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The Lost Colony of Roanoke - background and first attempts

The Lost Colony at Roanoke, an early English settlement in North Carolina, vanished mysteriously. The story reveals the challenges of colonization, including political, weather, and economic factors. The English, hoping to rival Spain's New World success, faced difficulties with navigation and conflicts with Native Americans.

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Video transcript

- [David] Hello Kim. - [Kim] Hey David. - [David] So let's talk about the Lost Colony at Roanoke. - [Kim] So this is something I've been learning a lot about lately, and I think is really interesting. You know, we often think about this just in terms of the spookiness of, there's this colony and it disappeared, and we still don't know what happened to it. But actually, I think it has a lot to say about the process of colonization in the New World, and the many political, and weather, and economic factors that went into making a colony successful or not successful. - [David] So set this up for me. What is going on during the period of this early settlement of what they called Virginia, but actually turned out to be, where Kim? - [Kim] North Carolina. So this on the outer banks, and it's today, it's still Roanoke Island, but one of these sort of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina. - [David] So, a great place to put a ship? - [Kim] Actually, what they call this area is the Graveyard of the Atlantic. - [David] So I'm hearing not so much. - [Kim] Right, so this is an area where there are a lot of shoals, lots of ships run aground there. If you ever go to one of the museums on the outer banks, you can see this incredibly long listing of all of the ships that sank off the coast of North Carolina. It is a very difficult place to sail. - [David] What year is it when we first see, when we see the first colonization attempt at Roanoke? The first expedition. - [Kim] Right, this all starts in the late 1570s with a man named Humphrey Gilbert, and Gilbert is convinced-- - [David] Is this him? - [Kim] This is actually Sir Walter Raleigh. - [David] Oh, he is cute. - [Kim] Yes, Gilbert's half-brother as it turns out. So Sir Walter Raleigh's half-brother, Humphrey Gilbert, thinks that it might be possible to make your way to the Indies and fabulous riches. Make that line a little bit bigger. By going on top of North America. So he thinks there's a waterway here. So he convinces Queen Elizabeth, then on the throne of England, to give him a charter to try to plant a colony somewhere on this side of North America. - [David] So they're looking for the Northwest Passage, is what they're looking for. - [Kim] They're looking for the Northwest Passage. They're hoping that they can find gold, and what they want to do more than anything else is just mess up Spain's chances in the New World. Because Spain, starting with Christopher Columbus, has been the leading old world power in the New World. They are just like, trucking back the gold and silver, and most of what England has done up until this point, is find Spanish ships that are coming back from Mexico, from the West Indies, and put what are called privateers, which is a nice word that the English used to mean pirate, to steal things. - [David] State-sanctioned piracy. - [Kim] State-sanctioned piracy. - [David] So like, Shakespeare is like a young man at this time, right? - [Kim] Yes. - [David] Like that is the period of Elizabethan England that we're looking at right now. - [Kim] Yeah, it's kind of, in some ways, a golden age, but when you think about how well the English are doing when it comes to colonization, it is not a golden age, they are way behind. So they're hoping maybe they can find a northwest passage to get all of the goodies over here in India, and the spice islands. They're hoping that maybe they could find some good minerals in this area, get some gold of their own. But at the very least, they'd like a nice port from which their ships could go out and steal more stuff from Spanish ships. - [David] (laughs) Sure. - [Kim] Yeah, this is a good, this is their plan. - [David] So this is kind of, if you'll permit me, this feel analogous to the space race during the Cold War. - [Kim] Yeah, absolutely. - [David] So Spain is this economic superpower that seems to have a one, you know, have a leg up on England. Just like how the Soviet Union launched Sputnik first. Got a satellite into orbit above Earth, and that spurred the United States to be like, "No, we're gonna have a moon shot!" - [Kim] Yeah, and it kinda turns out the same way in some aspects, because as we know, we're sitting here in California, we're speaking English, because eventually England is going to win its way to dominance in this entire region. But originally, Spain gets off to the fastest start, and England is just desperate to catch up. So unfortunately, Sir Humphrey Gilbert dies. He is lost at sea. - [David] So not this guy here with Queen Elizabeth. - [Kim] Right, then his half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, which he spelled with no I, so we'll do that, but today the city that's named after him, we still spell with an I. He picked up his half-brother's contract, which said he had to get a colony in the New World within six years of 1578. So he is under the gun to try to get something happening on the coast of North America by 1584 at the latest. So he picks up his friends, and decides to put together, what I kind of term as like the Ocean's Eleven of the actual ocean. - [David] (laughs) Okay. - [Kim] He finds some ship captains, and soldiers. - [David] A demolition's expert, a contortionist. (Kim laughs) A con man. - [Kim] Similar, this is like the, the 1500s version of this. He gets an artist, who we'll talk a lot more about. - [David] That's John White? - [Kim] That's John White. He gets cartographers, he gets what he considers his A-team, to go out and explore this coast. Pick up where his half-brother left off. The only problem was that Sir Walter Ralegh and Queen Elizabeth were sweethearts. And she forbid him from going on this dangerous journey. After all, his brother had also died on this journey. So she loved him too much, said "You can't go." But his friends went. So this is their first journey, and they go to North Carolina. They called it Virginia, because this whole area they named after Queen Elizabeth. - [David] The Virgin Queen. - [Kim] The Virgin Queen, and a lot of the things in this time period are kinda named after her, because all of these fellows were trying to capture her heart. So they go, and what's really interesting about this is that John White, this artist, shows us so much about what this area was like. And I want to show you some of the paintings that he made in this time period. - [David] So who were the native people that this expedition encountered? - [Kim] So they end up on the barrier islands of North Carolina, and this is where the colonists will eventually settle here, Roanoke Island. The major Native American groups in this area were Algonquian-speaking. So they are kinda in the middle of what we call the east coast today. - [David] So this is a tidewater people. - [Kim] They're a tidewater people. You can see that they live in long houses, like other Algonquian peoples, and these are primarily the Secotan people and the Croatoan people. Initially the English people get along with them pretty well. They exchange skins, and food, lots of things. The English come back, thinking this is a pretty good deal. - [David] So John White and company, John White and Sir Walter Ralegh's Eleven, or however many, right, return to England. - [Kim] Right, and they say, "This is a great place for us to settle." So then they send a second expedition from England. This time with just soldiers. It's very similar to how Jamestown is going to work out a little bit later, which is to say they send sailors, they send soldiers, and they send people who might, for example, be good at finding gold, so artisans. And they're hoping to kinda get rich quick. They think maybe there are mountains nearby that might have gold or gems in them, or perhaps, they're always asking that native people, "Do you have anything shiny? "Have you heard of anything that's shiny nearby?" Because they want to make their investors back in England happy by making a big profit. - [David] So this is like halfway between a forward operating base and a trading post. - [Kim] Exactly. - [David] Okay. - [Kim] So they're not thinking about long-term settlement, but they're left there over the winter with the Secotan people, and this is just a bunch of rowdy soldiers who thought they were gonna get rich quick, and they don't, because there is no gold in North Carolina, not like there is in the south, that the Spanish do so well with. And they quickly come to grief with the Native Americans. They steal a lot of their food. - [David] Who steals whose food? - [Kim] The English steal the food of the Secotans, and they end up getting into a brawl over the possible theft of a silver cup. - [David] (laughs) Really? - [Kim] Yeah, they think the Native Americans have stolen a silver cup from them. They demand it back, the Native Americans say, "We don't know what you're talking about." And then the English kill a bunch of people. - [David] Oh my gosh. - [Kim] So relations that were going pretty well, went pretty badly over, what I think, is kind of a minor incident. But by the time that the uh, supplies show up, because the English are sending supply ships on a regular basis, Sir Francis Drake, of piracy fame, shows up with supplies, and a bunch of these 100 men just get back on the ship and sail to England. - [David] So wait, before we go back to England with these men, what contributed to this disproportionate response, of like killing a bunch of people over a single silver cup? - [Kim] I think a lot of it was that many of these men, now and on later expeditions, are English veterans of the war in Ireland. So there is an Irish rebellion against English rule there, and the English take a very brutal stance toward the Irish. They just burned their villages, they decapitate Irish people and line their heads along sidewalks, I'm not making this up. - [David] Good lord. - [Kim] So, they're veterans of this really brutal Irish repression. And this is something that I think you see a lot with English people when they first are meeting Native Americans, they treat them like they treated the Irish, which is to say, very badly. They treat them as savages who are different religion, who need to be subject to the English, and need to be taught early on that they need to obey the English. - [David] So what happened after that, Kim? - [Kim] We'll get to that in the next video.