Sir Walter Raleigh and South America

By William M. Wisser

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

Sir Walter Raleigh’s brother, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, attempted to establish an English settlement in North America first. He made landfall in Nova Scotia and sailed down the coast, searching for possible settlement locations. His expedition met constant storms and hostile American Indians. Because of these problems, Gilbert was forced to head back to England. On the way, his ship sunk and he drowned. Raleigh was determined to achieve his brother’s goals. He petitioned the Queen to take up Gilbert’s cause. The Queen gave Raleigh permission to explore the coast of North America and make settlement in her name. In 1584 Raleigh outfitted a military expedition but did not sail with the crew. This expedition sailed first to Florida and then headed north, landing on the North Carolina coast. The new land was named Virginia after Elizabeth I, who was known as the Virgin Queen. When the crew of the expedition returned to England, they reported that the coast was abundant with natural resources and that the indigenous people were welcoming.

Raleigh quickly sent another expedition, this time with the intent of establishing a settlement. In 1585 Sir Richard Grenville landed on the North Carolina coast with 108 settlers. Grenville quickly angered the American Indians and even killed a chief in a dispute over a drinking cup. When Grenville returned to England for supplies, the settlers found themselves in a hostile land with little food and less hope for survival. Fortunately, another English explorer, Sir Francis Drake, sailed by their camp. The settlers decided to leave the North Carolina coast behind and travel with Drake back home to England.

Raleigh was undaunted at the failure of the first settlement. In 1587 Raleigh sent a third expedition to North America, this one with families instead of soldiers. The 150 settlers, led by John White, established a community on Roanoke Island. It was too late to plant crops for the season, and relations with the Indians turned from bad to worse. White soon returned to England for supplies so that they wouldn’t starve to death. However, White arrived in England to find his country at war with Spain. Constant sea battles closed the Atlantic to nonmilitary vessels and prevented his return to the coast of North Carolina until 1590. He found that the settlers he had left behind on Roanoke Island had completely disappeared. This community would later become known as the “Lost Colony.”