Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, America's First Colony
How does the National Park Service interpret a site when there’s practically nothing to physically interpret? Fort Raleigh National Historic Site protects the site of The Lost Colony that landed here in 1587, but by definition the site doesn't have much to show.
Fort Raleigh is located on Roanoke Island between the Outer Banks and the North Carolina mainland. It's the island where Virginia Dare, the first American child born of European parents, came into the world on August 18, 1587.
When I visited in early May, the visitor center was undergoing repairs. A temporary visitor center in a metal prefab box had several informational posters hung on the wall depicting the history. The small park bookstore took up about half the room.
To explain this site, it takes enthusiastic interpreters like Ranger Rob Bolling and Robin Davis, an Eastern National employee who has lived on the island for over 30 years. Ms. Davis willingly took me aside to tell me the site's story:
Sir Walter Raleigh sponsored several expeditions into the new world. Raleigh never came to North America, however, because Queen Elizabeth I didn’t want to lose him; she had already lost Raleigh's half-brother when he went off in an expedition.
The first two voyages to Roanoke were expeditions made up of men. They were looking for precious metals and a base from which to raid Spanish ships. Their interaction with the Roanoke Indians didn't go too well. The colonists became too dependent on the Indians for food and the Indians were dying of European diseases. The second expedition left 15 men to hold the fort, literally, for England and the rest went home.
On the third voyage in 1587, 117 people, including women and children, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to settle in the Chesapeake Bay. The ship made a stop on Roanoke Island to find the missing 15 men but they had disappeared. The captain said that he wasn’t going any further so they were dumped here. It sounds like the equivalent of "You'll figure it out." But they were not self-sustaining and asked their leader, John White, to return to England to get more supplies.
When White returned three years later, he found no one. Nothing but the letters CROATAN carved in a tree. Did that mean that the colonists went with the Croatan Indians? The mystery remains.
While mulling this history, I followed the Thomas Hariot Nature Trail down to Albemarle Sound with its small beach, passing an earthen fort along the way. This fort, dating from 1584 to 1590, has been excavated and studied since 1895. Recent digs have uncovered plenty of artifacts from the late 1500s, including Indian and English pottery pieces and glass beads.
The interpretive trail points out that the colonists were not self-supporting. One sign on the trail says STOP – Could you survive in these woods without outside supplies?
The 16th century military expeditions to the "new world" were more concerned about profit for England than their own survival. The first expedition had sent too many mining and military experts and not enough farmers and craftsmen who could support the expeditions. When did the military realize that they needed support personnel?
The NPS website also mentions park partner sites: the Lost Colony, the Elizabethan Gardens, Roanoke Island Festival Park, and the North Carolina Aquarium. They are very worthwhile activities, but they’re not NPS sites. I'm speculating that even with a new Visitor Center, there’s not much to see at Fort Raleigh so to get visitors here, they may have to talk about the full gamut of activities on Roanoke Island.
The Waterside Theatre, on Albemarle Sound, performs The Lost Colony drama, a play inspired by a 1921 movie. It was written by the playwright Paul Green and first performed in 1937. This year performances starts at the end of May and run until the end of August.
The Elizabethan Gardens, a couple of miles from Fort Raleigh, features 10 acres of beautiful, well-manicured gardens. The design is Elizabethan but the plants are modern, some grown and sold on site. The sunken Gardens are the showpiece of the Elizabethan Gardens design, with the fountain in the center. It’s a cross design with an enclosed walkway. Elizabethan gardens were inspired by Italian designs at the time.
The gardens were started by a women’s garden club and officially opened on Virginia Dare's birthday, August 18, in 1960. There are several sculptures throughout the garden, including a statue of Virginia Dare, imagined as a sexy, voluptuous woman.
Roanoke Island Festival Park, a North Carolina state site in Manteo, has a replica of Elizabeth II, a 16th century sailing ship. There's an American Indian Town and a Settlement site, all with costumed interpreters.
I was asked if it's worth visiting Fort Raleigh. Yes is the short answer. If you're staying on Cape Hatteras National Seashore or visited the Wright Brothers National Memorial, plan to spend a couple of hours at Fort Raleigh at the Visitor Center and walking the grounds. The site will quickly clarify a lot of history - and that's a goal of National Park Service interpretation.