The Lost Colony of Roanoke: Mystery, Theories & History

Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

This lesson discusses the first English settlement in North America. Learn more about the mysterious disappearance of the colonists of Roanoke and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Roanoke colonists gather for the baptism of Virginia Dare

Sir Walter Raleigh Builds an Empire

Sir Walter Raleigh wanted to build an empire. During the 90 years following Christopher Columbus's first voyage to the Americas in 1492, Spain grew into one of the world's wealthiest nations. Ships full of gold, silver, and pearls made their way from the New World to Europe. Raleigh wanted to develop an empire like that for England. As he created his plan, he decided that one of the first things he needed to do was choose a location that would make it convenient to launch attacks on Spanish ships.

Based on information provided by British explorers Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlow in 1584, Raleigh chose the island of Roanoke. Today it is part of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Raleigh went on to dominate the first phase of English settlement in North America between 1585 and 1603.

John White Arrives

Raleigh sent Ralph Lane to Roanoke in 1585 to try and start a colony, but Lane proved to be a poor leader, particularly when it came to developing a good relationship with the Croatan Indians. The Croatans were already living in North Carolina when the first English settlers arrived. After Lane's failure, Raleigh sent a second group in 1587, led by John White.

Among the 150 colonists in his group was White's pregnant daughter, Eleanor Dare. When she gave birth to her daughter, Virginia, shortly after the colonists arrived in July, Virginia Dare became the first European born in North America. White did not stay in Roanoke very long, though. The new settlement quickly ran low on food, and White reluctantly sailed back to England to get more supplies later in 1587.


One of the men who traveled with John White on his voyage to Roanoke was Manteo, a Croatan chief. For Manteo, it was a journey back home. He had sailed to London twice, first with Amadas and Barlowe and the second time with Lane on his return trip to England. Manteo was interested in forging a good relationship with the British and proved to be very valuable to them as a guide, interpreter, and mediator. He learned to speak English from the author Thomas Harriot and in return taught Harriot the Algonquian language.

Before Manteo set sail with John White's group in 1587, Raleigh made Manteo the Lord of Roanoke. The town of Manteo in North Carolina is named for him and is located in Dare County, named for Virginia Dare.

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