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Published June 28th 2022
Visit the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
During our first visit to the Outer Banks, North Carolina, we split our itinerary into location days, maximizing our time in the Kitty Hawk area, Roanoke Island, and Hatteras Island. It's easy to see why so many people return year after year, there's much to do. One of the highlights of Roanoke Island was our visit to the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, part of the National Park Service. Native Algonquians, European colonists, Civil War soldiers, and African Americans have each made their mark on these Outer Banks. More modern day, in 1902, Reginald Fessenden, a radio pioneer, invented the first wireless technology for transmitting the human voice on Roanoke Island.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site Visitor Center
Enter through the one-way loop, and park near the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site Visitor Center. Stop to see when the next Park Ranger tour takes place. They usually have a sign outside the door announcing the time and topic. I've learned the tours are great for me since I always learn something and even better when I travel with kids or grandkids. We all get to learn at the same time, and I don't have to do the research.
Sir Walter Raleigh, one of Queen Elizabeth I's most famous explorers, never set foot in Virginia but was one of its greatest proponents. He held the charter for "sustained exploration and settlement of the coast of North America" to find a suitable place for an English colony and to detract from Spanish domination in the new world. In July 1584, Raleigh's two vessels arrived off the North Carolina Coast and Captain Philip Amadas and Captain Arthur Barlowe established friendly relations with Roanoke Island's Algonquian population. Raleigh is remembered for introducing both potatoes and tobacco from the New World to England, though both were known by Spanish explorers. When Amadas and Barlowe returned to England, they took with them two Algonquians, Manteo and Wanchese.
Watch the introductory movie in the Visitor Center for an introduction to this era. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Monument to the Freedmen's Colony
Visit the Freedmen's Colony monument and consider the experience of the African American population that traversed the area. Taken by Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside in February 1862, Roanoke Island became a safe haven, providing refuge for families of ex-slaves during the Civil War and part of the Underground Railroad. Many of these men joined the U.S. Army and continued on the Island for a few years after the completion of the Civil War. This Freedmen's Colony, headed by Army Chaplain Horace James, prepared liberated slaves for life in post-Civil War America. By 1865, nearly 3500 people lived in 560 log dwellings on the site. The Colony was decommissioned by the Army in 1867.
1896 Historic Monument Fort Raleigh Historic Site (O.S.)
To the right of the Freedmen's Colony monument, take the path and stop to read the 1896 monument. I started a list of questions for the Park Rangers when Google wasn't available. Turns out O.S. stands for "Old Style" which refers to the Julian Calendar which was in effect in England until September 1752 when the Gregorian calendar was adopted, and eleven days were "lost."
Fort Raleigh's Earthen Fort, Remainders of the Lost Colony Roanoke Island
Further along the path, visit the reconstructed Earthen Fort. The location of the first English Colony, John White, an English artist, accompanied the 116 English Colonists in the 1585 expedition that failed to colonize Roanoke Island. At Sir Walter Raleigh's command, Sir Richard Grenville returned with seven ships and about 600 men, women, and children in 1587, including John White and his family. Grenville was tasked to establish a base from which to commandeer Spanish ships and explore the region. White served as Governor in the Cittie of Ralegh to create a true colony. After Grenville's soldiers helped build the Earthen Fort, Grenville returned to England leaving Ralph Lane and 107 colonists and soldiers with a promise to return with provisions. With the colonists relying upon the Algonquians for essential supplies, and the failure of Grenville to return, White was forced to return to England for supplies. One source I reviewed said White accepted Sir Francis Drake's offer of voyage to England. Forced to leave his daughter, Elenora, her husband, Ananias Dare, and the first English-born child, their daughter Virginia Dare, born on August 18, 1587. Delayed by the Spanish Armada and hurricanes, John White's return was delayed until August 1590. Everyone had vanished with CROATOAN carved onto a post and CRO into a tree.
Back in the Visitor Center, view John White's watercolors illustrating fishing methods still used on Roanoke Sound today. Plan to spend at least an hour if you explore the mystery of what happened with these settlers. Was it conflict or disease or weather that caused their disappearance? Also, explore the Algonquian history of the land.
Archeologists discovered this Earthen Fort and artifacts from the Lost Colony in 1895, led by Talcott Williams, in 1947 by Jean C. Harrington, and in 1950, the National Park Service reconstructed the fort. With advances in technology, a 1991 dig unearthed a "science workshop" and in 2008 excavations revealed "over 200 artifacts from the late 1500s from the late 1500s, including English and Algonquian potsherds, European glass beads, and an Algonquian clay pipestem found near the decorative copper squares."
With technology advancements, I hope that more can be found about the Lost Colony. My other question for the Park Ranger was why we're taught in school that Virginia Dare disappeared from Roanoke, Virginia. With a knowing smile, he provided the information about the entirety of Virginia being a vast area, not the state I'd lived near growing up. Even where I was born, modern-day Maryland, would have been called "Virginia" during this time.
It was only during this trip that I learned a mystery I'd wondered about since I was a girl, "Whatever happened to Virginia Dare?" The lost little girl from Roanoke, Virginia was really lost from North Carolina. I was impressed I'd made it so long before knowing that all of the English Colony was called "Virginia" originally, stretching from the borders of Spanish-held Florida to French-held Canada and west to the Mississippi River. So she hadn't been lost from modern-day Virginia, but from North Carolina. It's not something, I think, that most Americans understand from what we're taught in school. It's a "boots on the ground" kind of education.
While researching this article, I learned it was in 1606 that King James I divided Virginia into two, the Virginia Company of London to the south and the Virginia Company of Plymouth to the north. Each was a commercial trading company but the shareholders in the north were from Plymouth, Exeter, and Bristol, while the shareholders to the south were from London. This was the origin of the Plymouth Rock reference with the Pilgrims' arrival in 1620 and the basis for the original 13 colonies.
Continue along the path towards Albemarle Sound and stand amazed by the Waterside Theatre, three times broader than any Broadway stage. This is where the English colonists first settled. The home of The Lost Colony performances each summer, nearly 200 staff, volunteers, and actors (including the late Manteo resident Andy Griffith), got their start in this longest-running outdoor symphonic drama since 1937. Created during the Great Depression, the locals wanted to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the birth of Virginia Dare, and North Carolina playwright, Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Green brought the story to life.
The trail between the Waterside Theatre and The Elizabethan Gardens is the Thomas Hariot Trail. While Sir Walter Raleigh never set foot in Virginia, his primary assistant, Thomas Hariot, a scientist and linguist accompanied the original colonists. Historians postulate that the Earthen Fort was built to defend the Hariot-Gans Workshop. Joachim Gans, a Prague metallurgist, accompanied the colonists to evaluate discovered ores.
On the left side of the Park, also accessible with a separate parking area, you'll find the trailhead to the Freedom Trail. This is the closest part of the Fort to the Elizabethan Gardens.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
Manteo, North Carolina
Plan to spend 2 to 4 hours (without hikes) at the Fort and, if possible, participate in the Ranger-led tours.
The Visitor Center is open seven days a week, year-round except December 25th. The park grounds are open from sunup to sundown. In summer, the grounds are open in the evening until the performance of The Lost Colony is over.