Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

Location: Manteo, North Carolina

Webpage: National Park

General Description: To expand the British Empire, Sir Walter Raleigh had visions of a permanent British colony in the New World to counter the Spanish dominance.  The primary purpose would be the harvesting of the natural resources in the New World including timber, naval stores, furs, and hopefully, precious metals.  In July 1584, two ships arrived off the North Carolina coast and were met by friendly Algonquian Indians on Roanoke Island.  After several weeks, they left taking two Indians back with them.  Their reports spoke of great opportunities and friendly natives, so in 1585, Raleigh sent seven ships to establish a fort to explore the land for precious metals and a base to raid Spanish ships.  Leaving 101 soldiers and colonists, the expedition returned to England where artist John White and scientist-ethnographer Thomas Hariot provided valuable information about the Algonquians and potential for further development.  The colonists became more dependent on the Indians for food and hostilities eventually broke out with the killing of Chief Wingina.  So when relief supplies did not come the following year, the colonists left when Sir Francis Drakes raiding fleet stopped at Roanoke Island.  In 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh decided to establish a true colony on Roanoke Island to be called the Cittie of Ralegh” led by John White.  Their plan was to establish the colony in Chesapeake Bay, but when they stopped at Roanoke Island to search for the 15 men left their, the captain of the ship forced the colonists to disembark so he could get to raiding the Spanish before heading back to England.  The 117 colonists had no choice but to repair the fort and houses from the earlier expedition.  The Indians were now unfriendly to the point of killing some of the colonists and they found themselves in trouble.  White therefore returned to England with the ship to seek additional supplies.  However, once he got back to England, White was delayed because England was commandeering all ships to face the Spanish Armada that was soon to threaten England.  Therefore, White did not return for three years and, in 1590, found none of the colonists.  Most of the buildings were dismantled but there was no sign of a struggle or any graves.  In addition, the colonists did not leave the sign of the cross which they had agreed to leave if they had to flee the area.  Instead all he found was the word “Croatoan” carved in a post and the letters “CRO” on a tree.  When White tried to read Croatoan Island (now Hatteras Island) a hurricane forced the ships away from the coast and nearly back to England before they could escape it.  There were attempts to find the colony, but no trace was ever found and it became known as “The Lost Colony”.  In addition to the original colonists was Virginia Dare, the first English citizen to be born in the New World, a granddaughter of John White.  Along with a museum and short movie detailing the continuing mystery, the Visitor Center also provides information about two other historical events that happened on Roanoke Island.  First, was events of the Civil War.  The first step taken by the Union Army to close the Confederate Ports began in 1862 with the taking of Roanoke Island.  The battle wasn’t spectacular since the 13,000 Union troops were able to quickly overrun the Confederate defenders.  Word quickly spread in the region that slaves could find their freedom by escaping to Roanoke Island and hundreds of refugees soon showed up.  The Army established a Freedman’s Colony to prepare the former slaves for productive lives after the war.  Lots were laid out, schools, churches, hospital, and a sawmill were built, and teachers were recruited.  By 1865 almost 3500 people lived in 560 log dwellings.  The colony was decommissioned in 1867 when President Johnson decreed all land captured during the war was to be returned to their former owners.  Many of the former slaves moved on but some stayed on Roanoke Island.  The second notable historical event took place in 1901 (the same year as the Wright Brothers were doing their experiments at Kitty Hawk just 7 miles away).  Radio pioneer Reginald Fessenden was continuing his work with wireless communication while working for the Weather Service on the Island.  In 1901 he was able to make the first voice broadcast using amplitude modulation (AM) from a tower on the island to a receiver at Cape Hatteras.  Outside the Visitor Center, visitors can visit the reconstructed earthworks that are part of the original expedition in 1585.  Unfortunately, the location of the colony itself has not been located and it is believed most of it has eroded away into the Sound.  In any case, the structures were only there for a few years, so archeological evidence will be difficult to find.  There is also a short nature walk of the grounds, the outdoor theater that hosts Paul Greene’s play “The Lost Colony” every summer since 1937, and the Elizabethan Garden.



1) The museum and short film are very well done giving all the background and evidence supporting the first attempt by the British to establish a permanent settlement in the New World.  There have been a few archeological digs in the area and many of the artifacts are on display.  Most of them relate to the scientific work of Thomas Hariot trying to find precious metals and were found in and around the earthworks.  This leads historians to believe these earthworks, which is much too small for a fort with houses and other structures, to be designed to protect the valuable equipment located outside the fort itself.


2) The outdoor theater has a spectacular setting with a view of Albermarle Sound as a backdrop.  It was unfortunate that September is too late to see the play, which only runs into August.


3) The nature hike is not very long but they have included a number of signs next to native plants and trees giving their importance and uses for the colonists.  Each of the signs includes the transcription and drawings by the artist John White written in Old English.  It was an interesting challenge to understand what he was saying since the language has changed significantly in 700 years.


4) We did not take the time to visit the location of the Freedman’s Colony, which is suppose to be a marker, or the Elizabethan Garden.  I understand that the Garden is a large formal garden in the European style.

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