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1590: Disaster at Roanoke, Episode 9 - 06/10/05


Baptism of Virginia Dare, 1587 (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Baptism of Virginia Dare, 1587
(Getty Images)
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The first English child to be born in America was baptised, Virginia in August 1587. She would survive her birth, but not the hostile surroundings of that first settlement at Roanoke. The settlement had been sold to investors as a new Eden. Elizabeth had given her blessing. A new town would be called Ralegh.

There would be a governor, John White, baby Virginia's grandfather. This was to be true colonisation because for the first time in any expedition, families were included at the start. But remember this was 1587, the year before the Armada. The whole of England waited for what it feared would be a Spanish invasion. Roanoke was starving and White was sent back for supplies. But in England he found there was no priority to use valuable ships to re-supply a colony.

When the Spanish were defeated, the two nations remained at war. Governor White could not persuade Ralegh to launch a rescue expedition. It was not until August 1590 that White arrived again off the coast of Roanoke. The colonists, including his granddaughter, had disappeared.

It is said that an Indian chief later admitted to their massacre, but we really do not know what happened. However, we do know that the story of the early settlements in America was one of tragedy and few riches.

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Historical Figure

John White, fl. 1585-93

White was a better English artist and cartographer than explorer. His first visit to Virginia was to paint and record the settlement of the colony, not as administrator. It is largely accepted (records seem fair but should not always be trusted) that it was this White who was appointed by Ralegh to be the governor of the second Roanoke colony in 1587 and who reluctantly sailed home for supplies.

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Did You Know...

In 1937 the American dramatist Paul Green (1894-1981) who was born in North Carolina, wrote his symphonic drama The Lost Colony to mark the 350th anniversary of the colony. The story is so important in North Carolina history that Green's drama is now staged every year.

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Contemporary Sources

John White's testimony on Roanoke
This is what John White wrote on his return to the colony where he found a massacre of colonists.

"At our first coming to anchor, we saw a great smoke rise near the place where I left our colony in the year fifteen hundred and eighty seven, which smoke put us in good hope that some of the colony were there expecting my return from England...

"When we came to the smoke, we found no man nor sign that any had been there lately, nor yet any fresh water in all this way to drink...

"Captain Cook and I went to the place which was in the end of an old trench made two years past, where we found five chests that had been carefully hidden by the planters. Of the same chests, three were of my own, and about the place many of my things spoiled and broken, and my armour almost eaten through with rust. This could be no other but the deed of the Savages, our enemies..."

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