The Roanoke Voyages (1584-1590), First of Five Roanoke Voyages with Emphasis on Geographic Naming – Part 1

The second segment 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 . Click here to view Roger Payne’s entire guest blog series.

The first Roanoke Voyage is divided into two parts to convey necessary information regarding this historically controversial topic.

Voyages two through five are well documented, but this first voyage while thoroughly documented, is missing certain critical information to determine specifically the inlet entered initially as no inlets were “apparently” named on this voyage and directional references are conspicuously missing in the log entries. The controversy will likely never be solved. Additionally, of debate is whether Port Ferdinando was named on this voyage or the second voyage.

In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh (knighted by Queen Elizabeth I in 1585) was granted a patent (official document granting sole rights) by Queen Elizabeth to establish an English colony in the New World and specifically North America, north of the Spanish colonies. Ostensibly, the English wanted to establish commerce in the New World, but in reality, England desperately wanted to limit Spanish dominion in North America. So, under Raleigh’s charter, Amadas and Barlowe set sail with two ships on April 27, 1584 for the North American coast to reconnoiter in preparation for establishing an English colony. Their report to Raleigh was a glowing report (as expected) leading Raleigh to prepare for colonization. 

The ship’s logs indicate: “…we arrived upon the coast, which we supposed to be a continent and firme lande, and we sayled along the same for a hundred and twentie English miles before we could finde any entrance…”  

The ships’ logs do not define clearly the location where the 120 English mile measurement begins, therefore, it is not possible to determine specifically the inlet used for initial entry. The logs indicate (“encountering shole [sic] water”), which could be Cape Lookout making Port Ferdinando (just north of Oregon Inlet) a candidate, or around Ocracoke Inlet making Trinety Harbor the candidate. But distances found in the logs after entering the inlet describing Roanoke Island can only fit from Trinety Harbor. So, the specific inlet used will likely never be known and unfortunately neither feature is mentioned by name because evidence indicates no name had yet been given to either inlet. Further, the English mile was not standardized to 5,280 feet until 1593. In fact, in 1584, the English mile used would almost assuredly have been 5,000 feet (based on the old Roman mille) but making a difference of only a few miles by current measurements.

Furthermore, the ship’s logs upon arrival indicate: “We passed from the Sea side towards the toppes of those hilles next adjoining, being but of meane highth, and from thence wee beheld the Sea on both sides to the North, and to the South, finding no ende any of both ways.”  

If they had passed through Port Ferdinando (Gunt Inlet formerly just south of Oregon Inlet), then surely, they would have seen some part of southern Roanoke Island or the sound marshes of what is now Bodie Island as these features are only a few miles from the former inlet. If they had passed through Trinety Harbor, just north of Duck (about 35 miles north of Port Ferdinando), then not seeing land in either direction might fit.

The ships’ log continues “This land lay stretching it selfe to the West, which after we found to bee but an island of twentie miles long, and not above sixe miles broade.” Theoretically, this could only be Roanoke Island (unless… see below), as there is no large island now or then except Roanoke, which suggests only Port Ferdinando (Gunt Inlet). But even though a bit larger in 1585, Roanoke Island is only 12 miles long and 3.5 miles wide. 

There is another possibility, perhaps somewhat speculative, but worth noting as a possibility, especially for those who support Trinety Harbor as the one through which Amadas and Barlowe passed. The island to which Amadas and Barlowe referred might not have been an island at all, but instead misinterpretation from the indigenous peoples or a misjudgment on the part of Amadas and Barlowe. They could have mistaken the peninsula, Powells Point for an island, which is and was then a peninsula of about 16 to 21 miles long, though at its widest is just over four miles (a small misjudgment based upon information at the time, perhaps). This is a tantalizing topic perhaps for consideration, though the only map showing Powells Point as an island is that of Keulen (1682). If this scenario is correct, then it would fit generally with the distance factor for both the “unnamed” island upon arrival and the distance from the inlet of arrival to northern Roanoke Island (“twentie mile into the River that runneth towarde the City of Skicoak,”) which must be Currituck Sound since Skicoak was actually on what is now the James River in Virginia (DeBry 1590). Roanoke Island was not mentioned in the logs until three days after arrival at about 21 miles, the distance from then Trinety Harbor. Regardless of how tempting to consider this possibility might be, there is no evidence beyond Keulen’s map, which must be considered purely coincidental as proof. Nevertheless, Amadas and Barlowe could have (easily) made such a mistake, and which lends credence to the expedition not being noticed by the indigenous peoples for three days.

So, directions are not provided, but the English were more likely simply heading south on Currituck Sound (later versions of DeBry’s 1590 map are hand-colored and depict the English in a boat approaching Roanoke Island from the north). The indigenous peoples referred to all this area of sound as Occam (as mentioned in the ships’ logs) where Albemarle, Currituck, Croatan, and Roanoke Sounds generally mix. And so, to what island were they referring initially if they are now just being told the name of the island is Roanoke?  Seven leagues are about 21 miles, which fits from Trinety Harbor (formerly just north of Duck) and not from Port Ferdinando (formerly just south of Oregon Inlet).

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