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First English Colonies: 1566–1619

Northwest Passage and Roanoke Colony

Search for the Northwest Passage

The first English explorers to come to North America were seeking a new, less hazardous route to China.

English merchants began exploring the northern Atlantic Ocean for a new path to Eastern markets in the 1480s. They had English goods to export and wanted new goods to sell in England. Luxury items like spices and silks were in high demand but incredibly expensive due to the hazards involved in importing them by established land or sea trade routes. These frequently crossed arid deserts or traversed regions troubled by war, bandits, or pirates. Christopher Columbus believed he had found a southern passageway to China when he landed in the Americas in 1492. Italian John Cabot thought he could find an even shorter, northern route. After approaching several monarchs, Cabot found a sponsor for an expedition in King Henry VII of England, who authorized him to claim any land he found for England.

Cabot set sail with his crew in May 1497. A month later, they landed in Newfoundland, an island off the coast of present-day Canada. Cabot believed Newfoundland lay off the coast of China and hurried back to England to share his discovery with the king. A year later, during their return to Newfoundland, Cabot, four ships, and his crew disappeared. Between 1501 and 1507, Henry VII authorized several more expeditions. Nothing came of them, however, which dampened enthusiasm for such voyages.

Atlantic exploration remained a low priority for England well into the reign of Elizabeth I, queen of England from 1558 to 1603. Then in 1576, a book by Sir Humphrey Gilbert, A Discourse of a Discoverie for a New Passage to Cataia [China], extolled the benefits of establishing colonies in North America. It asserted that trade with the colonies would increase England's revenue while providing a place for unemployed Englishmen to work.

Gilbert's persuasive discourse inspired English explorer Martin Frobisher. He made three expeditions to the seas near the Arctic Circle to search for the Northwest Passage. In 1578, on his third and last expedition, Frobisher tried but failed to establish a colony on Baffin Island, an Arctic island near Greenland. An earlier attempt in 1576 had been thwarted by hostile native people on the island, who took several members of Frobisher's crew captive. This second attempt was undermined by discontent and dissent among Frobisher's crew. That same year, Elizabeth I gave Sir Gilbert permission to sail to North America, claim for England any land not owned by Christians, and settle English citizens there. This is considered to be the first royal charter, or written grant of rights issued by a monarch, for the creation of an English settlement in the colonies. In August 1583 Gilbert landed in Newfoundland, which had already been claimed by Cabot. About a month later, his journey and the chance to make his vision a reality ended when his ship sank in the Atlantic during a fierce storm. In 1585 Gilbert's younger brother, Adrian, and a few others were granted similar charters, but no northern passage to China was found, and no colonies were established.

Early English Attempts at Colonization, c. 1480-1583

Early English explorers sailed in search of a northern corridor to China. Their failed expeditions led to England's colonization of North America.

Roanoke Colony

Established in 1584, Roanoke Colony was the first official English settlement in North America, though it lasted less than three years.

In 1585 the first official English settlement in the New World was established on Roanoke Island, a barrier island off present-day North Carolina's coast. Under the direction of Sir Walter Raleigh, an English explorer who financed the colony, 107 soldiers, miners, and scientists settled on the island in July. However, they did not stay long. They lacked sufficient supplies to get them through the winter and had arrived too late to plant food crops. Furthermore, the group's leader, Ralph Lane, had quarreled with and killed Wingina, a chief among the Roanoke Indians who was plotting the destruction of the colony. Survival looked bleak. In 1586 Lane and his people returned to England. Two weeks after their departure, supply ships arrived at the abandoned settlement. Fifteen sailors were left behind to protect it.

In 1587 Raleigh tried to establish another colony, sending 177 men, women, and children to nearby Chesapeake Island. En route, their ship stopped at Roanoke Island. The settlers found the 15 sailors had been murdered by Indians. Now anxious to move on to Chesapeake Island, the settlers learned they would be left on Roanoke Island instead. Their ship's captain, Simon Fernandez, claimed a need to set sail quickly for England, to avoid the hurricane season. But Fernandez was also a privateer, an individual who earned a living chartering his ship and lending his services for profit to governments during times of war. Recent war between England and Spain offered a chance for some profitable piracy. Whatever the case, he overruled Raleigh's directive to deposit the colonists on Chesapeake Island.

The governor of the second Roanoke colony was John White, an artist, explorer, and member of the previous colony. White arrived in July, once more too late for the planting season. Consequently, at the end of August, White returned to England with Fernandez for much-needed supplies. Ten days before their departure, White's granddaughter, Virginia Dare, became the first English person born on American soil.

A blockade by the Spanish Armada delayed White's return to Roanoke Island until August 18, 1590. He found the settlement and fort destroyed and all the colonists gone. The word CROATOAN and the letters CRO were carved into a fence and a tree. While the settlers may have gone to nearby Croatoan Island to live with friendly Chief Manteo's tribe, White had no chance to confirm this. A quickly mounting hurricane forced his return to England. To this day, what happened to the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke remains a mystery.
The word CROATOAN carved into a fencepost may have referred to the Croatoan tribe on a neighboring island. Roanoke survivors may have fled to and assimilated into the tribe.
Credit: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "The lost colony" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1900. Undetermined