Raleigh tries and fails
May 18, 2008
|The Lost Colony - Sunday, May 18
Another windy night, but good for sleeping. There is a slight overcast but by morning the wind has dropped off to a breeze. Today we’re going to Roanoke Island to see where the Lost Colony drama played out. It’s a short drive from here and we plan to stop at the Bodie Island Lighthouse on the way back. We can see the lighthouse from our campsite. Not as famous as Hatteras, but one of the trio of black and whites that characterize this section of coast.
It was a nice ride over to Roanoke Island and we found the Raleigh Fort at the north end of the island. In the Visitor Center a ranger at the desk was busy sewing some old style military leggings. They put on a reenactment play here in the summer so I asked him if it was for one of the costumes? He gave me an icy stare and said “It’s for one of the uniforms!”
We had some time to look around before the video, and a display that caught our eye was one about the role Roanoke Island played in the Civil War. Confederate defenses failed quickly here, and Roanoke Island fell into Union hands early in the war. It then became a haven for escaped and newly freed slaves. They could wade across the waters of the sound (3-6 feet deep) and find refuge on this island where they were safe and protected. At the end of the war the land was returned to it’s previous owners and the colony had to disband, but the taste of freedom and self reliance black people had found here went with them when they ventured out to other parts of the country.
The ranger apparently forgave me for the ‘costume’ blunder and when he saw me looking over two cannons he came over and gave me a thorough description of how dangerous these ‘murder guns’ were. He told how many things could go wrong and kill the crew without harming the enemy. There are several dozen ways these things can blow up in your face or swivel around to kill you, making it almost as dangerous to be standing beside or behind one as to be out in front of it!
And I guess I wasn’t listening very well in school when they talked about the colonization of America, because I always associated the name ‘Sir Walter Ralegh’ with being one of the Englishmen who came here early on. I didn’t realize until today that the man never set foot on American soil. He was just a promoter who sent other people here in his name, not one to actually get his own hands dirty.
And back in the day (when I was in school) we spelled it ‘Raleigh’. Microsoft’s spell check still wants to spell it that way - so their programmer either went to the same school I did, or he’s never been to Roanoke Island. (It scares me to think that if we’d never bought a motorhome I could have died without ever knowing this!)
The video was excellent and gave us good background on the English efforts to establish a colony. In 1584 Raleigh sent the first expedition to Virginia, named for England's 'virgin queen', to scout out the 'New World' and bring back information. Based on the information they brought back he sent a second expedition over in 1585 to establish a 'privateering base' from which to attack and plunder Spanish treasure ships.
This colony failed within two years. They had problems with the Indians and spent so much time looking for gold and pearls they ran out of supplies. They sent their Governor, Grenville, back to England to get some. When he failed to return promptly they hailed down a passing fleet (which happened to be Sir Francis Drake) and went home discouraged and disgruntled.
In 1587 Raleigh tried again, and again the English alienated the Indians and nearly starved. They sent their Governor, John White, home for supplies too, but he also ran into problems and didn't get back for two years. When he returned the colony had disappeared without a trace, and their fate remains a mystery to this day.
Being here where it happened makes it poignant and real, and seeing artifacts over 400 years old is impressive too. Excavations are still going on, and we passed one on our walk to the old fort site. It is tedious work, and painstaking in the extreme.
The site of the fort has been placed with considerable accuracy, so this is very likely the beach where the colonists landed. Now there are pilings to stabilize the beach and homes adjacent to the National Park site. Still - If you try you can picture people of another time wading ashore, and you wonder what they were thinking?
Were they filled with wonder and awe? Fear? Hope? Glad their long, perilous voyage was over - or wishing they could get back on the ship and sail home for England? What was it like to meet the natives for the first time - and how did they communicate? What did they do first - and how did they propose to feed themselves and provide for their shelter? We tend to take their accomplishments for granted, but it must have been daunting to face having to survive and take care of yourself in this strange new place.
Leaving the park site we drove around the island. The town is named Manteo, and on the waterfront there is a small lighthouse and a nice collection of stores and cafes. We stopped for groceries and then headed back to the Bodie (pronounced ‘body’) Island Lighthouse. It’s the third of the distinctive black and white lighthouses on the Outer Banks, this one with it’s stripes horizontal.
There’s a short nature walk and a well informed ranger in the Visitor Center. We availed ourselves of both, and had a nice visit before returning to camp and finishing off our flounder.