The Roanoke colony, established as a business venture by Sir Walter Raleigh, was the first English settlement in the New World. Although three successive attempts at settlement failed (1585, 1586, 1587), the colony heralded England’s entry into the competition for lands in the Americas, further heightening long-standing tensions with Spain.
Raleigh, as most explorers of his time, was looking for gold or silver, but he was also conscious of England’s international position relative to Spain. He carefully planned the first English colony in territory claimed by Spain but far north of any actual settlement. An island located between the North Carolina mainland and the Outer Banks, Roanoke was difficult to reach, requiring navigation of the treacherous Cape Hatteras. Raleigh first sent Ralph Lane, a fellow veteran of the Irish wars, to build a fort on Roanoke. Most of the ships failed to reach the island, and food was scarce when they arrived. Relations with the native peoples were bad from the beginning. When Sir Francis Drake visited the colony in 1586, the remaining settlers determined to return to England with him. A second attempt in 1586 foundered in the West Indies. The third attempt in 1587 was led by John White, an experienced seaman who had sailed with Martin Frobisher in the 1570s and a survivor of the first venture. His intent was to settle on Chesapeake Bay, but a disagreement with a ship’s captain left the colonists again on Roanoke Island. White was sent back to England for supplies, but diplomatic tensions and war with Spain kept him from returning until 1590. By then the colony had been deserted. The mysterious carving of the word Croatoan on a post suggested that the survivors had joined the nearby Indian settlement called Croatoan, but no other trace of the colonists was ever found. White’s paintings of the landscape, animals, and peoples of the region left an indelible visual impression of a potential land of plenty.