Friday, 13 December 2013

The Women of the Lost Colony by Jenny Barden

Amongst the ‘Lost Colonists’ who attempted to found the first permanent English settlement in America were at least seventeen women. What would life have been like for these women, some of them pregnant, at least one of them with a baby at the breast, who left everything familiar in England to begin life afresh in a strange raw land? They would have faced the threat of native hostility, witnessed the aftermath of a horrific murder soon after arrival, and untold hardship at a time of famine. We’ll never know for certain what happened to them. The Colony’s Governor left to summon help barely six weeks after the Colonists were set down on Roanoke Island in the ‘new found land’ of Virginia in the summer of 1587. When he returned, three years later, all the Colonists had disappeared leaving only a few enigmatic clues as to where they might have gone. 

The reconstruction ‘Elizabeth’ at Roanoke. The ship that brought the Lost Colonists from England would have looked much the same

We know the names of the women from a list drawn up by the Governor, John White, which was given to Richard Hakluyt and later included in his account of the enterprise. From the evidence of surnames shared with some of the male Colonists, we can deduce that eleven of the women were married and two travelled with children. Two of the very bravest women embarked on the voyage in an advanced state of pregnancy to be later delivered of their babies in the New World. One of these was the Governor’s daughter, Eleanor (recorded as ‘Elyoner’), who gave birth to a girl, Virginia Dare, the first child of English parents to be born on American soil. At a time when childbirth was likely to be difficult, dangerous and painful for any woman, this must have taken courage indeed. Eleanor Dare chanced everything to accompany her husband and father in their quest to establish the City of Raleigh in the New World and make a home there. She probably marvelled at first at the land’s wild beauty, but she must have been terrified by the brutal death of one of the Governor’s Assistants, George Howe, only a few days after reaching Roanoke. His end came as he was out wading, looking for crabs, no doubt enjoying the feel of mud and sand between his toes, alone, defenceless and unsuspecting. Howe’s body was found shot through with arrows and his head smashed to a pulp. He left a young orphaned son. What must that boy have felt? The women surely would have comforted him with rising fear in their hearts.
               This is how Roanoke would have appeared to the Lost Colonists on first arrival

The women would have been expecting to make homes in cottages like these reconstructions (below) at the Roanoke Island Festival Park. But they found the houses built by an earlier garrison abandoned and overgrown, with deer grazing on melons in the ‘nether rooms’. One of the first tasks for the women would have been to help make the dwellings habitable

The murder of Howe must have come as a profound shock to the Colonists because they were expecting to be welcomed by ‘gentle savages’. In the words of Arthur Barlowe, who had discovered Roanoke only three years before, the people there were ‘loving, and faithfull, void of all guile, and treason, and such as lived after the manner of the golden age.’ Hakluyt described Roanoke as ‘this paradise of the worlde’, but what the Colonists found was much more sinister. The fort built on the island by an earlier English garrison had been burnt down, and there was no trace of the fifteen soldiers who had been left there, other than the bones of one bearing the marks of a violent death. The Colonists were told by the Croatan tribe, loyal allies of the English throughout, that the Roanoke Indians in league with other tribes had attacked the garrison under the subterfuge of offering friendship. This was a tragic mirror of the treatment previously meted out to the Indians by the garrison commander, Ralph Lane. His pre-emptive strike against the original inhabitants of Roanoke and the slaying of their chief, Wingina, was to leave the Colonists a poisoned chalice. After the reality of their predicament sank in, the women must have been petrified, not only for themselves, but their menfolk and the children of the Colony too. They would have had no escape. The expedition Pilot, Simon Ferdinando, refused to let any of the Colonists back aboard ship other than the Governor, John White. When Ferdinando and White eventually set sail for England, the Colonists had no means of getting back across the ocean, at least not together.

The appearance and customs of the indigenous Algonquian Indians would have seemed very strange to the Lost Colonists. In this painting by John White, an Indian woman is with a child who is holding an Elizabethan doll.

                                         ‘A Festive Dance’ from another painting by John White

Who were the women of the Lost Colony? We know little about them other than their names. Eleanor’s husband, Ananias, was a bricklayer and tiler who had fathered an illegitimate child before he married the daughter of John White, a gentleman. White was also a limner, or painter in watercolours, and he had been a scientific observer for Lane’s expedition. There is nothing to explain what made a bricklayer a suitable match for a gentleman’s daughter (though we can speculate that perhaps Eleanor’s pregnancy had something to do with it!) Six of the women appear to be single, and amongst these is the curiously named ‘Emme Merrimoth’ (a name which I used as a starting point for one of the main characters in my novel about the Lost Colony). As a matter of historical record, the women of the Lost Colony remain largely shrouded in mystery, but the occupations listed for the men provide a small insight. Those noted include a yeoman, husbandman and goldsmith, as well as a lawyer, tailor and mariner. There were even newly released inmates of Colchester prison with the Colonists. In other words, unusually for the time, they came from all walks of life.

                   Sir Walter Raleigh who initiated and financed the first expeditions to Virginia

White enlisted many Colonists from the overcrowded suburbs of London, tempting them with Sir Walter Raleigh’s offer of five hundred acres of prime agricultural land, in a country free of disease and corruption, to any man prepared to settle there. The majority of the men would have been artisans - potters, weavers and the like - possessed of skills that would be useful in founding an enduring community. Some took their wives; some of the single women may well have been maids. Most of the women would have been used to running households and a wide range of domestic work from baking bread to patching clothes, growing herbs to salting meat. Their skills would have been just as valuable as those of the men, but it’s doubtful that they would have had any idea of the difficulties that would confront them.
When White returned he found the City of Raleigh deserted and broken down behind an improvised wall of tree trunks. There was no sign of his daughter and granddaughter.  Only the prints of ‘savage’ feet in the sand suggested the presence of human life, though he saw no one on the island.

The Colonists reached Roanoke during a period of sustained drought when yields were low and the Algonquian Indians had little food to spare. Mainly due to Ferdinando’s zealous caution, the Colonists failed to take aboard fresh supplies during their passage through the Caribbean. As a result they arrived short of provisions, and were soon in crisis, facing the hostility of neighbouring tribes, too late in the year for cultivating crops, and with little chance of laying up stores sufficient to last the winter. The position for the women must have been desperate, with despondent men, hungry children, and babes in arms to care for.
If the Colonists moved inland they would have used the wide estuaries and waterways and seen ancient bald cypress trees such as these near the Chowan River.

The fate of the Lost Colony remains an enduring mystery. Perhaps the Colonists left Roanoke to try and find a safer place to settle. Maybe they went to the nearby island of Croatoan, as letters carved into trees around the fort suggested, which White found when he returned to Roanoke. There was no cross with these marks which was the agreed sign for distress, so possibly the settlers had moved freely. But Croatoan would not have had the capacity to sustain the settlers for long; there was little enough food for the Indians who lived there. And if the settlers were on Croatoan when White returned then why didn’t they greet him, or set a signal fire, or show any other evidence of being there? White was unable to search further; storms forced the expedition to leave, and what became of the Lost Colony has remained a puzzle ever since.

White’s ‘Virginea Pars’ map on which a patch conceals the icon of a fort. Was this where the Lost Colonists relocated?

As for the women of the Colony, they may have been taken by Indians in a raid on the City of Raleigh; the defensive wall of tree trunks indicates that such an attack was anticipated. Reports filtered back to England over subsequent decades of a settlement, hidden in the forest to the south of Chesapeake Bay, which had been routed by Powhatan’s warriors just as the next wave of Jamestown colonists arrived. Other reports suggested that some of the Lost Colonists had become integrated with the Croatans, or had moved inland, either as captives or of their own volition, and lived in Indian villages where their skills at metal working were put to use. Colonial Secretary William Strachey of Jamestown was given information about ‘some of our nation, planted by Sir Walter Raleigh, yet alive’. He was assured by the Indian Machumps that ‘the weroance [chief] Eyanoco preserved seven of the English alive, fower men, two boys and one young maid, who escaped and fled up the river of Choanoke, to beat his copper…’ Who was that young maid? What would her experience have been?

We can only imagine…

Quotes from ‘The First Colonists – Documents on the Planting of the First English Settlements in North America 1584-1590’ edited by David B Quinn and Alison M Quinn, and ‘Big Chief Elizabeth’ by Giles Milton 

Jenny Barden’s second novel, ‘The Lost Duchess’, an epic love story set against the backdrop of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, has just been released in hardback and as an ebook. The book is available from Amazon UK and all good bookstores. It will be published as a paperback in summer next year

More about Jenny can be found on her website:

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  1. Thank you on Jenny's behalf. She is not online today. Glad you enjoyed it. I love the photographs. She went there to research.

  2. Thank you, Louise - so pleased you enjoyed the article!

  3. Really enjoyed this article, I know you are on my friends list on FB and have been for sometime but now I feel i know more about your work and know something about the early settlers of America.

  4. That's excellent, Paula. Very pleased to contribute to this informative blog.