On this day in 1587, the English colonists at Roanoke put in writing their request that their governor, John White, return to England to procure additional supplies, update Sir Walter Raleigh, &c.
Now I realize this doesn’t sound particularly remarkable, but it is. Imagine you’re one of the many Joe Blows who signed up for this trip; you have zero experience on the high seas or with the Indians. Your buddy George Howe just turned up pin-cushioned with arrows, and the weather is, well, dry. In fact, you’ve arrived during the driest three-year period in EIGHT HUNDRED years. So, while you may only suspect it at this point, feeding yourself is going to be tricky.
So what’s your best move? Sending home the one guy who has been to Roanoke before? Who has traveled the country and dealt with the Indians? You wouldn’t think, and yet there it is, in black and white: what the historian David Beers Quinn has called “the first formal document to survive which originated in an English settlement on the mainland of North America”:
May it please you, her Majesties Subjects of England, wee your friendes and Countrey men, the planters of Virginia, doe by these presents let you, and every of you to understand, that for the present and speedie supplie of certaine our knowen, and apparent lackes, and needes, most requisite and necessarie for the good and happie planting of us, or any other in this lande of Virginia, wee all of one minde, and consent, have most earnestly intreated, and uncessantly requested John White, Governour of the planters in Virginia, to passe into England, for the better and more assured helpe, and setting forward of the foresayde supplies: and knowing assuredly that he both can best, and will labour, and take paines in that behalf for us all, and hee not once, but often refusing it, for our sakes, and for the honour, and maintenance of the action, hath at last, though much against his will, through our importunacie, yielded to leave his government, and all his goods among us, and himselfe in all our behalfes to passe into Englande, of whose knowledge, and fidelitie in handling this matter, as all others, we doe assure our selves by these presents, and will you to give all credite thereunto. the five and twentieth of August.
White refused not once, but twice, and yet still his charges insisted. And they were unanimous. Was his mission back home that important and complex? Or was White’s leadership that suspect? All we know for sure is that he left, and when he finally returned, three years later, everyone had disappeared.
A version of this post was originally published on August 25, 2011.