Roanoke Island History

The history of Roanoke Island has helped shaped a number of its biggest attractions, from the outdoor drama The Lost Colony staged nightly in the summer months, to the impressive sight of the life-size replica of the 16th century ship Elizabeth II that's anchored in the waters off of downtown Manteo.

In fact, people have been planting their roots on Roanoke Island for thousands of years. Archeologists have uncovered evidence of cultures dating as far back as 8000 BC, and artifacts found in the 1980s suggest that in 400 AD, Wanchese and Manteo were thriving fishing communities, 1500 years before the settlers first set foot on Roanoke Island's shores.

But it was the European settlers who first put Roanoke Island on the global map. This small corner of North Carolina was instrumental in Europe's earliest steps towards colonizing the New World, years before the colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown were established.

The first English speaking settlers arrived on Roanoke Island in 1584 with 10 men aiming to start America's first settlement on the northern end of the island. This initial attempt at colonization proved to be unfruitful, and the settlement was abandoned after only a year because of terrible weather, and limited supplies. This was further hindered by bad relationships with the island's indigenous Native Americans, despite the fact that the two local chiefs, Manteo and Wanchese, were taken to England in an effort to create a good relationship between the two cultures.

Not long after the first colonists left, a second settlement was attempted, this time with 110 men, women and children. They landed on Roanoke Island in July of 1587, and on August 18th, Eleanor Dare, one of the settlers, gave birth to the first English child in America, who she named Virginia Dare.

A week after Virginia was born, her grandfather and colonist leader, John White, made the difficult decision to return to England to retrieve more supplies, which the settlement desperately needed.

He reached England successfully, but by the time he was ready to return to the New World, the Spanish had begun attacking England, and his departure was postponed for three years. He finally made it back to Roanoke Island in 1590, and was shocked to discover that there was absolutely no sign of the people he had left behind, including his daughter and granddaughter.

The homes and building they had strived to build were gone, and the only sign of their existence or fate was two words carved into two different trees: "Cro" and "Croatan." This led White to believe that the colonists had travelled south to seek protection from the friendly Hatteras Island Indians, the Croatans, but when White searched Cape Hatteras, he found no one there.

The fate of the colonists is a mystery that was never solved, and in 1937, their story inspired the seasonal and world renowned outdoor drama The Lost Colony, which plays every night at the Waterside Theater in Roanoke Island Festival Park.

Despite these early disastrous attempts at colonization, English explores returned to Roanoke Island in hopes of establishing a permanent settlement, and they were successful in the mid 1600s. Many of the modern local names, like Baum, Etheridge, and Daniels, are the original family names of these colonists over 350 years ago.

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