The Roanoke Voyages (A Series Culminating in The Lost Colony)

The introduction of a guest blog post series by Roger L. Payne, author of The Outer Banks Gazetteer: The History of Place Names from Carova to Emerald Isle

The Roanoke Voyages took place between 1584 and 1590. Much has been written and documented regarding these voyages, which represent the first attempts at English colonies in North America before the first permanent colony at Jamestown in Virginia. The particulars of these voyages are presented as they define place-naming activities and its relation to the history of the Outer Banks area, especially the Roanoke Island area.

Firstly, it should be noted that Giovanni da Verrazzano (1524) was first to record a visit to the Outer Banks, though reportedly John Cabot sailed along a portion (1497) but without landfall or report. Verrazzano, an Italian captain was in the employ of Francis I, King of France who funded the voyage at the request of French merchants seeking trade routes. Verrazzano first stopped briefly at the Cape Fear area (southeast North Carolina near Wilmington). Later he describes an encounter with indigenous peoples probably at Cape Lookout, though some researchers believe this to have been Cape Hatteras because there was a known permanent Indian village there; the Hatteras or Croatoan Indians who later figured prominently in the tales of The Lost Colony.  However, it is known that the Coree Indians maintained a permanent village (Coranine Town) on Harkers Island and visited Cape Lookout frequently.

The description by Verrazzano in the ship’s log, “turning northward found there an isthmus one mile wide and about two hundred miles long,” fits from Cape Lookout to Cape Henry in Virginia, where the isthmus ends. Some scholars analyzing Verrazzano’s letter indicate “Verrazzano’s hand-written lettering in Italian . . . highlights the beginning of a marginal note referring to ‘Annunciata,’ identified as Cape Lookout in the Carolina Outer Banks” (Verrazzano Letter 1524). From Cape Hatteras, 200 miles crosses the opening of Chesapeake Bay (11 miles wide) almost to Chincoteague Island, Virginia, near Maryland. It would be very difficult not to notice the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, but presumably possible. One turns north from Cape Hatteras as well as from Cape Lookout. So, most authors are noncommittal on the matter, and unresolved as to whether Verrazzano stopped at Cape Lookout or Cape Hatteras. Further, it seems strange why Verrazzano would have used miles, or more specifically, English miles. The English mile was not standardized to 5,280 ft. until 1593, and if Verrazzano was using miles (possibly surfacing through translation errors), length of the mile used could vary considerably. So, a distance of “200 miles” could be from Cape Lookout to Cape Henry or from Cape Hatteras to Cape Henry. Regardless of which cape was his landfall, he named the area Annunciata. Verrazzano states, “We left this place [We called it ‘Annunciata’] from the day of arrival, and found there an isthmus one mile wide and about two hundred miles long, in which we could see the east sea from the ship (author insert – Core Sound or Pamlico Sound), halfway between west and north.” 

Verrazzano was at the Outer Banks in late March, and his quote referring to naming was a probable reference to the Feast of Annunciata. Verrazzano continued to New England before returning home to Italy. Later, Verrazzano’s brother labeled the Outer Banks from Cape Lookout to Cape Henry (Virginia) Varazanio (sic – supporting Cape Lookout landfall) and the entire area “discovered” Francesca in honor of Francis I, King of France, who financed the voyage. Other names were known to be applied on Verrazzano’s voyage, but none were ever used, and with 60 years until the Roanoke Voyages, these names were forgotten.

Roger L. Payne is executive secretary emeritus of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.