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Spotlight: The Roanoke Colonies


We just published our entry on the Roanoke Colonies. For those of you tempted to say that this is North Carolina’s business and not Virginia’s, look closely at the map above. This was Virginia before Virginia was Virginia. And arguably, the adventures at Jamestown can’t be understood absent the context of Roanoke.
Plus, it’s just a really good story. You’ve got the half-brothers Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh—the former always making trouble at sea and eventually going down with his ship, the latter a dandy forever flirting with the queen. You’ve got the genius polymath Thomas Hariot, who teaches himself navigation and native languages, and the painter-turned-governor John White, whose granddaughter is the famous Virginia Dare but whose pictures are his most important legacy.
If you like action, there’s a bit of that. The Roanoke Indian chief Wingina is gruesomely beheaded by an Irish colonist named Edward Nugent. (A great book on the Indians of Roanoke, or, as they preferred, Ossomocomuck, is colorfully titled The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand.) Or here’s another dramatic moment: The Croatoan Indians, wary of the Englishmen’s propensity for violence but wanting to remain allies, insist on some kind of visible token or badge of their friendship, lest they be killed mistakenly. But the English attack at night, when it’s too dark to see the tokens. You can only guess what happened.
And I haven’t even mentioned the mysterious tale of the Lost Colonists!
Yet what interested me most when I was writing this entry was the story of the Indians Manteo and Wanchese. Picked up by the English in 1584, they travel to England and live at Raleigh’s Durham House. They teach Hariot their language and return the following year with the first big expedition of colonists. From there, however, their stories diverge. Wanchese flees the English and urges his fellow Indians to fight; Manteo continues to wear Western clothes, perfect his English, and support the Europeans. The price he pays is dear.
If you’ve been to the Outer Banks and onto Roanoke Island, then you know that the island’s two towns are Manteo and Wanchese. It’s worth knowing who these remarkable men actually were.
IMAGE: The Arrival of the English in America (colored Theodor de Bry engraving, after John White)

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