The English in North America Before Jamestown

Sailors exploring the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean were the first English to see Virginia. Since England is an island separated from Virginia by an ocean, no one could walk from London to the Chesapeake Bay.

The first English expeditions to the New World were sponsored by merchants in Bristol. Ships from Bristol had been fishing in the North Atlantic, west of Ireland, since the 1480's.

After Christopher Columbus "discovered" islands in the Caribbean in 1492, Bristol merchants funded an expedition to discover a route to China. Henry VII authorized an Italian sailor, Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), to discover lands not already claimed by Spain. His first expedition in 1496 was a failure, but he probably saw Newfoundland on his second voyage a year later. In 1498, Cabot sailed west for a third time with five ships, but all disappeared.1

in the 1490's, merchants in Bristol funded the first English efforts to discover the Northwest Passage through North America to China
in the 1490's, merchants in Bristol funded the first English efforts to discover the Northwest Passage through North America to China
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

In 1576 Queen Elizabeth I authorized Martin Frobisher to find the fabled Northwest Passage, and he sailed far north near the Arctic Circle on three expeditions. Frobisher tried to establish a colony on Baffin Island in 1578. Everyone who initially settled on land returned to England at the end of the summer, when the ships sailed home with what was thought to be gold ore. When the ore was revealed to be just iron pyrites ("fools gold"), venture capitalists backing Frobisher's journeys withdrew their financial support.2

the first English settlement attempt in the New World was in the high latitudes, where Martin Frobisher hoped to discover the Northwest Passage
the first English settlement attempt in the New World was in the high latitudes, where Martin Frobisher hoped to discover the Northwest Passage
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

In 1578, Queen Elizabeth granted a charter to Humphrey Gilbert to create a permanent colony in North America. A decade before Frobisher's journeys, Gilbert had written A Discourse of a Discoverie for a New Pasage to Cataia, making a serious proposal for a settlement in North America. He too highlighted the economic benefits of discovering the Northwest Passage to Cathay (China, or "Cataia"). By 1578, however, his proposal was in conflict with the Muscovy Company's exclusive rights to trade between England and Russia.3

The Muscovy Company was established after English sailors reached the northern coastline of the Duchy of Muscovy (now Arkhangelsk in Russia), establishing a Northeast Passage. The English sought to dominate the fur trade between Europe and Siberia, and to find a port with an overland route with China that was not contested by the Spanish, Portuguese, or Hanseatic League which dominated the Baltic Sea.

the Northeast Passage failed to develop into a major trade route that would bypass the barriers blocking the English from acquiring Chinese goods
the Northeast Passage failed to develop into a major trade route that would bypass the barriers blocking the English from acquiring Chinese goods
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The Muscovy Company, chartered 50 years before the Virginia Company that financed settlement in Virginia, was the first joint-stock company in Elizabethan England. No single family could finance high-risk explorations to discover the Northeast or Northwest Passages. The joint-stock company pioneered by the Muscovy Company allowed enterprising individuals to pool a portion of their capital and "adventure" those funds in hopes of getting rich.

If Humphrey Gilbert discovered a Northwest Passage to China and Russia, all of England would benefit - but the stockholders of the Muscovy Company first wanted to be sure that their investments would be protected. The Muscovy Company interfered with proposals by other English capitalists to settle the eastern coast of North America, but the private corporation also provided an economic model for private venture capitalists to finance initial settlement in Virginia.4

In the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries, kings and queens of England depended upon the private sector to finance the expansion of the country's economic and political power through discovery. The first English efforts to settle in North America were by private corporations and venture capitalists seeking profit through exploration, with minimal government support.

(In the modern era, space exploration offers the closest parallel to the opportunities provided by exploration of North America 400-500 years ago. Starting in the 1950's, the United States, Russian, and European governments financed initial launches of satellites and human exploration in space for the first 50 years, in contrast to the model used by Queen Elizabeth I to rely upon private financing in the 1500's. In the first decade of the 21st Century, venture capitalists who expect to make a profit took a stronger leadership role in the United States, though inter-planetary probes still rely exclusively upon Federal funding.)

Gilbert risked more than his money. He personally led the exploration to the New World in 1583, five years after a 1578 attempt was forced by bad weather to return almost immediately to England. Gilbert landed on Newfoundland, but no permanent base was established. He died when his ship disappeared on the return journey.5

Gilbert's half-brother, Walter Ralegh, quickly obtained a renewal of the charter or "Royal Patent" in 1584. Ralegh decided to move the colony further south, where the climate was warmer than Newfoundland. The downside to moving south was that the colony would be closer to the Spanish in the Caribbean, so the danger of attack would be much higher.

Ralegh sent a scouting party to North America in 1584, commanded by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlow. They reconnoitered Roanoke Island and returned with two Native Americans, Manteo and Wanchese. Carrying those two men to England provided a rare attraction that was useful in marketing to potential investors, plus an opportunity to create translators between Algonquian and English languages.

Roanoke Island is located west of the barrier islands that form the Outer Banks, sheltered from storms but difficult to access by ship
Roanoke Island is located west of the barrier islands that form the Outer Banks, sheltered from storms but difficult to access by ship
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Ralegh honored Queen Elizabeth I and helped cement his authorization for exploration by naming the place "Virginia." He arranged for the younger Richard Hakluyt to write a Discourse on the Western Planting, articulating reasons for supporting colonial expansion.

Ralegh's hopes that Queen Elizabeth would respond to flattery or to reason by funding future expedition were not rewarded. She knighted him, but only loaned a small navy vessel to his efforts.

In 1585 Raleigh sent seven ships on an expedition across the Atlantic Ocean, under Ralph Lane and Richard Grenville. In addition to settling a colony with 300-400 people on Roanoke Island, they planned to create a military base there. It would support efforts of English ships to loot Spanish settlements in the Caribbean, and to service privateers that would seize Spanish ships sailing from Europe with valuable supplies or back to Europe with treasure:6

There is little doubt that a primary consideration in the plans of Raleigh and Grenville was the creation of a strong military base at a reasonable distance from Spanish Florida, but capable of protecting vessels assembling for raids on the Indies and refitting after their return.

White-De Bry Map of Virginia
Location of Roanoke Island and Chesapeake Bay, White-De Bry Map of Virginia (1590)
Source: Library of Congress

The ships arrived at the Outer Banks in June, 1585. Establishing the colony was an expensive venture, and could require years before benefits exceeded expenses. However, some of the ships returning from the Outer Banks under Richard Grenville captured Spanish vessels. The privateering on the trip back to England provided a quick return on investment.

A second fleet was supposed to sail from England in June 1585, following Ralph Lane and Richard Grenville to Roanoke Island. The resupply fleet was diverted after relations with Spain deteriorated. That second fleet was directed to sail to the fishing grounds off Newfoundland, where it captured 17 vessels. The attack on the Spanish fishing fleet was facilitated by some of the ships that had carried colonists earlier, showing how Virginia could serve as an effective base for privateering.7

the planned 1585 resupply mission to Roanoke Island (red X) was diverted to seize Spanish ships on the Newfoundland fishing grounds
the planned 1585 resupply mission to Roanoke Island (red X) was diverted to seize Spanish ships on the Newfoundland fishing grounds
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Ralph Lane stayed in what Ralegh called "Virginia." After Grenville sailed away, Lane moved the colony north from Wococon (near Ocracoke) to Roanoke Island. Since the English had arrived so late in the summer of 1585, there were no crops in the ground that required the colony to stay on Wococon.

Lane sent a party of settlers further north to meet with additional Native American groups, and to explore the potential of establishing a settlement at a site with a better harbor. The expedition met the Chesapeakes, whose main town was at Skicoak near today's Norfolk. The colonists may have stayed in the town of Chesepiuc near modern Lynnhaven Bay between October 1585-February 1586, where they met other Algonquians from the Coastal Plain and perhaps Iroquoian-speaking Native Americans who lived on the Meherrin and Nottoway rivers.8

John White sketched the locations of the islands of Wococon and Roanoke, plus the towns of Skicoak and Chesepiuc (near where some English colonists may have spent a portion of the winter of 1585-86)
John White sketched the locations of the islands of Wococon and Roanoke, plus the towns of Skicoak and Chesepiuc (near where some English colonists may have spent a portion of the winter of 1585-86)
Source: British Museum, Map of the E coast of N America from Chesapeake bay to Cape lookout

The English may have been peaceful visitors when staying near Lynnhaven Bay, but on Roanoke Island their aggressive violence alienated the local chief Pemisapan (who was known as Wingina when the English first arrived). Pemisapan sought to mobilize other tribes to exterminate the English, but Ralph Lane struck first. His colonists killed Pemisapan and decapitated him on June 10, 1586. Lane expected to move north from Roanoke Island after the corn was harvested in July, establishing the colony on the south shore of what would later be called Hampton Roads.

However, on June 11 Francis Drake arrived. He had raided Spanish outposts further south at Santo Domingo and Cartagena with success, but then abandoned plans to cross the Isthmus of Panama or to capture/garrison Havana until another fleet from England would bring reinforcements. After sailing through the Florida Channel, he had destroyed the wooden fort and town at St. Augustine in Florida.

Drake offered to supply Lane and the colony with new supplies, including clothing, furniture, and hardware for constructing houses (which the English had stripped from St. Augustine before burning it). Lane was most interested in the pinnaces and small boats that Drake would provide, because they would facilitate exploration of the shallow waters of the "Virginia" coast from the Outer Banks north to the planned new settlement location on the Chesapeake Bay.

Drake had extra men, including 300 South American Indians and 100 black slaves captured in the Caribbean. The challenge for the colony was food. The corn crop would not be ripe for another month, and there was not enough to feed the additional people that Drake offered to leave behind. Richard Grenville was overdue with the planned resupply from England for the colony, and might not ever arrive.

While Lane and Drake were making plans, a hurricane struck and destroyed several ships. On June 18, 1585, Lane and the other colonists hurriedly abandoned the Virginia colony at Roanoke Island and returned to England with Drake. Three men were left behind, becoming the first "lost colonists."9

About two weeks after Lane and Drake abandoned the colony and left for England, Richard Grenville arrived with the resupply and 300-400 new colonists. Greenville chose to return back to England with all but 15-18 men, who were left with enough supplies to survive for one or two years.10

(In 1610, the Jamestown colony was also abandoned, but Lord de la Warre's resupply fleet arrived just in time. The ships sailing down the James River, headed home for England after three years at Jamestown, returned back to the fort.)

John White's paintings of the first English settlement in Virginia in 1585-86 included La Virginea Pars, a map of the southeastern seacoast from Florida to the Chesapeake Bay
John White's paintings of the first English settlement in Virginia in 1585-86 included "La Virginea Pars," a map of the southeastern seacoast from Florida to the Chesapeake Bay
Source: British Museum, La Virgenia Pars; map of the E coast of N America from Chesapeake bay to the Florida Keys

In 1587 Ralegh partnered with others to send another group back to New World. That group (including women and children) was led by John White, who had been with the colonists that arrived in 1585 and returned with Drake in 1586. The intent was to build a long-term settlement with over 100 colonists somewhere north of Roanoke Island, possibly Kecoughtan - now the City of Hampton, at the eastern tip of the peninsula separating the York and James rivers.

The original location of Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks would be maintained as a military base, with additions to the men left by Grenville in 1586. All of the colonists going to the new site near the Chesapeake Bay were to receive 500 acres of land.11

After reaching Roanoke Island, White discovered that Grenville's men had disappeared and the expedition's master, Simon Fernandez, was unwilling to continue north. Fernandez's priority may have been to capture prize ships, and delivering the colonists to a new location would delay his opportunity to get rich through privateering.

The colonists who arrived in 1587 were dropped off at Roanoke Island, not somewhere north on the Chesapeake Bay. White's daughter had a baby (Virginia Dare), and a child was born to the Harvie family as well. White did not remain with his new granddaughter or the colony. He returned back to England to notify the financial backers about the failure to find Grenville's men on Roanoke Island (the second batch of "lost colonists") and the failure to establish a settlement on the Chesapeake Bay as planned.12

Ralegh was unable to send another expedition immediately. His large 1588 expedition was blocked by an order from the privy council; all ships were required to defend England from Spanish attack. Ralegh was able to send two small vessels with John White, but they ended up privateering and fighting French ships and never crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

The Spanish sent a ship from the Caribbean into the Chesapeake Bay in 1588, and in 1606 still believed the colony existed, but there is no documentation in the Spanish archives that they visited or attacked the Roanoke Island settlement. In Europe, the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588 but the threat of invasion continued for several more years. No resupply mission to Roanoke Island was launched in 1589.13

The English ships that finally reached Roanoke Island in 1590 were a privateering expedition. They agreed to stop at Roanoke Island only in order to get authority from royal officials to sail across the Atlantic Ocean, at a time when the Spanish threat was still high and ships were being kept close to port in case of another attack. Three privateers were supposed to carry supplies and passengers to Roanoke Island, and two others agreed to stop there.

It appears some of the promised supplies were loaded in England, but no passengers other than John White. Travel across the ocean was slow, as the privateers laid in wait along sea lanes and sought to intercept Spanish ships to capture as prizes. The main plan was to lurk around the West Indies to determine when the Spanish treasure ships sailed east, then send a fast ship to an English fleet waiting at the Azores. The English ships in the Caribbean would also sail east to help intercept the Spanish fleet near the Azores.

English ships sailing to North America resupplied at the Azores - and at times tried to capture Spanish ships there
English ships sailing to North America resupplied at the Azores - and at times tried to capture Spanish ships there
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Sailing north to check on the colonists left on Roanoke Island in 1587 was not consistent with this strategy. Only two of the privateers went to the Outer Banks, and they did not arrive until hurricane season had started in August, 1590.14

When White returned he found only "CRO" carved on a tree and "CROATOAN" on a post. The ships sailed away without examining Croatoan (Hatteras) Island in detail due to approaching storms.

John White never saw his granddaughter Virginia Dare again, and the settlers at the "Lost Colony" were never found. For the next 15 years, English capitalists focused on quick profits from privateering, and dropped their interest in creating either a military base or a colony on the North American coastline.

Ralegh's patent giving him exclusive rights to settle near Roanoke Island expired in 1590. He might have obtained a renewal, but in 1592 Queen Elizabeth discovered he had secretly married one of her maids of honor without the queen's permission. She jailed him in the Tower of London, and upon his release he shifted his focus to finding the rumored city of gold (El Dorado) in South America. In 1602 Ralegh funded a trip to Cape Fear, but that expedition only collected sassafras (used as a drug in Europe) and did not search for the "Lost Colony" 175 miles to the northeast.

The colonists left behind in 1587 may have moved north and lived with the Chesapeake tribe on the Elizabeth River (near modern Norfolk/Virginia Beach). The original plan for that 1587 expedition was to settle on the Chesapeake Bay where there was a good harbor, and leave just a military/privateering base at Roanoke Island.

Powhatan, the paramount chief of the Algonquians on the Coastal Plain of Virginia, destroyed the Chesapeake tribe just before the 1607 arrival of the English colonists who established Jamestown. If any of the 1587 colonists on Roanoke Island (such as Virginia Dare and the Harvie child) had survived until then, they would have been fully integrated into the Algonquian culture. They may not have welcomed any "rescue" and transport to an alien society in Jamestown.15

Alternatively, the 1587 colonists could have moved inland to live with friendlier Native Americans where the Chowan and Roanoke rivers reach Albemarle Sound. In 2012, British Museum officials examined a patch covering that spot on one of John White's maps ("La Virginea Pars"). They discovered underneath the patch a four-pointed star, indicating the site of a previously unknown fort that could have been a re-settlement site.

key locations in English attempts to create a military/privateering base and colony on the Atlantic Coast between 1584-1590: 1) Roanoke Island 2) Croatoan (Hatteras) Island 3) planned location for 1587 settlement 4) possible fort 50 miles inland
key locations in English attempts to create a military/privateering base and colony on the Atlantic Coast between 1584-1590: 1) Roanoke Island 2) Croatoan (Hatteras) Island 3) planned location for 1587 settlement 4) possible fort 50 miles inland
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

White may have purposely omitted references to that location in his writings, other than making a vague reference to a site 50 miles inland, because the Spanish had spies with access to documents circulated within the English court.

Another possibility is that other reports (now lost) detailed how the colonists might move from Roanoke Island, since ships had such difficulty getting through the shallow shoals of the Outer Banks to that island. Among other speculations is the possibility that the location was a competitive secret, if the fort was a base for collecting high-value sassafras.16

the La Virginea Pars map by John White has a patch that obscures the outline of a fort at the mouth of the Chowan River
the "La Virginea Pars" map by John White has a patch that obscures the outline of a fort at the mouth of the Chowan River
Source: British Museum, La Virgenia Pars; map of the E coast of N America from Chesapeake bay to the Florida Keys

After 1590, English and other European ships continued to sail past the North American coastline north of St. Augustine. An English ship brought Native Americans from the Rappahannock River back to London in 1603, after a violent incident in which the Native American ruler was killed.17

By the time Jamestown was settled in 1607, the Europeans had a familiarity with the coastline of North America equivalent to what we know today of the moon. Some areas they knew well from multiple visits, while other locations were largely unexamined. Inland, however, the geography was poorly understood for a century after the 1587 Roanoke Island settlement became the Lost Colony.

Jamestown - Why There?

Was Virginia Destined to Be English?

80 years after the attempt to settle at Roanoke Island, the English had a poor understanding of inland geography - John Ferrar's 1667 map indicated the Pacific Ocean was only a 10-day march from the headwaters of the James River
80 years after the attempt to settle at Roanoke Island, the English had a poor understanding of inland geography - John Ferrar's 1667 map indicated the Pacific Ocean was only a 10-day march from the headwaters of the James River
Source: Library of Congress, La Virgenia Pars; map of the E coast of N America from Chesapeake bay to the Florida Keys

Links

in 1588, Theodore de Bry's engraving of John White map was published in Thomas Hariot's book A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia
in 1588, Theodore de Bry's engraving of John White map was published in Thomas Hariot's book A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia
Source: Learn NC, The Carte of all the Coast of Virginia

References

1. "Giovanni Caboto," The Mariner's Museum, http://ageofex.marinersmuseum.org/index.php?type=explorer&id=74 (last checked July 28, 205)
2. James H. Marsh, Daniel Panneton, "Sir Martin Frobisher," The Canadian Encyclopedia, January 2, 2008, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sir-martin-frobisher/ (last checked July 28, 205)
3. "Humphrey Gilbert," Canadian Museum of History, http://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/frobisher/frsub02e.shtml (last checked July 28, 2015)
4. Henryk Zins, England and the Baltic in the Elizabethan Era, Manchester University Press, 1972 p.35, https://books.google.com/books?id=IK_nAAAAIAAJ (last checked July 28, 2015)
5. "Sir Humphrey Gilbert," Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/fora/learn/education/sir-humphrey-gilbert.htm (last checked July 28, 2015)
6. David Beers Quinn (editor), The Roanoke Voyages 1584-1590, Volume 1, Dover Publications Inc., 1991, p.22, pp.158-159
7. David Beers Quinn (editor), The Roanoke Voyages 1584-1590, Volume 1, Dover Publications Inc., 1991, p.22, pp.169-173
8. David Beers Quinn (editor), The Roanoke Voyages 1584-1590, Volume 1, Dover Publications Inc., 1991, p.22,pp.245-246; "Wococon Island," North Carolina Gazetteer, http://ncpedia.org/gazetteer/browse/All?page=2043 (last checked July 28, 2015)
9. David Beers Quinn (editor), The Roanoke Voyages 1584-1590, Volume 1, Dover Publications Inc., 1991, pp.248-254; F. Roy Johnson, "Pemisapan (Wingina)," NCpedia, 1994, http://ncpedia.org/biography/pemisapan; John W. Shirley, "Lane, Sir Ralph," NCpedia, 1991 (last checked July 28, 2015)
10. David Beers Quinn (editor), The Roanoke Voyages 1584-1590, Volume 1, Dover Publications Inc., 1991, p.468-469
11. David Beers Quinn (editor), The Roanoke Voyages 1584-1590, Volume 2, Dover Publications Inc., 1991, pp.497-502
12."Virginia Dare was not the only child born on ill-fated Roanoke Island," The Virginian-Pilot, July 13, 2015, http://hamptonroads.com/node/757213 (last checked July 28, 2015)
13. Warren Billings, John E. Selby, Thad W. Tate, Colonial Virginia: A History, KTO Press, 1986, pp.8-11; David Beers Quinn (editor), The Roanoke Voyages 1584-1590, Volume 2, Dover Publications Inc., 1991, pp.502-505, pp.554-559; David B. Quinn, Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606, UNC Press Books, 1985, p.354, https://books.google.com/books?id=DvA0Az4owikC (last checked July 29, 2015)
14. The Roanoke Voyages 1584-1590, Volume 2, Dover Publications Inc., 1991, pp.580-583, p.588, pp.591-592
15. Frederick W. Gleach, Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia, University of Nebraska Press, 1997, p.104; Helen C. Roundtree, The Powhatan Indians of Virginia, University of Oklahoma Press, 1989, p.121; David Beers Quinn (editor), The Roanoke Voyages 1584-1590, Volume 2, Dover Publications Inc., 1991, pp.593-594, p.598; "Walter Raleigh (c.1552 - 1618)," BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/raleigh_walter.shtml; "Search for the Lost Colony," Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/fora/learn/education/search-for-the-lost-colony.htm (last checked July 29, 2015)
16. "Map's Hidden Marks Illuminate and Deepen Mystery of Lost Colony," New York Times, May 3, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/04/us/map-markings-offer-clues-to-lost-colony.html; "Have We Found the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island?," National Geographic, December 8, 2013, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131208-roanoke-lost-colony-discovery-history-raleigh/; "Researchers believe they've found roots of Lost Colony," The Virginian-Pilot, July 26, 2015, http://hamptonroads.com/node/758285 (last checked July 28, 2015)
17. Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries, University of Oklahoma Press, 1996, p.24, https://books.google.com/books?id=fUzd7LeJpjYC (last checked July 29, 2015)


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