Sir Walter Raleigh's American colonies

See my main page on Sir Walter for other aspects of his career.

Interesting item 1 - Raleigh's first expedition landed and the crew asked the local Indians the name of the country. Raleigh then put a Bill before Parliament to confirm his rights to what translates as "You've got good clothes".

Interesting item 2 - Raleigh never landed in North America - he just organised and part-financed the expeditions. However, there is a painting in the National Maritime Museum showing him claiming Virginia for England - evidently by an artist with a good sense of imagination.
Raleigh was such a favourite that the Queen refused to permit him to go off on expeditions. Thus it was the ships he provided and the men he instructed who actually went to the "New World" and brought back a number of new discoveries.

Interesting item 3 - It was one of his employees (Thomas Hariot - see below) who brought back the first potato to the British Isles and this was first planted on Raleigh's Irish estate.

Interesting item 4 - Raleigh made smoking fashionable but it was Sir John Hawkins (or possibly Hariot again, according to one account) who introduced tobacco to England. There's more background information on the history of tobacco here.

Interesting item 5 - While imprisoned in the Tower of London he was charged up to £5 a week for his keep.

Gilbert's expedition of 1582/1583
1582 .
. Planned by Sir Humphrey Gilbert who allocated 9 million acres to backers and potential colonists.
Gilbert devised a plan to dispose of the "surplus" population of Britain by founding colonies in America (the "New World") but intended to eliminate the native peoples first. Aimed for Norumbega, later called North Virginia and finally New England.
Raleigh's plans were not as extreme as Gilbert's but he too planned a colony. Raleigh was against Gilbert's venture but didn't want to miss out on the expedition. He sent the "Bark Raleigh", a ship of 200 tons.
June 11th. Expedition sailed.
June 13th. "Bark Raleigh" turned back due to lack of supplies (after two days!).
Aug. 20th. Remainder turned back, having suffered various sicknesses.
Some accounts say that colonists were left and died, but Hayes report implies that all set off for England.
Sept. 9th. Gilbert and his ship, "Squirrel", lost at sea, off Brittany.
Sept. 22nd. Edward Hayes (or Haies) in "Golden Hind" arrived in Falmouth with the news. He later published a full account of the voyage. The expedition seems to have been an unfortunate one, suffering "very many difficulties, discontentments, mutinies, conspiracies, sicknesses, mortality, spoilings, and wracks by sea".
Raleigh's expedition of 1584
1584 .
. Planned by Raleigh as an exploration of the sites for later colonies.
The two ships were led by Philip Amadas of Plymouth and Arthur Barlow, with the pilot from Gilbert's expedition - Simon Fernandez.
Apr. 27th. Sailed from Plymouth.
July 13th. Landed. They met the brother of the chieftain of Roanoke Island.
Sept. Returned to England with items to display, including skins, a pearl necklace and two Indians - Manteo and Wanchese. These were put on show in London and used to help raise support (including the Queen's) for Raleigh's next expedition. Barlow's report was somewhat overenthusiastic which could have led future colonists to expect an easy life.
Raleigh's first trial colony of 1585/6
1585 .
. The initial batch of "settlers" were really employees who were intended to establish the site.
Apr. 9th. Sailed from Plymouth, led by Sir Richard Grenville in Tyger, with four other ships and two pinnaces.
May One pinnace lost on the voyage. They landed at Porto Rico and built a replacement. This shows how capable the expedition was.
June 24th. First landing and meeting with Indians.
July 29th. on They took possession of Virginia, which Raleigh named after Queen Elizabeth (often called the "Virgin Queen") - luckily replacing the earlier, mistaken, name.
Around July 29th. Started unloading at Roanoke. It was originally intended to arrive in time to plant the seeds which were taken along. The final landing was too late for this, and much of the seed was spoiled by salt water when Tyger ran aground and heeled over. The colonists were only left with enough food for around 20 days.
There was an Indian village near the North end of the island, with a palisade enclosing nine cedar houses.
Initial relationships with the Indians being good, a fort was constructed near the village. The fort was 70 foot square with the "settlers" houses outside.
Aug. and Sept. The ships left one by one, taking further examples of trade goods.
Lane sent back highly critical reports of Grenville - evidently they disagreed strongly over various matters.
. The colony was left under the command of Ralph Lane, with 107 others, including Manteo (the Indian who had been displayed in England).
Lane had a military background and ran the colony in that manner.
His dealings with the local Indians tended towards demands rather than simple trading. This must have been partially due to their lack of supplies. However, the Indians did a considerable amount of work - planting their own seed and constructing fish traps - which the colonists could have done for themselves.
An example of his high-handedness can be found in his own journal. He discovered the Indian town of Chawanook, 130 miles to the North, where the Indians had "700 fighting men". Lane seems to have been on good terms with their king and yet took him prisoner for two days.
The initial good relationship with the local Indians deteriorated.
. Lane organised a number of expeditions to gather supplies.
The local Indian Chief - Wingina (later renamed Pemisapan) - tried to get the other tribes to join him against the colonists, and sabotaged more of their supplies.
Whilst Lane was away on one of the expeditions, Pemisapan tried to unsettle the colonists further by telling them that Lane had died.
On Lane's return he tricked Pemisapan. There was a fight and Pemisapan was killed along with some other Indians.
Manteo sided with the colonists throughout, at one time saving Lane from an ambush. He seems to have been equipped with a musket.
. During all this time, Raleigh's explorers (Thomas Hariot and John White) had been documenting and drawing various aspects of the area. Hariot was on good terms with the Indians.
. The expedition's ships returned home with news of the founding of the colony.
Sept. 18th. Grenville arrived at Plymouth in a Spanish treasure ship (the 300-ton Santa Maria) which he had captured on the way home. Despite much of the treasure going missing, Raleigh's portion was probably enough to cover all his expenses for the expedition.
Jan. 6th. The Queen agreed to the land being renamed Virginia, in her honour, knighted Raleigh and made him "Lord and Governor of Virginia".
Drake "rescues" the colonists
1586 .
. This voyage, led by Sir Francis Drake, was primarily intended to capture Spanish treasure ships. It was part financed by Raleigh which may explain why it also visited Raleigh's colony.
10th. June Drake arrives off the coast.
13th. to 16th. June Drake arranged for some initial supplies to be sent to the colonists. There was a storm and the bark landing the supplies was sunk.
June 19th. Lane wanted to accept Drake's offer of further supplies, including food and boats, and move north to Chesapeake bay. However, most of the colonists were now desperate to leave.
The planned relief ship had been due at Easter, and was now considerably overdue. Drake did not know when it would arrive.
When Drake offered to take them home with his fleet, they left the settlement. Due to continuing storms, they had to scramble aboard and abandon most of their possessions.
July 27th. Arrived back at Portsmouth.
Ralph Lane published his account of "The Colony at Roanoke" later the same year.
Raleigh's relief ship arrives at the deserted colony
1586 .
Aug. Raleigh's relief ship arrived to find the colony deserted, and set off back to England.
Grenville arrives and leaves the first "Lost colony"
1586 .
. Grenville arrived, also to find nobody at the colony. He spent some time searching but was not told of the trouble with the Indians.
. He left 15 men with plenty of provisions. After he had gone, the unsuspecting men were attacked by the Indians. Their fate is not known.
Dec. Grenville arrived back at Bideford.
The "Lost colony" 1587/90
1587 .
. Raleigh planned this voyage to establish a real colony, with many Devon families along as settlers. Each colonist had been promised 500 acres.
He instructed his captains to resite the colony 100 miles further north, at Chesapeake Bay, where there was a site for a decent harbour. Roanoke had proved a dangerous landing, even for small ships. He planned to establish the city of Raleigh there.
After the previous problems, this seems to have been a wise decision. However, one of the captains (Simon Fernandez) over-ruled this - probably in order to have more time for privateering. This one decision was probably enough to doom the colony.
13th. Aug. Manteo, the Indian, was Christened and made Raleigh's representative, by John White. Manteo was made lord of Roanoke and Dasemunkepeuc.
27th. Aug. White left the colony to return home. There were 85 men, 17 women, 11 children, and the Indians Manteo and Towaye.
. Sadly the colony they formed on Roanoke Island was short-lived. There are many ideas but nobody knows for certain what happened to them.
. The remnants are to be seen at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site - the "first English settlement in North America".

Relief expedition 1590
1590 .
20th. March Captain Abraham Cooke, Captain Edward Spicer and John White left Plymouth with three ships.
The relief had already been delayed because most English ships were involved in fighting off the Spanish Armada of 1588.
They took several prizes on the way and were late reaching the colony.
16th. Aug. Whilst offshore they saw smoke near the colony and thought it was a signal. They fired a cannon to show that they had arrived.
17th. Aug. Six of the relief crew , including Captain Spicer, were drowned in the landing at the colony.
They found nobody there. Hidden stores had been dug up and spoiled.
However, it had been agreed that the colonists would, if they had to leave, carve a message on the fort's palisade, to say where they had gone. They were to have added a cross to indicate they were being forced to go.
Thus White found a carving of the word "CROATOAN" - the name of another island, where Manteo had been born, and still had friends.
. It can be assumed that the colonists had taken their small ships and moved in with Manteo's tribe at Croatoan. Manteo's high position with the colonists must have given him some importance with the natives as well.
Since no search was made of that area for a long time, no trace was ever found of them.
Some recent research by Catherine Manteo Price at Fishkill Library has shown that the name "Manteo" turns up again in 1609 when Henry Hudson landed at Chesapeake Bay and then went north to Sandy Hook. He anchored there and was attacked by hostile Indians. One of his sailors by the name of Van Horn was injured by an arrow and was carried off to the old Sachem who had a daughter by the name of "Manteo". Since this was only 22 years after the loss of the colony there is always the possibility that they followed the original plan of moving North to Chesapeake Bay and beyond.
18th. August Cooke and White started to set off for Croatoan. Their ship was nearly driven aground when a cable broke and one anchor was lost. Their ship only had one anchor left of four, and storms were continuing. Thus White was not able to persuade Cooke to check Croatoan. Their food supplies were very low and they hadn't been able to get fresh water. One of the ships (the Moonlighte) was in such a bad state that it sailed for England. The other, under Cooke, tried to sail South for supplies and repairs, before coming back to search again. There were further storms and winds from the wrong direction. They were forced to come back to England as well.
See John White's account "Return to Roanoke", published that same year.
The loss of the colonists must have been a hard blow to White, for it was his daughter, Ellinor, who was mother of the first English child born in America - Virginia Dare.
24th. Oct. Landed in Plymouth.
Gilbert's colonising expedition - 1590
1590 .
March 26th. This expedition was organised by Bartholomew Gosnold, Bartholomew Gilbert and John Brereton.
They established a colony on a small island south of Massachusetts.
July 23rd. Lack of supplies caused them to abandon the colony.
. Raleigh was upset at them infringing his rights to trade with that area, and managed to enforce this. However, he did not try to confiscate everything the expedition had gathered.
Raleigh's last attempt at colonisation - 1603
1603 .
. This time Raleigh sent Bartholomew Gilbert with instructions to establish a new colony in the Chesapeake Bay area.
May 10th. A group landed but Gilbert was killed by Indians. The rest of the crew were discouraged and returned to England in September.
. When they returned Raleigh was already imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Drumming up support.

During 1584, Richard Hakluyt published his "Discourse of Western Planting". In this book, written before the return of Raleigh's first expedition, Hakluyt put forward the reasons for colonising the Virgnia area - The book was shown to the Queen in October.

The expeditions were all of a commercial nature and, despite all the failures, Raleigh still made an overall profit from them. This was mostly from the capture of various Spanish treasure ships.

Raleigh arranged for the artist John White to accompany his expeditions. His pictures were used to further interest in the potential colonies.

Why they failed.

Firstly, it should be noted that Raleigh and his advisers made detailed plans for the colonies. The expeditions were well equipped and included men experienced in all aspects of life. What Raleigh couldn't control, from the other side of the Atlantic, were the poor choices made by some of the people he sent. The men seem to have been an argumentative lot, prone to complain about each other in reports to Raleigh. He must have had considerable difficulty in telling what the real situations were, from such reports.

The initial choice of Roanoke was very poor since the difficult landing there became thoroughly dangerous in bad weather.

Raleigh's first attempt at a colony failed because of lack of supplies (largely due to trying to land at Roanoke) and the heavy-handed militaristic nature of the colony's leader.

Raleigh's second attempt should have corrected both of the above, by choosing genuine colonists and re-establishing the colony at a better site. However, the countermanding of Raleigh's orders led to the colony having to continue at the same site - which had been made untenable by the first colony.


Raleigh's name is marked by the city of Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina.

There is a Virginia Handbook with information on the area. Some tourist-type notes about the area and the visitor centre stated -
"Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Exhibits inside the visitor center ..... include a few rusty artifacts and dry displays explaining the historical context of the colonial effort. There are also copies of the many beautiful watercolors and drawings of native plants, animals and people produced by the original expedition's two immensely talented scientists, John White and Thomas Hariot."

"The historic port of Manteo (pop. 950, pronounced MAN-t-o), in the middle of Roanoke Island, between Fort Raleigh and the beach resorts of the Outer Banks, was named for the Native American who helped Sir Walter Raleigh and the Lost Colony......Budleigh Street across from the waterfront.....Queen Elizabeth Street....."

It is interesting to note the names of Budleigh (presumably from East Budleigh, the nearest village to Raleigh's birthplace at Hayes Barton) and Queen Elizabeth.

Thomas Hariot, tobacco and the potato.

Thomas Hariot (1560 to 1621) was undoubtedly an important friend of Raleigh. He was a mathemetician, who drew up navigation tables and a manual on navigation ("Arcticon"). In another note it is said that he invented the mathematical symbols < and > in 1631. However, since that was apparently ten years after his death, it seems far-fetched.
Like Raleigh, Hariot used a variety of spellings for his name, eg. Harriot.

In Raleigh's 1585 expedition which founded Roanoke, Hariot was in charge of relations with the local natives. His navigational devices greatly impressed the local Indians. He also collected and examined the animals, plants and minerals of the new country.

In 1588 Raleigh owned the Abbey of Molana in Ireland which he rented to Hariot.

An extinct AlchemyWeb page on Hariot said -
"During the year the colonists remained on Roanoke Island, Hariot wrote The Chronicle or Discourse of Virginia according to the course of the times, a detailed survey of area's natural resources and native inhabitants. Hariot's Briefe and True Report is an abstract of his Chronicle. It was first published privately in 1588, probably at Raleigh's request, in an attempt reinvigorate flagging interest in his New World colonization efforts. Although in the Report Hariot states his intent to publish the entire Chronicle at a later date, it was never printed and is now lost."

See especially the text of his Brief and True Report on the new colony.

In this he says:
Tobacco - "There is an herbe which is sowed a part by it selfe & is called by the inhabitants vppawoc: In the West Indies it hath diuers names, according to the seuerall places & countries where it groweth and is vsed: The Spaniardes generally call it Tobacco. The leaues thereof being dried and brought into powder: they vse to take the fume or smoke thereof by sucking it through pipes made of claie into their stomacke and heade; from whence it purgeth superfluous fleame & other grosse humors"

Potatoes - "The second part of suche commodities as Virginia is knowne to yeelde for victuall and su-stenance of mans life, vsually fed vpon by the naturall inhabitants: as also by vs during the time of our aboad. And first of such as are sowed and husbanded. OPenauk are a kind of roots of round forme, some of the bignes of walnuts, some far greater, which are found in moist & marish grounds growing many together one by another in ropes, or as thogh they were fastnened with a string. Being boiled or sodden they are very good meate."

Around 1589, Raleigh planted the potato, described as the "Openhauk" by Hariot, in his garden at Myrtle Grove, Youghal, near Cork.

On a whole host of web sites, they say about the potato "The ancient Incas were cultivating this humble tuber thousands of years ago. The potato was not readily accepted in Europe, however, because it was known to be a member of the nightshade family (as are the tomato and eggplant) and therefore thought to be poisonous. In the 16th century, Sir Walter Raleigh was instrumental in debunking the poisonous potato superstition when he planted them on property he owned in Ireland."

Other information.

Books, etc. about Raleigh's colonisation attempts.

Type Title Author Details
  * against the title means that we have a copy
Book The Roanoke Voyages, 1584-1590 David B. Quinn (Editor) Documents to Illustrate the English Voyages to North America Under the Patent Granted to Walter Raleigh in 1584. Published by Dover, 1991; ISBN: 0 4862 6513 7
Book Sir Walter Raleigh and the New World John W Shirley Published by the U.S. Dept of Cultural Resources & History, 1985. ISBN: 0 8652 6206 3. Often difficult to obtain.
Book The traces of Thomas Hariot Muriel Rukeyser Published by Gollancz, London, 1972.
Book The Virginia Handbook Juliam Smith A guide to the State.
Book The Roanoke Voyages   Published by The Hakluyt Society in 2 volumes, London, 1955.
Book * The First Colonists   Published by The Folio Society, 1986.
With many examples of John White's pictures. Also Hariot's "Brief and True report.." and Raleigh's Letters-Patent. It has no index.

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