How did The Lost Colony fit in the founding of the English colonies in North America?
Virginia Dare was born at the Lost Colony on Roanoke Island, the first child of English parents in America, and that gives North Carolinians a strong claim to be a critical part of the English colonization effort. But since that colony disappeared without a trace, can we claim that this unsuccessful colonization effort was part of later permanent colonization efforts in Virginia and New England?
The answer: Absolutely, says John May, author of an upcoming book to be titled “English America: An Introduction to The Lost Colony and Jamestown.”
It is scheduled for publication next year by McFarland, a leading independent publisher of academic and general-interest nonfiction books.
May argues that the “founding of the first enduring English American colony was one continuous effort interrupted by war with Spain. The Roanoke Island and Jamestown colonies constitute the selfsame history in all meaningful respects.
Think of Jamestown as the second act of the two-act play but under new direction and with it an all-new cast of characters.”
In October 1584, at the request of Sir Walter Raleigh’s supporters, a young scholar, Richard Hakluyt, prepared a prospectus outlining the “potential political advantages of a colony in the part of North America that had been named Virginia.” Hakluyt delivered a copy to Queen Elizabeth.
The queen offered only minimal support for Raleigh’s venture.
But May argues that the objectives outlined in the prospectus “remained unchanged for the next twenty-five years. But in all those years of trial and error— of one heartbreaking failure after another — the one constant and central presence in the effort was Richard Hakluyt.”
Raleigh, the most prominent supporter of the first colonization effort on Roanoke, had the most to gain.
With a successful permanent settlement within seven years of his grant in 1584, Raleigh would be granted title to most of the eastern part of North America. But Raleigh had stepped aside and become involved in other adventures.
Efforts to establish a colony on Roanoke Island continued, and May tells the stories of that colony in engaging detail, beginning with their biggest problem, the unsuitability of our coast, to support a colonization effort.
“The coast of North Carolina was an inauspicious choice for a first colony. From the seashore island for up to fifty miles, the land is swampy or so low-lying it often floods, and much of it in the sixteenth century was thickly forested wetlands that were all but impenetrable.
“English galleons had an average draft of twelve feet but inlets into the Pamlico Sound — through which Roanoke Island is accessed — were blocked to such ships by shallow sandbars that shift with every major storm.
“Dangerous offshore shallows — Wimble, Diamond, and Frying Pan Shoals — extend miles out into the Atlantic, and seas off the Outer Banks are subject to riptides and cross currents caused by the conflicts of the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current.
These hazards have caused countless shipwrecks and given to this region of the North American coast the baleful epitaph’ Graveyard of the Atlantic.’”
In May’s detailed account of the Virginia Colony, his hero is John Smith, the rough-and-ready Daniel Boone character who also fought against the Native Americans and still gained their respect.
The story about the Native American emperor Powhatan’s daughter rescuing Smith from execution is based on Smith’s later written account. May says that, although this account is probably not completely accurate, Pocahontas had a real expectation that Smith would become a part of the Powhatan family. Smith’s failure to meet this expectation was a great disappointment to her.
May’s copious research, combined with his great storytelling gifts, make his story of the Lost Colony and Jamestown histories a reading pleasure.
The Lost Colony itself had disappeared without a trace, but there were others who were “eager to take up the baton and see what profits could be squeezed from the great unknown of North America about which Hakluyt promised so much.”
Editor’s Note: D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.