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Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

Roanoke Island, Dare Co., North Carolina (March 2012)

Also be sure to see the Travel/Geography Blog

Fort Raleign Reconstruction

Replica of Historic Fort Raleigh

We drove onto Roanoke Island from Nags Head. This is the largest island within the Sounds found between the backside of the North Carolina barrier islands and the mainland. Albemarle Sound is to the north, Pamlico Sound to the south, with the much smaller Croatan Sound to the west and Roanoke Sound to the east. Roanoke Island is very easy to reach from the Outer Banks, a simple drive using U.S. Route 64. From there, we cut towards the northern tip of the island where the Fort Raleigh National Historical Site is located. It is a historical site for a significant reason: had the colony on Roanoke Island succeeded, it would have been the first successful English colony in North America. It would also have beaten Jamestown by twenty years.

Sir Walter Raleigh wished to establish a New World colony, and rallied investors and entrepreneurs to support his venture financially. The settlers who arrived on Roanoke in 1587 numbered about 120 men, women and children. Soon thereafter one of the colonists, Eleanor Dare, gave birth to Virginia Dare who thereupon became the first English child born in North America. Life was difficult and the colonists ran short of supplies. Local Native Americans were hostile, having been left with a bad impression by previous encounters with Englishmen who'd stopped by Roanoke Island previously.

The colonists sent their governor, John White, back across the ocean to restock their supplies, however he was unable to return for three years because appropriate English ships had been commandeered for a war with Spain. He finally returned in 1590 only to discover the colony abandoned. There were few clues other than "Croatoan" carved into a post and "Cro" carved into a tree. This was the name of a nearby Indian tribe but the meaning of the clue has never been deciphered. The fate of the colony remains unknown although numerous theories abound. It has become the stuff of legend, and the missing settlers are now known colloquially as the Lost Colony.

The exact location of Raleigh's fort also isn't known. Certainly it was known at the time but it's one of those historical facts that's been lost to history. Nonetheless, the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is within the general vicinity. The "fort" on the property is a modern interpretation and reconstruction of how the earthworks may have appeared during their heyday.

Virginia Dare Lost Colony

The Lost Colony on Stage

The story of the Lost Colony is portrayed on stage throughout the summer as it has been every year since 1937. This was an outgrowth of a Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) effort. Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) participants built the theater. Other funding went to hire unemployed Broadway actors. This provided a top-notch production that caused an immediate theatrical sensation. The Lost Colony was intended to last only a single season but its popularity dictated otherwise. It attracted huge numbers of tourists which helped to buoy the local economy as it struggled to pull itself out of the Great Depression.

We were there in March, so unfortunately the Lost Colony wasn't running and we didn't have an opportunity to experience this North Carolina tradition.

Lost Colony Gardens

Elizabethan Gardens

The Garden Club of North Carolina manages the "Elizabethan Gardens" on the historic site property. It's intended to represent what a formal garden may have looked like in England during the period of the Lost Colony. Ten waterfront acres have been set aside for this purpose, with year-round displays of plants and flowers.

Readers who have an interest in forts might also want to check my Forts, Fortresses and Fortifications page.