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Roanoke Island is considered to be the first attempt of the Great Britain to create a colony on the east coast of North America. After three years of struggle, in 1584, settlers have founded a permanent colony. That news would seem a real success of England in the vineyards of colonization but, slight problem. Expedition to the island in 1590 had brought bad news: the colony was abandoned and there were no pieces of evidence that could train spotlight on the reasons of the abandonment.
During late 1570’s England competed with Spain in laying claim to the lands of the New World. Queen Elizabeth encouraged exploration of new lands and Sir Walter Raleigh fell in with the proposal. He organized and sponsored four charters to Roanoke Island and those four journeys comprised the story of the abandoned colony.
The first two expeditions lasted for two years from 1584 to 1586. During those expeditions Englishmen tried to establish friendly relationship with First Nations – the tribe of Croatoan. The other purpose of the missions was to fortify the island and search an appropriate place for a permanent settlement. For the second time the ships returned to England without more than a hundred men on board – all of them remained on the island to continue the work. However, due to many reasons the third mission had found no more than fifteen men out of hundred – others died in conflicts with aborigines, because of weather, hunger and diseases.
The third mission in 1587 worked out in terms of the establishment of permanent settlement. Another point of the mission was that there were women and children among colonists – they had an intention to take hold seriously and for the long haul. To ensure the plan succeeded entire families became colonists and invested in themselves. John White was named governor of the colonist and he insisted on completion of the plan that he and Raleigh have adopted in England: to locate the settlement in the Chesapeake Bay area in the abandoned settlement.
New conflict with the Croatoans made the situation red-hot: instead of attacking the Powhatans tribe who killed colonists of the second mission, White’s people attacked the Croatoans violating their agreements. Because of this, the Croatoans refused to supply colonists with food and colonists suffered from shortage of supplies. The group of colonists was separated: 116 colonists with women and children remained on the island and others returned to England for supplies only to return in 1590 and find out that the colony was abandoned.
Recent researches have shown that 1587 was the worst possible year to settle: tree-ring data from Virginia indicate that the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island disappeared during the most extreme drought in 800 years (1587–1589) and that the alarming mortality and the near abandonment of Jamestown Colony occurred during the driest 7-year episode in 770 years (1606–1612). (Science 24, 1998).
The only clue that the returned colonists received was the word Croatoan carved into a tree. White have decided that colonists might have moved near Croatoans or with Croatoans, however, he had no possibility to find out if whether his guess was correct as captain of the ship demanded that they were returning to England. Thus the fate of the colonists remained enveloped in mystery. 20 years later John Smith tried to make proper investigation about them: after questioning local natives about the colonists he had gathered three versions: attack on the settlement and murder of all colonists, assimilation of women and children and slaughter of men and peaceful assimilation of the whole colony to local tribes.
Till recent times historians could not agree on one solid theory about Roanoke. But in 2012 member of the First Colony Foundation found a White’s map and investigated it. X-ray spectroscopy, infrared imaging, and raman spectroscopy had revealed a hidden mark on the map, that symbolized plans of colonists to resettle 50 miles west of Roanoke. During the archeological excavations on the approximate place marked on the White’s map archeologists have found more than 30 artifacts recovered here they found shards of a type of ceramics called Surrey-Hampshire Border ware. That meant that at least some of the artifacts found dated from the time of the Roanoke colonists.
At last scientists have figured out what drove the settlers from their island. “They knew that Roanoke wasn’t a good place to build a settlement,”. They were painfully aware that there was little fresh water available to the colony—especially not during a historic drought. (Kupperman, 2007).
Science 24 Apr 1998: Vol. 280, Issue 5363, pp. 564-567
Kupperman, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony, Rowman&Littlefield Publishers, 2007