“a real colony, not merely a settlement” — Roanoke Island Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin

Today, the Roanoke Island Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin remembers when the colonists left Portsmouth, England on April 26, 1587.

From Cassell’s History of the United States by Edmund Ollier, published in 1890:


The account of Virginia furnished by the colonists to Sir Walter Raleigh was such as to encourage that enterprising speculator to make another attempt.

The faults of the previous expedition were now apparent, and could be guarded against. It was true that the Indians were not to be relied on, and that their hostility had resulted in very serious disaster; but the country itself was a prize worth winning.

Raleigh, therefore, determined on an effort of a more elaborate character.

This time the male emigrants should be accompanied by their wives and children, and a real colony, not merely a settlement of explorers, should be formed.

To the community thus about to be created, Sir Walter granted a charter of incorporation, and at the same time established a municipal government for a contemplated city, which was to be called after the great adventurer himself.

The Governor was to be one John White, and under him were placed twelve assistants.

The fleet of transport ships consisted of three vessels, all fitted out at the charge of Raleigh, for the Queen declined to bear any portion of the expense.

Implements of husbandry were supplied to the emigrants; and when the ships set sail from Portsmouth, on the 26th of April, 1587, it might well have seemed that fortunate days were in store for the party.

They arrived off the coast of North Carolina in July, and, on reaching Roanoke Island, made search for the fifteen men left there the year before by Sir Richard Grenville.

But all was desolate and solitary.

A few human bones lay scattered about, and, at the north end of the island, the fort erected by Lane was found leveled with the earth.

The dwelling-houses of his men were still standing; but the lower rooms were overgrown with melons, already springing up in rank luxuriance under the enchantment of that exquisite climate; and deer were couched within, feeding on the fruit which there were no hands to gather.

This was far from an encouraging commencement; but the colonists set to work repairing the houses and building new ones.

They had not been there many days when one of the twelve assistants of Governor White was slain by a party of savages who came over to Roanoke, and, hiding themselves among the tall reeds on the shore, transfixed the poor Englishman (who was alone, and two miles away from his comrades) with sixteen arrows, and then beat in his head with clubs.

A good understanding was for a time established between the settlers and a certain tribe of Indians connected with Manteo; and it was agreed that the latter should wear a particular badge, to distinguish them from the tribes against which the English had grievances.

But the distinction proved to be insufficient, or was not properly observed; for on one occasion the colonists, desiring to revenge themselves on the savages who had murdered the Englishmen left by Sir Richard Grenville, fell upon a company of the friendly natives, as they were sitting at night by their fires, and slaughtered at least one before the mistake was discovered.

Notwithstanding these unhappy incidents, some approach was made towards organizing a civilized state of society.

Manteo, by the express direction of Sir Walter Raleigh, received Christian baptism, and was created a feudal baron, with the title of Lord of Roanoke.

The colonists settled down in their houses, as far as the Indians would permit them to do so, and on the 18th of August the first child of English parents ever born in America drew its earliest breath.

The mother was Mistress Eleanor Dare, daughter of Governor White, and wife of one of his assistant counselors.

The infant, which was a girl, was christened Virginia, after the country of her birth.

A second child was born to the colonists shortly afterwards, and the community now consisted of ninety men, seventeen women, eleven children (including the two born there), and two friendly Indians — Manteo and another.

But the affairs of the colony did not prosper.

Raleigh had directed that the settlement should be made in Chesapeake Bay, considerably to the north of Pamlico Sound; but the chief naval officer of the fleet, a man with the foreign name of Ferdinando, who seems to have acted throughout in a treacherous and underhand way, refused his assistance in exploring the coasts, being desirous to depart with the largest of the ships for the West Indies, on one of those expeditions which had much the character of buccaneering.

White was therefore compelled to remain at Roanoke.

When the time arrived for the return of the other two ships to England, the Governor was urgently requested to go back in one of them, and obtain further supplies; which he ultimately consented to do, though reluctant to leave the infant colony at so early a date.

Shortly after his arrival in England, in November, 1587, the country became so agitated by the threatened Spanish invasion as to feel little disposition to consider schemes of colonization.

Nevertheless, Raleigh, in spite of the preoccupation of his mind by the national plans of resistance to the Armada, in which he was largely concerned, managed to fit out two vessels with necessaries for the colony.

In charge of these, White once more set his face to the West; but during the outward passage the ships were tempted, according to the fashion of those days, to go in chase of prizes, and one of them, after a desperate battle with men-of-war from Rochelle, was boarded and rifled.

Both ships were obliged to put back to England, and Raleigh, though greatly displeased at the result, was unable at the time to do anything more for the settlers.

This was in 1588, the year of the Armada.

In the following year, Raleigh made over his Virginian patent, with some reservations, to a company of merchants; being unable, after an expenditure of £40,000 out of his own purse, to prosecute the scheme any further.

Amongst these new adventurers was Richard Hakluyt, to whose enthusiasm on behalf of maritime discovery we owe that interesting and valuable collection of early English voyages which goes by his name.

A fifth part of all the gold and silver ore raised in Virginia was reserved by Raleigh to himself; but in other respects the speculation was transferred to the company.

In 1590, White made another attempt to relieve the settlers left at Roanoke; but on arriving at that island he found, by an inscription on a tree, that the colony had removed to Croatan.

Thither he set sail, and would probably have reached the spot, had not a violent storm induced the commander to put back to Europe.

A singular fatality attended all these early efforts for the colonization of America.

Mismanagement, cupidity, bad faith, and insufficient resources, conspired with the rage of the elements, the cruelty of the Indians, and the distraction of the public mind at home, to ruin a project which at first promised well.

Over the ultimate fate of the colonists sent out in 1587 hangs a cloud of mystery, through the obscurity of which we can dimly discern the outlines of a tragic catastrophe.

The settlers were never heard of more.

Either they were murdered by the Indians, or they perished of hunger; unless we adopt the suggestion of an American writer, that these deserted English men, with their wives and children, coalesced with the Hatteras Indians, and adopted their mode of life.

This, it appears, was the tradition of the tribe at a subsequent period, and it is said that something of the English type of physiognomy was long observable among the members of that body.

But in such a case it seems strange that none of the settlers should have been found, or even heard of as living, when Virginia was again colonized, twenty years after the attempt of White and his companions.


The Roanoke Island Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin shows with an artist’s image of the death of White’s assistant.

Roanoke Island Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin