with a group of white refugees who had appeared many years before but had, apparently, not played any part in the politics or warfare of the area and so had not been molested. But the entry of a Spanish ship in 1588 into the Chesapeake Bay [see my blog entry: “1588-1590: Drake’s Failure, Raleigh’s Decline, White’s Dilemma” -- July 1, 2014] must have given Powhatan some grounds for alarm” (360). (Quinn uses the name of the large Algonquian nation -- Powhatan -- as the name of its chief) In 1603 an English ship commanded by Samuel Mace, making landfall, seized several natives presumably of Powhatan’s confederation. The natives were taken to London to be interrogated (as Manteo and Wanchese had been questioned in 1584) to obtain useful knowledge of the Chesapeake territory and its inhabitants. Powhatan’s priests prophesized that white men would come again to deprive Powhatan of his kingdom. After three ship commanded by Captain Christopher Newport entered Chesapeake Bay in April 2007, Powhatan took action. According to John Smith, Jamestown resident and explorer, and William Strachey, secretary of the Jamestown colony in 1609, Powhatan slaughtered the Chesapeakes and their assimilated white allies. Smith claimed years later that Powhatan himself had confessed this to him December 2008 at the two men’s last meeting. Strachey wrote of instructions given by King James I that Powhatan’s priests be executed and Powhatan’s confederacy be broken apart both as punishment for the slaughter and to establish dominion over Powhatan. This was never done, due to the weakness of the settlement. Jamestown officials, and Smith, did hear rumors of white survivors living in various locations in the North Carolina interior. Two half-hearted attempts to reach them were unsuccessful.

Quinn wrote that “no concerted attempt was made to recover them.” A military operation would probably have been too risky given the weakened state of the Jamestown settlement. Quinn believed that emissaries could have been sent to bribe chieftains. This also was not done. By 1611 “it may have seemed mere sentimentality to expend any great effort to recover a handful of individuals. Under the Spartan regime of Sir Thomas Dale, from 1611 to 1616, this seems plausible. But we are left entirely in the dark. The survivors were deserted completely, so far as we know, for twelve or thirteen years … All this time we hear nothing of attempts to search the Outer Banks for colonists who had remained with Manteo. They are never even mentioned and pass into oblivion for the rest of the seventeenth century. We are forced to accept as a fact that they became Indians themselves, and their children and grandchildren wholly so, as the century went on” (375-376).

Next month I will present the theories of Michael Leroy Oberg, Lee Miller, and James Horn.

Works Cited:

Miller, Lee. Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001. Print.

Quinn, David Beers. Set Fair for Roanoke. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985. Print.

Weir, Alison. Elizabeth the Queen. London: Vintage Books, 1998. Print.