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Queen Elizabeth of England, by 1584, has watched as Spanish conquerors have dominated the New World and the English are eager to challenge their long-time enemies. She grants a royal commission to Sir Walter Raleigh and Raleigh soon begins a series of attempts at colonization in what is now North Carolina, though he himself never sets foot in the North America.
A huge confrontation was taking place in Europe between England, as leader of the Protestant world and Spain, as leader of the Roman Catholic nations, and the English monarch feels that much of the Spanish strength comes from their vast wealth in the Americas. England's early attempts at colonization are driven, in part, out of a perceived need to establish a base for operations against the Spanish treasure ships.
England's navy is too small to stop the stream of Spanish vessels returning from the New World, so the Queen turns to privateers, mariners licensed to attack and loot the Spanish ships--government-sanctioned pirates willing to work for their share of the treasure they can plunder.
Against this backdrop, Raleigh sends scouts to what is now North Carolina's coast in 1584, dropping anchor in Pamlico Sound in search of a site suitable for their first colony. Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe claim the land for their Queen.
The natives they find on an island they call Roanoke are eager to trade and Amadas and Barlowe barter for animal skins as they scout to find a defensible outpost for settling, one with access to the ocean but hidden from the Spanish ships.
After a few weeks, the scouts return to England, taking with them two Algonquian Indians, a Croatoan named Manteo and a Roanoke warrior, Wanchese. They are received in the royal court and a scientist, Thomas Harriot, teaches them English and prepares them as interpreters for upcoming expeditions.
Three separate expeditions follow the scouting trip of Amadas and Barlowe. John White and Thomas Harriot, who write a natural history of the New World, are in an expedition led by Sir Richard Grenville in the summer of 1585. With food quickly in short supply, Grenville departs with a promise to bring new provisions in the spring.
With White and Harriot busy documenting the native life, Ralph Lane, left as commander of the one hundred seven soldiers on the journey, builds a small fort and begins to search for treasure, also seeking a location suitable for a permanent settlement. Like the Spanish years earlier, the English have brought unknown diseases to the Native Americans and very quickly relations with the Indians take a terrible turn ending with an attack on the Roanokes and the end of civility. When Sir Francis Drake calls on the island, returning from an attack on the Spanish at Saint Augustine, Lane and the others, along with Manteo, leave with them for England.
Days after their departure, Grenville arrives with supplies for the deserted colony, so he stations 15 men at the newly-built fort, along with provisions to last them for two years. He, too, sails for home.
A fourth attempt is made by Raleigh in the spring of 1587, this time consisting of settlers instead of soldiers or scientists. They are called Planters and they sail in April from Plymouth to build in the New World the City of Raleigh. [Video Commentary by Arthur Barlowe]
Raleigh appoints veteran New World artist John White to govern the colony and White is accompanied by his daughter, Eleanor, who is pregnant, and her husband Ananias Dare. Their plans are to stop briefly at Roanoke to resupply and then sail to Chesapeake Bay to settle, but, after finding only the remains of a single soldier from the fifteen left by Grenville, their plans change. No one knows why they did not venture on to Chesapeake. White's surviving writings blame the master of ships, Simon Fernando, but this can be disputed. Instead, they reclaim the existing structures from the earlier attempts and move ashore.
Manteo has returned with them and they have brought many items to trade with the Croatoans, but the natives have little to share as the season has been dry and the crops scarce. Tensions are high between the settlers and the Indians and they grow worse when one of them, George Howe, is attacked and killed by Roanoke Indians while crabbing alone. Governor White quickly retaliates and two dozen men with muskets raid the Roanoke Indian village. [Video Commentary by John White]
John White discovers, to his horror, that they have mistakenly killed a Croatoan woman, one of several gathering the food left behind by the fleeing Roanokes. Manteo still remains faithful to his friends, the English, and a new arrival is baptized days after the attack when Eleanor Dare gives birth to a daughter, Virginia, the first English person born in America.
But there is hardly time for celebration as the Croatoans turn away from the settlers, stirring such fears about their dwindling food supply that they convince their leader, John White, to return to England in search of additional supplies. [Video Commentary by John White]
John White will be away for nearly three years, caught up in the struggles of England's Queen Elizabeth against the advancing Spanish armada. No ships are allowed to leave English shores and it is late summer, 1590, before John White, with a party of privateers aboard the vessel Hopewell, returns to search for the family and friends he left behind. He finds instead an empty settlement and the word "CROATOAN" carved on a tree.
He is convinced they have fled south to Manteo's village near Hatteras and fully intends to search for them, but storms and heavy surf nearly destroy their vessel... and the search is abandoned. John White returns to England, later retiring to Ireland, and never sees his family again. After Queen Elizabeth's death, an English colony is finally established at Jamestown, but it will be almost seven decades before any English will attempt to settle here again. [Video Commentary by Karen Kupperman]