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Manteo, NC

Lost Colony Tells the Story of Vanished Settlers

Wood carver demonstrates his skills at Roanoke Island Festival Park, North Carolina

A wood carver, in 16th-century garb, shows his skills to children touring the site of the Lost Colony in Manteo, North Carolina.
MITCHELL SMYTH/Meridian Writers’ Group

THE GREY-BEARDED sailor, in baggy pantaloons, buckled shoes and sailcloth vest, stands on the back deck of the barque Elizabeth II. “Good Queen Bess has sent us here to plant an English community in the New World,” he says.

He is, of course, an actor playing the part of a 16th-century adventurer, one of the 116 men, women and children who established an English colony here on Roanoke Island in 1587. The Elizabeth II is a modern rendition of the ship they arrived on.

Our actor is one of the costumed interpreters who reconstruct the adventure as visitors tour the ship, the settlement site nearby and an Indian village. It’s an adventure that ended with one of the most fascinating mysteries of all time: the riddle of what happened to that colony.

It was the first English settlement in America, 20 years before the famous Jamestown colony was established and 33 years before the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth Rock. (The word “English” is important: the Spanish founded St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565.)

The English ships landed on July 22, 1587. In August, America’s first English child, Virginia Dare, was born in Roanoke. “Weeks later,” a guide explains, “her grandfather, John White, the governor of this little colony, sailed for Europe for supplies.

“But he didn’t get back for a while: a little matter of a war with Spain—including the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588—meant that every English ship was needed in Europe.”

And when White, with new supplies, at last set foot on Roanoke again, in 1590, his people had vanished.

What happened? Historians are divided. Either they were slain by the Indians or, short of food, they moved on and were assimilated into native tribes.

Did Virginia Dare grow up to be a warrior’s wife? You can ponder that question before a statue of her, as an adult, in the Elizabethan Gardens in the area where the first colony stood. Nearby is the Settlement Site, where costumed guides show off skills as blacksmiths, woodworkers and canoe-builders. The site of the colony was established through archeological digs from 1936 to 1948—digs that produced no evidence of a massacre there.

At an open-air amphitheatre to the north of the site a pageant, The Lost Colony, runs every summer, as it has since 1938. The action-packed drama begins in London, with Queen Elizabeth I commissioning Sir Walter Raleigh to found the colony. (Raleigh did not accompany the colonists).

The pageant is staged by professional actors. (Andy Griffith got his start playing Raleigh. He lived, until his 2012 death, in Manteo.)

The drama gives no solution to the mystery. But it’s known that in Robeson County, on the mainland south of Roanoke Island, there’s a 40,000-strong band of light-skinned, blue-eyed Indians called the Lumbee, whose language includes 16th-century English words and many of whose surnames are the same as residents of the Lost Colony. You may draw your own conclusions.

 

ACCESS

For more information on Roanoke Island Festival Park visit its website at http://roanokeisland.com.

For information on travel in North Carolina visit the North Carolina Department of Commerce, Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development website at www.visitnc.com.