The Lost Colony of Roanoke Island

By Eric Hause

The Lost Colony

The image is one of the most haunting in American folklore: Eleanor Dare cradling her infant daughter as they struggle through a vast wilderness, seemingly forgotten by her father who brought them to an unfamiliar land, then left them to fend for themselves.

In the four centuries since their disappearance, Eleanor and Virginia Dare have become true American heroines, players in an epic unsolved mystery that still challenges historians and archaeologists as one of America’s oldest. In 1587, over 100 men, women and children journeyed from Britain to Roanoke Island on North Carolina’s coast and established the first English settlement in America. Within three years, they had vanished with scarcely a trace. England’s initial attempt at colonization of the New World was a disaster, and one of America’s most enduing legends was born.

The lay of the land of modern Roanoke Island appears much as it did at the time of the colonists’ arrival. The low, narrow island lies between the treacherous Outer Banks and the mainland. Although it is influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, it is a verdant oasis compared to the harsh winds and pounding surf of the barrier islands. Instead, Roanoke is characterized by thick marshlands and stands of live oaks teeming with wildlife–a much more hospitable site for settlement.

In 1584, explorers Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe were the first to set eyes on the island. They had been sent to the area by Sir Walter Raleigh with the mission of scouting the broad sounds and estuaries in search of an ideal location for settlement. Amadas and Barlowe wrote glowing reports of Roanoke Island, and when they returned to England a year later with two Natives, Manteo and Wanchese, all of Britain was abuzz with talk of the New World’s wonders.

Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh

Queen Elizabeth herself was impressed, and she granted Raleigh a patent to all the lands he could occupy. He named the new land “Virginia”, in honor of the Virgin Queen, and the next year, Raleigh sent a party of 100 soldiers, craftsmen and scholars to Roanoke Island.

Under the direction of Ralph Lane, the garrison was doomed from the beginning. They arrived too late in the season for planting, and supplies were dwindling rapidly. To make matters worse, Lane, a military captain, alienated the neighboring Roanoke Indians, and ultimately sealed his own fate by murdering their chief, Wingina over a stolen cup.

By 1586, when Sir Francis Drake stopped at Roanoke after a plundering expedition, Lane and his men had had enough. They abandoned the settlement and left behind a fort, the remains of which can still be seen at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site today. Ironically, a supply ship from England arrived at Roanoke less than a week later. Finding the island deserted, the leader left behind 15 of his men to hold the fort and returned to England for reinforcements.

Raleigh was angry with Lane but not deterred from his mission. He recruited 117 men, women and children for a more permanent settlement, and appointed John White governor of the new “Cittie of Raleigh”. Among the colonists were White’s pregnant daughter, Eleanor Dare, his son-in-law Annanias Dare, and the Indian chief Manteo, who had become an ally during his stay in Britain.

Raleigh had since decided that the Chesapeake Bay area was a better site for settlement, and he hired Simon Fernandes, a Portuguese pilot familiar with the area, to transport the colonists there. Fernandes, however, was by trade a privateer in the escalating war between Spain and England. By the time the caravan arrived at Roanoke Island in July, 1587, to check on the 15 men left behind a year earlier, he had grown impatient with the White and anxious to resume the hunt for Spanish shipping. He ordered the colonists ashore on Roanoke Island.

The colonists soon learned that Indians had murdered the 15 men and were uneasy at the prospect of remaining on Roanoke Island. But Fernandes left them no choice. They unloaded their belonging and supplies and repaired Lane’s fort. On August 18, 1587, Eleanor Dare gave birth to a daughter she named Virginia, thus earning the distinction of being the first English child born on American soil. Ten days later, Ferndades departed for England, taking along an anxious John White, who hesitantly decided to return to England for supplies. It was the last time he would never see his family.

imageUpon his arrival in Britain, White found himself trapped by the impending invasion of the Spanish Armada. Finally, two years after the stunning defeat of the Armada, he again departed for Roanoke Island. He arrived on August 18, 1590–his grand daughter’s third birthday–and found the “Cittie of Raleigh” deserted, plundered, and surrounded “with a high pallisado of great trees, with cortynes and flankers, very fort-like”. On one of the palisades, he found the single word “CROATOAN” carved into the surface, and the letters “CRO” carved into a nearby tree.

White knew the carvings were “to signifie the place, where I should find the planters seated, according to a secret token agreed upon betweene them and me at my last departure from them…for at my coming away, they were prepared to remove 50 miles into the maine”. He had also instructed the colonists that, should they be forced to leave the island under duress, they should carve a Maltese cross above their destination. White found no such sign, and he had every hope that he would locate the colony and his family at Croatoan, the home of Chief Manteo’s people south of Roanoke on present-day Hatteras Island.

Before he could make further exploration, however, a great hurricane arose, damaging his ships and forcing him back to England. Despite repeated attempts, he was never again able to raise the funding and resources to make the trip to America again. Raleigh had given up hope of settlement, and White died many years later on one of Raleigh’s estates, ignorant to the fate of his family and the colony.

The 117 pioneers of Roanoke Island had vanished into the great wilderness.

imageIn the following years, evidence as to their fate was slow to emerge, but some intriguing accounts exist. In 1709, English explorer John Lawson visited Roanoke Island and spent some time among the Hatteras Indians, descendants of the Croatoan tribe. In A New Voyage to Carolina, he wrote “that several of their ancestors were white people and could talk in a book as we do, the truth of which is confirmed by gray eyes being found infrequently among these Indians and no others.”

In the 1880s, with the approach of the Roanoke Colony’s 300th anniversary, a North Carolina man named Hamilton MacMillan proposed a theory that holds some credence today. MacMillan lived in Robeson County in southeastern North Carolina near a settlement of Pembroke Indians, many of whom claimed that their ancestors came from “Roanoke in Virginia”.

According to MacMillan, the Pembrokes spoke pure Anglo-Saxon English and bore the last names of many of the lost colonists. Furthermore, “Roanoke in Virginia” was how Raleigh and his contemporaries referred to Roanoke Island. The Pembrokes also had European features: fair eyes, light hair, and an Anglo bone structure. MacMillan’s findings, published in 1888 pamphlet, gained a great deal of attention from the academic community and renewed interest in the lost colony.

imageOther less plausible theories and some outright trickery surfaced in the mid-1900s. A series of mysterious rocks first uncovered in 1937 in eastern North Carolina seemed to solve the mystery. The original stone, dubbed the Eleanor Dare Stone, was found in a swamp 60 miles west of Roanoke Island by a traveler. It was covered with strange carvings, which, when deciphered, appeared to be a message from Eleanor Dare to her father, indicating that the colony had fled Roanoke Island after Indian attack.

Over the next three years, nearly 40 similar stones were unearthed from North Carolina to Georgia, and when pieced together, related a fantastic tale of the colonists’ overland journey through the southeast, culminating in the death of Eleanor Dare in 1599. Although the academic world was skeptical, the media had a field day and were forced to eat their words in 1940 when an investigative reporter exposed the entire saga as an elaborate hoax.

In the past 40 years, scholars have discovered previously unknown records in the Spanish and British archives that may point the way toward a logical, if not provable, solution. Many historians now believe that after White’s departure from Roanoke in 1587, the colony split into two factions, and the largest segment of the colony departed for the Chesapeake Bay, their original destination. Lane had explored the Bay area in 1585, and the colonists probably had maps made by White himself.

When John Smith and the Jamestown colonists arrived in 1607, Smith took up the search for the colonists and discovered that they probably had been in the area. In his dealings with the hostile Indian chief Powhatan, he learned that the colonists had lived among the friendly Chesapeake Indians on the south side of the Bay. Threatened by the intrusion of white men into the region, Powhatan claimed to have attacked the colonists and murdered most of them. As proof of his claim, he showed Smith “a musket barrell and a brass mortar, and certain pieces of iron that had been theirs.”

By 1612, the Jamestown leaders had received numerous reports that at least some of the Roanoke colonists were living nearby. They sent out several search parties, but had no success, and soon gave up the search.

What became of the remainder of the colonists left on Roanoke Island? Scholars speculate that they were left behind to meet White upon his return from England, but soon fled to Croatoan, leaving the mysterious carvings behind as a signal to White. Spanish archives reveal that they were gone by June, 1588, when a raiding party put in at Roanoke Island only to find the settlement deserted. Scholars assume that they were then assimilated into the Croatoan tribe.

Today, the north end of Roanoke Island is regularly visited by historians and archaeologists hoping to uncover new evidence as to the fate of the colony. So far, none has been forthcoming. The post and the tree bearing the carvings have long since vanished, although many of the live oaks in the National Historic Site were seedlings during the colonists tenure. No archaeological clues as to the whereabouts of the Cittie of Raleigh have ever been uncovered, and the 500-acre park remains mostly an enigma, apropos to the events that unfolded here 400 years ago.

This article originally appeared in Reader’s Digest Books’ Explore America, Places of Folklore and Legend, 1997.

The Fate of Theodosia Burr

By Eric Hause | Copyright by the author

Legends and myths pervade the coast of North Carolina. From the disappearance of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony to the mystery of Blackbeard’s buried treasure, tales with a basis in historical fact abound. Perhaps one of the most fascinating and ironic tales involves the daughter of one of America’s founding fathers.

On a cold stormy night in 1812, Theodosia Burr Alston vanished along with the schooner Patriot somewhere off the Outer Banks. To this day, her fate remains shrouded in mystery, hidden beneath the shifting sands and shoals of the barrier islands.

TheodosiaburrTheodosia was the daughter of Aaron Burr, former vice president to Thomas Jefferson, who claimed a notorious place in history as the man who killed political rival Alexander Hamilton in America’s most famous duel in 1804. And although this is a tale of the Burr family, it begins with Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton was born by the sea in the West Indies and grew up with a healthy admiration for its power. When he was 15, he wrote such a vivid description of a hurricane that ravaged his St. Croix home that local merchants sponsored his schooling in New York.

In 1773, while on one of his frequent journeys between New York and the Virgin Islands, young Hamilton’s ship, the Thunderbolt, was caught in a terrific gale of Hatteras. As the captain hove to in an effort to ride out the storm off the Cape, the galley caught fire, and for 12 terrifying hours, the crew and Hamilton fought the blaze. Once under control, the heavily damaged ship limped northward to Boston.

Hamilton would never forget that night off Cape Hatteras. He swore an oath that should he ever be in a position to do so, he would erect a lighthouse on the treacherous cape as a warning to all other mariners.

Hamilton went on to become on the leaders of the Revolution and eventually a member of President George Washington’s cabinet. True to his word, in 1790, he passed a bill through Congress calling for the construction of the first lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. Nine years later, it was completed, and although it has long fallen into the sea, ‘‘Mr. Hamilton’s Light’‘ served its purpose well.

During his rise to political power, Hamilton befriended a young New York lawyer named Aaron Burr. They had initially met while serving under Washington during the Revolution. After the war, Hamilton found Burr’s political ambitions matched his own and together they worked to forge a new nation.

Burr married in 1781 and two years later his wife gave birth to their only child –a daughter they named Theodosia. From the start, father and daughter were connected in ways very few are. Theo’s love for and devotion to her father were rivaled only by Burr’s nearly obsessive parenting. Burr spent many of Theo’s formative years in Washington, and when she was 10, they began a 20-year legacy of correspondence that remains to this day as a record of their strong relationship.

When her mother died of cancer in 1794, Theo easily stepped into the role of mistress of Richmond Hill, the family home in Albany. She supported her father’s rising political career by hosting grand parties at the estate. Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton were all regular visitors, and Theo was charming and gracious to them all, all the while remaining close by her father’s side.

Theo had many suitors, but she did not meet her husband until a dashing young southern aristocrat by the name of Joseph Alston visited Albany in 1800. Theo soon after confided to her father that she was falling in love with Alston, and in February 1801 they were married.

Theo left Richmond Hill to make her new home in South Carolina, where she would spend her days supervising two plantations and the Alston family home. She loved her husband, but often missed her New York home –and especially her father. She wrote to him that the hot, humid climate and swampy Lowcountry was no match for the beauty of Hudson River Valley.

In May 1802, after a very difficult labor, Theo gave birth to a son, named Aaron Burr Alston. She never completely recovered from the birth. When her husband was elected Governor of South Carolina, her weakness coupled with her new demands as First Lady of South Carolina began to take their toll. She made several visits to health resorts with no lasting effect. But her dedication to her family never wavered.

In 1804, Aaron Burr’s political career disintegrated. The heated political climate of the day had found Burr and Hamilton on opposite ends of the spectrum. Their rivalry descended into a war of personal insults waged in the northern newspapers until Burr, outraged beyond apology, challenged Hamilton to the duel that would kill the former vice-president.

Burr was charged with murder. Throughout the ordeal, Theo stood by her father. She traveled to New York several times during the long trial and was elated when he was finally acquitted. But Burr became a bitter man. He longed for political power and allegedly planned his resurrection with a scheme to convince several western states to seceded and place him at the head of the new government.

In 1807, he was again arrested for conspiracy. And again, Theo decried his innocence. ‘‘The knowledge of my father’s innocence, my ineffable contempt for his enemies, and the elevation of his mind have kept me above any sensations bordering on depression,’‘ she wrote to her husband from New York.

After an arduous yearlong trial, Burr was once again acquitted, and he left the country, a once-powerful leader in voluntary exile. Theo returned to South Carolina, the ordeal adding to her increasingly frail health. The final blow came in June 1812, when her son died of tropical fever.

Theo, Burr, and Alston were all inconsolable over the loss. ‘‘You talk of consolation,’‘ she wrote to her father. ‘‘Ah! You know not what you have lost. I think omnipotence could give me no equivalent for my boy.’‘

Burr returned to New York, and in December, he convinced Theo to come home for the holidays. It would be their first visit in five years. Alston, however, was reluctant to allow Theo to make the ocean voyage north. The country was at war with Britain, Theo’s health was still fragile, and there were rumors of pirates along the Carolina Outer Banks.

Theo’s insistence won, and Alston wrote a letter to the British Navy, which was blockading the coast, requesting safe passage for his wife. Aaron sent a trusted physician and friend, Timothy Green south to accompany his daughter. On December 30, Theo, Dr. Green, and a maid boarded the schooner The Patriot in Charleston harbor.

The Patriot was in from several months of privateering in the West Indies. The American government had hired The Patriot to harass British shipping during the War of 1812, and her hold was filled with loot from these raids. In order to disguise the ship’s true identity, the captain stowed the guns below and painted over the ship’s name on the bow. They lifted anchor late in the afternoon and set sail for the open sea. It was the last time Alston would ever see his wife.

The journey to New York normally took five or six days. After two weeks had passed with no sign of the Patriot, Burr and Alston became frantic. Alston wrote, ‘‘Another mail and still no letter! I hear too rumors of a gale off Cape Hatteras at the beginning of the month. The state of my mind is dreadful!’‘

In New York, Burr had already reached the inevitable conclusion. When a friend offered hope that Theo was still alive, Burr replied, ‘‘No, no, she is indeed dead. Were she still alive, all the prisons in the world could not keep her from her father.’‘

The Patriot had disappeared without a trace. Later it was learned that the British fleet had stopped her off Hatteras on January 2. Governor Alston’s letter worked, and the schooner was allowed to pass. Later that night, a gale arose and scattered the British fleet.

Beyond that clue, no more was known. Burr sent searchers to Nassau and Bermuda with no success. Why he neglected to send them to the Outer Banks remains a mystery for it is there that Theo met her fate.

The evidence is compelling and first surfaced in 1833. That year, an Alabama newspaper reported that a local resident, a confessed pirate admitted to participating in the plunder of the Patriot at Nags Head and the murder of all on board.

Fifteen years later, another former pirate, ‘‘Old Frank’‘ Burdick, confessed a similar story on his deathbed. He told a horrifying story of holding the plank for Mrs. Alston, who walked calmly over the side, dressed completely in white. He said she begged for word of her fate to be sent to her father and husband. He went on to say that once the crew and passengers had been murdered, they plundered the ship and abandoned her under full sail. He also mentioned seeing a portrait of Theodosia in the main cabin.

Perhaps the most intriguing evidence to support this theory revolves around that painting. In 1869, a Dr. Poole from Elizabeth City was called to the bedside of an ailing old Banker woman in Nags Head. The woman was related by marriage to families who had once made their living by plundering vessels wrecked along the beaches.

The doctor noticed a stunning portrait of a young woman dressed in white hanging on the wall of the woman’s shack. When he commented on the beauty of the subject, the old woman offered an astonishing explanation.

She told Dr. Poole that one night ‘‘during the English war’‘ a pilot boat had drifted ashore at Nags Head at the height of a winter’s gale. The boat was abandoned with all sails set, and the name on the bow had been painted over. In the main cabin, the Bankers had found several trunks and women’s belonging’s scattered everywhere. They also found the portrait, which one of the looters took as a gift for the old woman.

The ailing woman had no money with which to pay Dr. Poole, so she offered him the 12-by-18 painting instead. The portrait generated much publicity when Dr. Poole returned to Elizabeth City, and several years later, a descendant of the Burrs came to see it. She immediately identified it as Theo because of the subject’s resemblance to other members of the Burr family.

There is no record today of what Theo carried aboard the Patriot that fateful day. It certainly would be in keeping with her devotion to her father to have such a fine portrait in her possession as a gift to him. Yet through such inconsequential details are myths made, and for now, the truth lies buried beneath the shifting sands of Nags Head.

The irony, however, is inescapable. Somewhere along this shore, where her father’s nemesis had erected a lighthouse to save her, Theodosia Burr Alston lost her life on a stormy January night. And although we may never know exactly how that happened, a suicidal poet may have touched on why.

In 1894, a very young Robert Frost came to Kitty Hawk. Suffering from acute depression, he felt the need to get away from the pressure of life, and as many similar people do, he came to the Outer Banks. One night, he crossed over the Kitty Hawk beach and walked with a member of the local lifesaving crew on patrol. The patrolman told him Theo’s story, and it moved him deeply. Years later, he would recount the experience and her tale in one of his lesser-known but moving poem, Kitty Hawk:

‘‘Did I recollect
how the wreckers wrecked
Theodosia Burr off this very shore?
‘‘’Twas to punish her
but her father more.’‘

 

 

The Wreck of the Home

By Eric Hause | Copyright by the author

It was Alexander Hamilton who coined the nickname that has stayed with the seas of North Carolina for 200 years: Graveyard of the Atlantic. In 1773, a 15 year-old Hamilton was caught off Cape Hatteras in a furious storm which nearly sent his ship to the bottom of the Atlantic.

When the steamship Home left New York Harbor for Charleston 65 years later, none of the 135 passengers and crew had any inkling of Hamilton’s experience–or that they were headed directly into the teeth of a similar storm that would have a much more tragic result. The illustrious passenger list read like a Who’s Who of the day, and the only thing on most of their minds was that they would hopefully be a part of a record-breaking ocean passage between the two cities.

Home1The Home had done it twice before. The sleek steamship was the pride of a growing fleet of steam packets that plied the waters off the East Coast in the days prior to the Civil War. Steam-powered side wheelers were rapidly becoming the most popular form of transportation in the country, and the Home was the creme de la creme of these newfangled vessels.

Originally constructed for river trade, the 220-foot ship was converted to a passenger liner by James Allaire, a wealthy New York businessman. The ship’s interior was paneled in deep mahogany and cherry wood with breathtaking skylights, saloons and luxurious passenger quarters. Allaire spared no expense in making the Home the most plush vessel of its type. But in an oversight that would prove fatal, he equipped the ship with only three lifeboats and two life preservers.

At peak performance, the Home could easily make 16 knots, unheard of in the days of sail. She embarked on her maiden voyage in the spring of 1837. On her second trip that year, she made it from New York to Charleston in a record-breaking 64 hours. The steam packet immediately became the hot ticket for the wealthy and prominent citizens of the day. When a third voyage was announced in October, 1837, the Home’s ticket office was swamped with reservations.

The Home pulled away from the New York docks on October 7 at full capacity, with 90 passengers and 45 crew. Some of the most prominent names of the day were on board: Senator Olive Prince of Georgia; James B. Allaire, nephew of the owner of the Home; and William Tileston, a wealthy Charleston entrepreneur who carried more than $100,000 in notes with him. A majority of the passengers were women and children.

Meanwhile, off the coast of Jamaica, a hurricane was gaining in intensity. Dubbed ”Racer’s Storm,” the cyclone would cross the Yucatan Peninsula, slam into Texas, then curve east over Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia before emerging in the Atlantic off the Carolina coast.

In the annals of hurricane history, Racer’s Storm wasn’t a particularly violent storm. But steamships like the home were not built for ocean travel. The long, sleek packets were originally designed for calm river trade routes and were dependent solely on steam for power. They rode low in the water, and the slightest ocean chop sent water sloshing into the boiler room.

So when the Home encountered the fringes of Racer’s Storm off the Virginia Capes, Captain Carleton White became concerned. A boiler pipe had burst earlier in the day, and the ship was difficult to control under reduced power. As the storm grew in intensity, the steamship drifted ever closer to the northern Outer Banks shoreline, and Captain White had just decided to beach the vessel when word came from below that the pipe was repaired. Captain White ordered full-steam ahead, not knowing that he was taking his ship and passengers directly into the teeth of the storm.

Several hours later, a huge wave broadsided the Home, sweeping everything above deck and sheering off part of the bulkhead, leaving all the cabins on the port side exposed. Water cascaded into the boiler room. Captain White ordered the passengers and crew to form a bucket brigade to prevent the rising waters from extinguishing the boiler fires. Barely under power, the ship limped around Cape Hatteras on the early evening of October 9.

Finally, at 8 PM, the boiler fires went out and the ship was drifting helplessly. Captain White had no alternative but to beach the ship. He raised the small auxiliary sails, tacked to the west, and headed straight for the beach on Ocracoke Island. He had the three lifeboats readied and assembled the 135 passengers and crew.

The situation was desperate. Confusion reigned on the once-proud liner as men, women and children scrambled to carry what they could to the decks. Finally, the breakers along the shore were spotted in the distance.

In his published account of the disaster, Captain White described the grounding: ”I ordered Trost, the man at the wheel, to port his helm; I then said to Trost, ‘Mind yourself, stand clear of that wheel when she strikes, or she will be breaking your bones.’ He answered, ‘Yes sir, I will keep clear.’ The boat immediately struck on the outer bar, slewed her head northward, the square sails caught aback, she heeled offshore, exposing the deck and upper houses to the full force of the sea.”

USS Huron 3It was about 10 PM when the Home grounded about seven miles east of Ocracoke Village. The towering breakers raked the ship in terrifying succession, and within minutes, most of the people gathered on deck had been swept into the raging surf. One of the three lifeboats was smashed when the ship struck, and panic ensued as the passengers made for the remaining two boats. Two able-bodied men commandeered the two life preservers and jumped into the sea. They made it to shore alive.

One lifeboat filled with women and children as launched but capsized as it hit the boiling surf. The last boat landed upright but also sank with a few seconds. The sea was filled with screaming women and children. One witness later said he doubted that anyone in those two boats survived.

As midnight approached, the Home began breaking up. Each wave carried away more passengers. Others took their chances. One female passenger lashed herself to a settee and floated to shore, waterlogged but alive. Another woman tied herself to a wooden spar and jumped into the surf. She too made it to shore.

In one ironic instance, two brothers, Philip and Isaac Cohen jumped into the surf. The brothers had been wrecked off the Carolina coast on another ship only a year before. Now they were faced with a much more critical situation. Isaac made it to shore safely, but his brother drowned.

Captain White and seven others had taken refuge of the forecastle deck, and as the ship disintegrated, the forecastle broke free and carried them safely to shore. By 11 PM, all that was left of the Home was its boiler, which rose above the waves like a monument to the 90 people who lost their lives that night.

Dawn broke over a hellish scene. The Ocracoke beaches were littered with debris and bodies. The villagers, accustomed to wrecks on their shores, took in the survivors and buried the dead anywhere they could. The survivors–mostly men–were ferried across the inlet to Portsmouth where they gained berth on outgoing ships. White remained on the island for three days to supervise burials of the victims. He then returned to New York only to face charges of negligence and drunkenness.

For years after the disaster, the Captain answered these charges. He wrote his account of the disaster, but the wreck of the Home was the most deadly sea disaster on American shores at the time, and his reputation was ruined. The long-lasting effects of the disaster were more positive. As soon as the news became widespread, ship owners voluntarily equipped their vessels with adequate numbers of life preservers. The next year, Congress passed The Steamboat Act, which required all passenger ships to carry one life preserver for each person on board.