The Roanoke Voyages (1584-1590), Fifth of Five Roanoke Voyages with Emphasis on Geographic Naming

The following is the seventh 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. A book over twenty years in the making, The Outer Banks Gazetteer is a comprehensive reference guide to the region’s place names—over 3,000 entries in all. Click here to view Roger Payne’s entire guest blog series.

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The Fifth Voyage is White’s (Governor of the Roanoke or Lost Colony) attempt to resupply and reprovision the second attempted colony left on northern Roanoke Island in July 1587.  Reluctantly White had been convinced to return to England (early August) for much needed supplies and provisions since the colonists had arrived in late July late in the planting season and supplies were low. Further, relations with the indigenous peoples on Roanoke Island and the mainland were in a state of deterioration from the actions of the first military colonists. Only Manteo and the Croatoans remained friendly, but they were at some distance and ill supplied with harvest themselves.

White tried desperately to return to Roanoke but could not do so for almost three years (1590). Raleigh convinced Queen Elizabeth I to allow him two small ships not needed in defense of the impending Spanish invasion, but these two ships had problems and were compelled to return to England. Actually, they were attacked off the Azores and barely made it back to England. White’s return to Roanoke was then delayed further by the impending attack by the Spanish Armada in 1588. However, no ocean-going ships could be spared by England for any reason especially a “minor” adventure in North America. So, White had to wait until after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in August 1588 before he could return to Roanoke. 

When White finally was able to return in 1590, he was only able to do so as a passenger on the “relief” ship and with no authority. Interestingly, in this relief voyage White mentions the “fret” (a channel or inlet) at the northeast point of Croatoan at “35 and one-half degrees” as they sailed toward Roanoke Island, which by latitude (and measurements of the time) was close to the location of Chacandepeco Inlet (Cape Hatteras). The inlet was open in 1590 and was indeed at the northeast point of Croatoan as White describes it. However, 35 and one-half degrees is actually about 15 miles north of the previous location of Chacandepeco Inlet and really might have been the “fret,” Keneckid Inlet if this illusive inlet was even open at this time. White makes further reference to Hatorask at “36 degrees and a terce (one-third)”, which is about 10 miles north of where Trinety Harbor was located (not Hatarask), and where there is no evidence of an historical inlet, and not where the name Hatorask was applied originally by White himself. In this reported reading the discrepancy is about one-half degree of latitude or about 35 miles north of the actual location. He continues by mentioning that before landing at Roanoke “another great smoke was seen” to the southwest of “Kindrikers Mountes,”, which was the name given to the dunes on what is now Pea Island (north of New Inlet). Ken Rick (Kindrik – there was no standardized spelling, and the same word could be spelled differently in the same sentence) was a reference to any large or prominent dunes or ridges first sighted (anywhere) and used as landmarks. The word is a combination of obsolete terms. “Ken” or “kenning” (kenning of land, as in journals of the original voyages to “Roanoak”) referenced distance land is discernable from a ship, or about 20 miles. Use of “ken” as a generic place name term was applied in parts of England and Wales from the Gaelic word Ceann meaning head or top. “Rick” is specifically a pile of something such as sand. The reference then was to the large dunes first visible from a ship. So, they were clearly at Hatorask, but not at “36 degrees and one third.”  The inlet, at Hatarask, had by now been named Port Ferdinando (1585), though White does not use Port Ferdinando, and was at approximately 35 degrees and about three-fourths. So, the measurement must have been an estimate or a miss-measurement of almost 40 miles. White also indicates that from this place:

 “we saw a great smoke rise in the Ile Raonoak neere the place where I left our colony in the yeere 1587…” 

 White simply could not have seen any part of Roanoke Island from this location (36 degrees and one-third) as he would have been about 30 miles north of the actual site of the colony. So, the latitude given cannot be correct. Although approaching from Hatorask (Port Ferdinando), he would probably have been able to see the rising smoke. White adds more by indicating that:

 “The next morning being the 17 of August, our boates and company were prepared againe to goe upto Roanoak.” [bold mine – up signifying north from Hatarask].

By using the word up, White no doubt means north, which fits heading to Roanoke from Hatorask, and so all of White’s descriptions fit except for 36 degrees and one third.

Upon his eventual arrival, no trace of the colony was found, only CRO carved into a tree and the word CROATOAN carved onto a post, but there was no trace of the secret distress sign (a Cross Pattée, similar to a Maltese Cross A picture containing ax, hook, iron, knife

Description automatically generated) agreed to when White left the colony. Anyway, if the colonists left in a hurry that might explain only CRO in the tree, but that matter seems not to have been discussed since there were no signs of distress or rapid abandonment at the site of the colony. Croatoan was the name used for the (then) barrier island southeast of Roanoke Island and south of Hataraske (island), which was from just north of (later) Cape Hatteras at former Chacandepeco Inlet to probably Ocracoke Inlet or at least The Great Swash area (Old Hatteras Inlet) about 8 mi east-northeast of the present village of Ocracoke. Croatoan was one name used for the indigenous peoples at the Cape Hatteras area (Manteo’s tribe). It is important to note that when White left in 1587 the colonists indicated that they intended to:

 “remove from Roanoac [sic] 50 miles up into the maine.” 

This has been misinterpreted (I believe) by many researchers to mean 50 miles west into Albemarle Sound, but in my opinion meant 50 miles to settle in the region of the Chespians or lower Chesapeake Bay region on the mainland and the original intent of the colonists as directed by Raleigh especially since up usually means north when used. However, after finding the carved message, White insisted on returning to Croatoan, but violent weather and an uncooperative captain (who had his own agenda – mostly privateering) made continuing the search impossible. White was alone and without authority. But why was the word Croatoan carved into the tree when it is the direct opposite direction of the Chesapeake, the intended destination. Speculation is that since it was Manteo’s home and friendly to the colonists that a small contingency might go there to await White’s return. White was convinced the colonists were at Croatoan (Cape Hatteras), but violent storms prevented safely continuing to Croatoan.

It is also possible that the colonists left the colony in the early summer of 1588 as it is reported that the Spanish had been looking for the colony resulting from reports of Spanish spies in Queen Elizabeth’s Court. However, it seems, the Spanish were looking in the Chesapeake Bay area, after all that is where Raleigh had instructed them to settle, and the information the spies would have obtained. Since there was no trace of the colony in the Chesapeake area, the Spanish were sailing back to Saint Augustine when a storm caused them to enter an inlet along the Outer Banks (probably Port Ferdinando). They reportedly found evidence of the English colony, but having less than 50 soldiers the crew did not want to engage the colonists. So, circumstantial evidence suggests that by early summer in 1588 the colonists had already vacated the colony upon spotting a Spanish ship in the sound possibly approaching the colony with an unknown number of soldiers. This is, of course, mostly speculation, but it is known that a Spanish ship was in the area.

There has been endless speculation on what happened to the colonists, but no trace and no credible proof has surfaced though there has been much circumstantial evidence from early so-called first-hand sightings by indigenous peoples to tales of “Indians” with blondish hair and gray eyes. Still, others believe the colonists went inland and yet others that they were captured and sent into slavery to other indigenous tribes. 

Numerous attempts have been made over the years to find “The Lost Colony.”  In 1602, Raleigh sent a search party, which reached the Cape Fear area (near Wilmington, NC) and might have reached even Croatoan, but no trace or information was found. There were inquiries and searches even by the settlers at Jamestown (1607 – including John Smith), but no trace was ever found though rumors persisted of some of the colonists still living with local tribes. In fact, it is known that in 1653 at least four men from Jamestown reportedly visited Roanoke Island where they met with local indigenous peoples who showed them the ruins of the fort from both attempted colonies, but no additional information was provided or at least according to the report from these men. The ruins reportedly remained identifiable to some visitors (including Lawson in the early 1700s – Surveyor General of North Carolina) throughout the 1700s, and it is also reported that some faint ruins were still visible until the last half of the 19th  Century. It is further reported that soldiers visited the site during the occupation of Roanoke Island during the American Civil War. Various reports indicate a location of about one-half mile from the northwest shore and about three-fourths of a mile from the north shore. While the original fort’s location is likely still on land, the settlement, which was uncharacteristically outside of the fort is likely inundated off the north shore of Roanoke Island. Recently, there have also been investigations in the area of Bodie Island Lighthouse on Bodie Island, which was known to be the former location of Port Ferdinando (Gunt Inlet) where it is now known that a small defense fort (sconce) and lookout were built as well as a facility for catching rainwater.

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