First English toehold in America

Why would Britain's Princess Anne fly thousands of miles to an island in North Carolina to commemorate a 16th-century colonizing venture that failed tragically and mysteriously and that few people have ever heard of?

Because what happened on Roanoke Island in the years following 1584 laid the foundation of English civilization in America. And because those living here today, descended almost entirely from English stock, are fiercely proud of the plucky Elizabethan settlers who voyaged to these shores to carve a life out of the alien forests - and ultimately vanished without a trace.

When English sea captains Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe set foot on Bodie Island in what are now the Outer Banks of North Carolina on July 13, 1584, they were looking for a site where Sir Walter Raleigh could plant a colony.

Later they crossed to Roanoke Island.

Barlowe found its Algonquian Indians to be ''most gentle, loving, and faithfull'' and asserted that its soil ''bringeth foorth all things in aboundance, as in the first creation, without toile or labour.''

After exploring the region for some six weeks, the two sailed for England accompanied by Indians Manteo and Wanchese, who volunteered to go along with them.

Delighted by what Amadas and Barlowe had to report, Raleigh dispatched a colonizing expedition to the island in 1585 under the command of his cousin, Sir Richard Grenville. Among the 107 men he deposited on Roanoke were Thomas Hariot, the colony's chronicler, scientist, and interpreter (who had spent long hours learning Algonquian from Manteo and Wanchese), and John White, its artist and surveyor.

White was a gifted and sensitive watercolorist who set about recording all he saw - from a swallow-tail butterfly, brown pelican, and sinister-looking terrapin to Indians fishing, cooking, and whirling in frenzied dance.

''The faithfulness with which he recorded the faces and the dwellings and the plants and the birds, fish, and so on is quite unparalleled,'' says British historian David Beers Quinn, leading authority on the Roanoke colonies.

Indeed, White's remarkable studies of flora, fauna, and Indian life are the highlight of an exhibition entitled ''Raleigh and Roanoke: the first English colony in America, 1584-90,'' currently on display at the British Library in London.

With the 400th anniversary of the Amadas and Barlowe voyage fast approaching here, the Roanoke Island town named for Manteo is gussying up for Princess Anne's July 13 visit. Many residents plan to don Elizabethan dress to welcome her when she arrives in the town on Friday. ''I'm shooting for 500 costumes on that waterfront,'' says Della Basnight, coordinator for the town's 400th anniversary office. ''I think I'm going to hit it.''

After greeting crowds in downtown Manteo, the princess will cross a brand new bridge, festooned with standards, to Ice Plant Island where a replica of the sort of Tudor ship that bore English colonists to Roanoke Island will await her commissioning.

''I'll be at her service,'' says Horace Whitfield, captain of the Elizabeth II, a 69-foot square-rigged bark built of juniper and yellow pine, launched into Manteo's Shallowbag Bay on Nov. 22, 1983.

Just before noon the royal visitor will be whisked north to Roanoke Island's celebrated Elizabethan Gardens, where gardenias, roses, magnolias, crape myrtle, lilies, hydrangeas, and summer annuals promise to be at their most riotous. Here the princess will stroll with superintendent of gardens Louis Midgette, visiting such attractions as the majestic Sunken Garden with its antique fountain of Roman travertine marble before joining several hundred invited guests for a luncheon of local seafood on the tent-studded Great Lawn.

That afternoon and all next day downtown Manteo will be given over to an Elizabethan extravaganza known officially as ''Roanoke Revelry.'' Says Della Basnight: ''It's basically a food and entertainment fair.''

While minstrels, balladeers, actors, and storytellers regale the costumed throng with music and drama from a trio of stages, cooks will purvey all manner of 16th-century culinary delights from a scattering of booths. There will also be Elizabethan games and dances - such as the stately pavane - and an opportunity to watch master craftsmen practice some of the skills of Tudor England. Even London's town crier will be in attendance.

Though it wouldn't be tactful to proclaim it on Roanoke Island this summer, it's a fact that Sir Walter Raleigh's colonizing efforts in the New World were just a little mismanaged.

Indeed, the 1585 colony on Roanoke Island proved something of a fiasco. In essence it was more of a military outpost than a colony, and the soldiers who manned it cadged and stole food from the Indians rather than provide for themselves. The governor, Ralph Lane, a hard-bitten veteran of Queen Elizabeth I's Irish wars, threw up an earthen fort and thatched cottages and then began scouring the mainland for gold and pearls, fruitlessly as it turned out.

Later, claiming that the Indians were planning a massive attack on Roanoke Island, Lane tricked his way into a village and opened fire on a deputation assembled to meet him. In the ensuing fight Wingina, king of the Roanoac Indians , was beheaded by an Irishman named Edward Nugent.

When Sir Francis Drake arrived off the coast in June 1586 after sacking the Spanish outpost of St. Augustine, he offered Lane the ships and supplies he needed to look for a more suitable settlement site. Lane accepted. But when the fully laden bark assigned him disappeared after a hurricane battered Drake's fleet, the governor and his band decided to bid farewell to the New World. Convinced that Sir Richard Grenville's relief ships would not come ''this yeere, '' they took up Drake's offer of a passage home.

Tragically, when a pinnace struck a shoal returning from Roanoke Island to Drake's fleet, the disgruntled sailors dumped the excess baggage overboard. With it, historians believe, went many of John White's drawings and Thomas Hariot's writings. Grenville arrived six weeks later and put 15 men ashore to hold the abandoned colony. He then sailed for England.

The pride Roanoke Island takes in its links with the romantic, swaggering age of Elizabeth I can be seen everywhere in Manteo. There are streets named for Amadas, Barlowe, and Raleigh and numerous mock-Tudor buildings such as the one occupied by the fire department. The town has never exploited the island's connection with ''Merrie England'' as shamelessly as it might have. Ye Olde English Gifte Shoppe, run by Robert Gatling and his mother, Hester, is a model of taste and sophistication, despite its somewhat whimsical name. However, a hulking wooden statue of Sir Walter Raleigh near the waterfront seems more suited to a carnival float than anything else. Fortunately, perhaps, its legs are beginning to show signs of weathering.

With the approach of the 400th anniversary, Manteo has undergone substantial waterfront revitalization - masterminded by the town's young mayor, John Wilson IV. ''In 1978 only 14 stores still operated on the waterfront,'' he says. ''Buildings were abandoned and the docks were in a terrible state of disrepair. It looked like the economic life of Manteo had passed.'' Creeping blight coupled with several disastrous fires, the most recent in 1981, had steadily driven stores away to the nearby highway. Now, with the construction of a complex known as ''The Waterfront,'' Manteo will get an infusion of shops, restaurants, and condominiums. ''It's a wonderful time to be mayor,'' says Wilson.

Sir Walter Raleigh did not easily give up his vision of a flourishing settlement in the New World. On May 8, 1587, 115 colonists who included 17 women and 11 children set out across the Atlantic under the leadership of the kindly - and possibly somehwat ineffectual - John White. Raleigh's instructions were to rendezvous with the 15 men Grenville had left behind on Roanoke Island and then to proceed to Chesapeake Bay to found the ''Cittie of Ralegh.''

Because it lacked access to a protected deep-water harbor, Roanoke Island was to be abandoned as a colonizing site.

But White's party never reached Chesapeake Bay. The expedition's Portuguese-born chief pilot, Simon Ferdinando (whom historian Quinn calls ''violent'' and ''quarrelsome'') unceremoniously dumped the colonists at Roanoke Island.

They found Ralph Lane's fort, ''rased down'' and the lower rooms of the two-story cottages ''overgrowen with Melons of divers sortes, and Deere . . . feeding on those Mellons.'' There was no trace of the 15 men Grenville had left behind.

White had sailed with Eleanor and Ananias Dare, his daughter and son-in-law, and on Aug. 18, 1587, Mrs. Dare gave birth to a baby girl, christened Virginia - to whom goes the distinction of being the first child born in America of English parents.

Days later, at the pleading of the settlers, White left for England to fetch badly needed supplies. He would never see his daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter again. When, after agonizing delays, he returned to Roanoke Island in 1590 he found the settlement enclosed by a palisade ''of great trees,'' the house ''taken downe,'' and the settlers gone. His armor had been ''almost eaten through with rust.''

As he surveyed the dismal scene he noticed a tree carved with the letters ''CRO'' and nearby the word ''CROATOAN'' cut into a palisade timber. The colony, it seemed, had taken itself off to Croatoan, or Hatteras, Island.

''I greatly joyed that I had safely found a certaine token of their safe being at Croatoan, which is the place where Manteo was borne, and the Savages of the Iland our friends,'' he wrote later. He was particularly relieved not to find a Maltese Cross carved on either the tree or the palisade as that would have meant that some kind of trouble had forced the colonists' departure. White never reached Croatoan, which lay some 50 miles south of Roanoke Island. The weather was too bad. Dejectedly he returned to England.

To this day no one knows for certain what happened to the ''lost colonists.'' Dr. Quinn believes that most of them traveled north to Chesapeake Bay, settling in the Lynnhaven Bay region near what is now Norfolk, Va. But he also thinks it possible that some remained on Roanoke Island to wait for White, leaving for Croatoan when he failed to return and gradually assimilating with the Hatteras Indians thereafter.

This theory is supported by a 1709 book entitled ''A New Voyage to Carolina'' written by John Lawson, surveyor general of the Carolina colony, which claims the Hatteras Indians asserted ''that several of their Ancestors were white people and could talk in (read) a Book, as we do.'' The truth of the claim, Lawson went on, ''is confirm'd by gray Eyes being found frequently amongst these Indians, and no others.''

If some of the Roanoke colonists did move to Chesapeake Bay, there seems a strong possibility that a number were slaughtered by the Indian chief Powhatan about the time Capt. John Smith and the Jamestown colonists arrived in 1607. By one account at least, Powhatan went so far as to tell Smith that he had massacred many of them.

If the ''lost colonists'' are likely to remain lost forever, the mystery of where they and their predecessors actually lived is probably more susceptible of solution. Experts have always imagined that they huddled close to Ralph Lane's earthen fort, but to date no evidence of their cottages or of the palisade White mentions has been found next to the fortification, restored in 1950 as the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

British historian David Durant insists that Lane's fort is nothing more than a small earthwork. In his view the main fort and settlement are still to be found on the island.

But Linda Pearce, interpreter at the Fort Raleigh site, disagrees. ''I really think that what happened, happened here,'' she says, pointing out that Lane's fort might well be part of a larger, yet undiscovered defensive system. She feels that part of the Roanoke palisade was found in 1965, though archaeologists did not then appreciate it as such.

Using remote sensing techniques to determine where to excavate, National Park Service archaeologists are actively stalking the ''Cittie of Ralegh.'' It will, of course, be a trifle embarrassing if they eventually feel a pressing need to dig under the nearby park headquarters and visitor center. ''We hesitate to comment on that,'' says Pearce laughingly.

Strictly speaking, Princess Anne is coming to Roanoke Island on Friday to commemorate a gallant failure.

Or is she?

''From these voyages and colonizing efforts came the conviction that an English nation could be established in America,'' declares Lindsay Warren, chairman of the committee that devised the 400th anniverary celebration. Because of Sir Walter Raleigh's vision, he says, ''the United States today enjoys an English heritage.''

The history of English-speaking America began, not in 1607 at Jamestown or at Plymouth in 1620, but on Roanoke Island in 1584.

Many years ago, respected North Carolina historian Albert Ray Newsome observed: ''Thrice historic is Roanoke Island, birthplace of British colonization which produced North Carolina, the United States, and the British Empire.''

The gaunt, disheveled, hungry, homesick English colonists, lashed by flickering summer storms, tormented by heat and mosquitoes, and in constant dread of Indian attack, would dearly loved to have known that their sufferings were not in vain. In fact it seems they started more than they could possibly have dreamed of.

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