The Rising Shore - Roanoke: a novel by Deborah Homsher
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The Algonkians

Contact with the English
The Women's Towne by Chypanum: A Mystery
Manteo and Wanchese
Appreciation of the Algonkians, A Briefe and True Report
The Invisible Enemy

Contact with the English

The reports from the leaders of the three English expeditions that explored the mid-Atlantic coast in 1584, 1585, and 1587 all describe interactions with the Algonkian tribes inhabiting the barrier islands and mainland in a region extending about eighty miles south of Roanoke Island and north into the Chesapeake Bay area. Based on these reports, it is clear that the English were militant and demanding, even ruthless.

Under Sir Richard Grenville's leadership (1585), the English forces torched an Indian village and field because they believed one of the Algonkians has stolen a silver cup. Sir Grenville wrote that on June 16: "The 16. wee returned thence, and one of our boates with the Admirall was sent to Aquascogok, to demaund a silver cup which one of the Savages had stollen from us, and not receiving it according to his promise, wee burnt, and spoyled their corne, and Towne, all the people being fled."

Under Ralph Lane's leadership (1585-86), the English held a chief's son hostage and eventually attacked and beheaded another chief (weroans), named Wingina, leader of the Roanoke Island Algonkians. Wingina had been supplying the English with corn from his own fields, and apparently Ralph Lane was outraged when he suspected that the weroans (who had by this time changed his name to Pemisapan for unknown reasons) was eager to "withdraw" from these demands:

Lane wrote: "In the meane while Pemisapan went of purpose to Dasaonquepeio for three causes: The one to see his grounds there broken up, and sowed for a second crop: the other to withdrawe himselfe from my dayly sending to him for supply of victuall for my company..."

At another place in his report, Lane described how an exploring party that he led up a "goodly river" was forced to turn back because all the "savages" had abandoned their villages to avoid the English (perhaps because diseases carried by the Europeans had already proven deadly to the communities they visited).

The Women's Towne by Chypanum: A Mystery

Here we find a strange detail: Lane refers to an Algonkian "women's towne" and mentions their fish weirs, which he obviously intended to plunder.

"... seeing all the Countrey fled before us, and therefore while wee had those two dayes victuall left, I thought it good for us to make our returne homeward, and that it were necessary for us to get the other side of the Sound of Weopomeiok in time, where wee might be relieved upon the wears of Chypanum, and the womens Towne, although the people were fled."

Manteo and Wanchese

Lane mentions the Algonkian Manteo in this same account. Manteo, a member of the Croatoans, had accompanied the Amadas and Barlowe expedition (1584) on their return journey to London and was apparently acting as guide and translator for Ralph Lane. Manteo would also figure as a companion and ally of John White. At one point during Lane's frustrating expedition up the river, Manteo translated the cries of a group of Indians on shore and warned that they were about to attack. Instants later, a shower of arrows fell on the English boats.

Today, on the North Carolina island of Roanoke, one can visit the town of Manteo. Aptly, visitors can then drive across the island to the town named after a very different Algonkian: Wanchese. In reports from sixteenth-century British adventurers, the rebel Wanchese figures as the antithesis to the cooperative Indian, Manteo. Both Wanchese and Manteo visited London in 1584, crossing the ocean in the fleet of ships commanded by the explorers Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe. They returned to Virginia with Grenville's fleet the next year. In time, Wanchese came to hate and resist these English invaders. It appears that his enmity was sealed when Ralph Lane's forces murdered Wingina, his chief (weroans), leader of the Algonkian tribe living on Roanoke Island and in the nearby mainland village of Dasaonquepeio.

Soon after John White and his settlers landed at Roanoke Island and reestablished themselves in the fort built by Lane's company, one of the governor's assistants, George Howe, was killed by Indians while he was fishing alone for crabs. John White concluded that Howe had been attacked by the band of Algonkians living at Dasaonquepeio (which White spelled "Dasamonquepeuk"), the remnant of Wingina's tribe, "with whom Wanchese kept company." He based this conclusion on reports from the friendly Croatoans, Manteo's people, who told him that this same rebel group had attacked the few Englishmen left behind to hold the fort when Sir Grenville arrived in Virginia with reinforcements and found the place abandoned, since Ralph Lane's company had sailed back home with Drake's fleet. The Croatoans promised they would contact leaders of other local villages and bring them to a conference with the English to discuss these troubles, but no such delegates arrived. Losing patience, John White and a number of his men mounted a surprise attack on August 9 against the mainland village of Dasamonquepeuk, shooting at dim figures in the dawn. John White reported that: " ... having espied their fire, and some sitting about it, we presently set on them: the miserable soules herewith amazed, fled into a place of thicke reedes, growing fast by, where our men perceiving them, shot one of them through the bodie with a bullet, and therewith we entred the reeds."

Horribly, White and his band soon discovered that they had shot their friends, not their enemies, for the Algonkians sitting around the fire turned out to be members of the Croatoan group--Manteo's people. The Croatoans knew that Wanchese and his followers had fled Dasamonquepeuk, fearing just such an attack, and so they had come to steal corn, tobacco, and pumpkins from the abandoned fields of that village. By this action, John White surely alienated one of the few groups of Algonkians who had been his allies, yet he expressed no remorse and in fact claimed that Manteo didn't blame him. White wrote: "Although the mistaking of these Savages somewhat grieved Manteo, yet he imputed their harme to their owne folly, saying to them, that if their Wiroances had kept their promise in coming to the Governour at the day appointed, they had not knowen that mischief." Thus, John White proved himself to be a typical sixteenth-century English leader, ready to use deadly force to cow and subdue his perceived enemies. Yet at the same time he was a complex man, who in his watercolor illustrations showed a clear-sighted, liberal appreciation for the "Savages" and their way of life.

Based on these reports, we can surmise that John White wanted to plant his colony farther north, in the Chesapeake Bay region, not only because he thought the land was superior there but because he understood that the Algonkians settled around Roanoke Island had been alienated by the aggressions of Grenville's and Lane's forces. After all, John White had been a member of that expedition and, perhaps, a witness to some of these events. This suggests that the actions of Simon Fernandes, the company's pilot, who forced the colonists to disembark on Roanoke Island, short of their intended destination, may have been fatal to the colony. It is possible, of course, that Fernandes was acting sensibly, or at least that he made the decision based on his judgments of the weather, of the sailors' and ships' conditions, and of John White's behavior. Since we only have a report of these events written by John White, and no report from Fernandes, we must guess at the relationship between the two men.

Appreciation of the Algonkians, A Briefe and True Report

The company of Englishmen who lived on Roanoke Island from 1585 through 1586 included Thomas Hariot, a scientist, and John White, an accomplished illustrator. These men collaborated to create "A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia" for Sir Walter Ralegh.

The "Briefe and True Report" is obviously a colonial document, as it outlines the many natural resources of Virginia that might be exploited by the English. At the same time, it is marked by scientific, anthropological curiosity about the "naturall inhabitants" of Virginia, "their natures and manners." Hariot calls the native a "poore" people, technologically backward, and yet adds that "they seem very ingenious; For although they have no such tools, nor any such crafts, sciences, and arts as we; yet in those things they do, they show excellencie of wit."

John White's portraits of Algonkian life are detailed and meant to supplement Hariot's descriptions. Thomas Hariot describes the Algonkians' houses, and White draws them, with the surrounding fortifications. (The report is illustrated with engravings based on White's original watercolors, created by Theodor de Bry.) White's drawings capture the Algonkians' clothing, their way of carrying infants, their way of making log boats, their "manner of fishing," of roasting fish, of boiling a stew of grains and fish, their "manner of praying with rattles," their dances, fortifications, and a "tomb" of preserved dead bodies.

Curiously, the "Briefe and True Report" concludes with engravings of the "Pictes" "which in the olde tyme" inhabited Great Britain. These portraits show the ancestors of the British as naked, tattooed warriors, one of whom holds a dripping human head, freshly cut. With this conclusion, the collaborators suggest a link between British and New World "savages."

The Invisible Enemy

Thomas Hariot's "Briefe and True Report" provides evidence that contact with the Europeans threatened the native people of the mid-Atlantic in many ways. He describes "one other rare and strange accident"--

"There was no town where we had any subtle device practiced against us, we leaving it unpunished or not revenged... but that within a few days after our departure from every such town, the people began to die very fast, and many in short space, in some towns about twenty, in some forty, in some fifty, in one five score, which in truth was very many in respect of their numbers. This happened in no place that we could learn but where we had been... The disease also so strange, that they neither knew what it was nor how to cure it; the like by report of the oldest men in the country never happened before, time out of mind...

"This marvelous accident in all the country wrought so strange opinions of us, that some people could not tell whether to think us gods or men, and the rather because that all the space of the sickness, there was no man of ours known to die, or that was specially sick..."

The Algonkians had no resistance to English germs.

For further information, see The Carolina Algonkian Project.


THE RISING SHORE - ROANOKE is a novel by Deborah Homsher.