1. The English were not the first Europeans to land their ships on American soil. The Vikings had discovered North America in the 11th century. Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492 for Spain, and the French began expeditions to the New World in 1524. But the first English presence in North America is important because the thirteen English colonies that would later be established eventually became the country now known as the United States of America.
2. In April of 1585 Sir Walter Raleigh, under the authority of Queen Elizabeth of England, sent an expedition of seven ships carrying 600 men, half of them soldiers, to found an English colony in North America. The colony was to be used to establish an English presence in the New World as well as a base from which English privateers, or pirates, could attack and plunder Spanish treasure fleets. Raleigh’s cousin, Sir Richard Grenville, led the expedition.
3. In July of that year the bulk of the fleet reached a small island off the coast of Virginia that was called Roanoke. After building a small fort on the north side of the island, the colonists initiated relations with a Native American tribe that lived on the island, the Aquascogoc. These natives showed little interest in building relations with the English colonists, and they soon parted company. After this encounter, however, the English noticed that one of their silver cups had gone missing, and they attributed its disappearance to the Aquascogoc. Grenville, the English captain, was furious. He believed that the Aquascogoc had stolen the silver cup. Whether or not this was true, angry exchanges followed and soon the English burned the Aquascogoc village. The English held their fort against the subsequent attacks of the natives.
4. Despite their success in battle, the colonists had a miserable time because they were mainly soldiers and adventurers, not farmers. They were hungry. They missed the comforts of England, such as soft feather beds and dainty foods. Also they had expected to find gold and silver on the island, and were disappointed when they found none. Grenville soon tired of these conditions and set out on his ship to plunder Spanish treasure fleets and return to England. The colony was gradually abandoned.
5. In 1587 Sir Walter Raleigh dispatched a further expedition of three ships and 150 colonists, led by John White, to Roanoke. This time the expedition included women and children, including White’s pregnant daughter, Elenora. Shortly after they reached Roanoke, Elenora delivered a child whom they named Virginia. Virginia was the first English person born in America. But the English soon ran into more trouble with the Native Americans. A colonist named George Howe was killed by natives while searching for crabs alone on the beach. The colonists were scared. They persuaded White to sail back to England to ask Sir Walter Raleigh for help. White left behind 114 colonists, including his daughter Elenora and granddaughter Virginia.
6. Unfortunately for White and the colonists, England was preparing for a naval war with Spain. All shipping from English ports was ceased. It took White three years to get his relief expedition back to Roanoke. When he returned in August of 1590, White found no sign of his daughter, granddaughter, or anyone else. They found three letters, “CRO,” carved on a tree and the full word, “CROATOAN,” on a nearby post. Possibly this referred to the Croatoan Island, which was nearby. White searched long and anxiously, but failed to find them.
7. No further trace of the lost colony has ever been found. Sir Walter Raleigh himself searched for the colonists in 1595, and he sent another search-party in 1602, but nothing came of either attempt. To this day no one knows for certain what happened to the colonists.