Today, it’s hard to find an inch of the world that isn’t mapped. In moments, you can view a photo of the most remote spot on the globe with a satellite. And of course, that makes it hard, if not impossible to really understand the fear that people used to feel towards the un-visited corners of the world. In the face of the unknown, imagination runs wild. Our minds fill the shadows of the blank spaces on the map with monsters and savage people who drink blood and eat human flesh. And for the English in the 16th century, America was just such a place.
Though the continent was already inhabited, and the Norse had even established a short-lived colony there four hundred years earlier, North America remained a mystery to most of Europe. But there were early signs that colonization could be very profitable. With the natural resources of the continent, there were enormous potential profits for any country that could control it. Before they could, they would have to wrestle it from unforgiving nature. In 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh moved to establish the first major British settlement in what is now the United States. But from the beginning, there were problems.
Shortly after leaving England, one of the ships became separated from the others. And after they met up again in the Carribean, one ran aground on a shoal, ruining much of the colonists’ food supplies. The fleet continued up the coast of what is now North Carolina, seeking the perfect spot for a new colony and making contact with the native tribes in the region. Immediately, the relationship between the colonists and natives was strained when the Europeans accused a native of stealing a silver cup. In typical 16th-century style, the English sacked and burned down their village in response.
And looting was actually a big part of the expedition. The plan was to establish a colony, and once that was done, take the ships for a little harmless privateering against Spanish shipping. By August, the leader of the expedition, Sir Richard Greenville, was getting impatient for the more profitable second phase of the mission. So, when he discovered the small island of Roanoke, he declared that it would make the perfect spot for a colony and ordered the settlers off the ships. Many argued that they didn’t have enough food and were now surrounded by – understandably- hostile natives. But Greenville promised that he would return soon with reinforcements and supplies.
107 men settled at Roanoke and immediately began building a fort to protect themselves from attack. Months went by with no sign of Greenville. In June of 1586, a force of Native American warriors launched an attack on the English garrison in revenge for the burning of their village. The garrison managed to hold them off. And shortly after, Sir Francis Drake happened to pass by the colony and offered anyone who wanted it a lift back to England. A number of men took him up on the offer. But when Greenville finally returned, he found the remaining men had vanished. It was an ominous warning of what was to come.