British Colonies in the 16th Century

Sir Walter Raleigh financed the first expeditions to Roanoke.
... Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The 16th century saw Britain’s earliest attempts to form colonies in the New World, attempts that would not come to fruition until the early years of the 17th century. They began in 1497, when King Henry VII turned to the Venetian navigator John Cabot to help him find a northwest passage through the recently-discovered New World.

1 Northern Exploration

Cabot left England in May of 1497 and landed in Newfoundland (or possibly Cape Breton Island) at the end of June, where he took possession of the land in the name of King Henry VII. He returned to England and set off on a second voyage in 1498, but was lost at sea. The next Englishman to land in Newfoundland was Sir Humphrey Gilbert, half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh, who again took possession of the island for England, but whose ship disappeared on his voyage home. It would not be until 1610 that the Bristol merchant John Guy was able to establish an English colony in Newfoundland, although it would disappear within 20 years.

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2 Sir Walter Raleigh

The only other serious attempt of the English to colonize America in the 16th century was the famous case of the vanished colony at Roanoke Island off the coast of what is now North Carolina. In 1584, Walter Raleigh was charged by Queen Elizabeth I with finding a suitable area to establish an English colony in the New World, one that would compete with the prosperous Spanish colonies farther south. Raleigh sent two Englishmen named Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe on a voyage across the Atlantic in April, 1584; they arrived off the coast of North Carolina in July, and claimed the area in the name of Queen Elizabeth I.

3 Colonizing Roanoke

Raleigh sent an expedition of 108 soldiers to North Carolina in 1585. They built a fort on Roanoke and explored the area, but grew hungry as they awaited supply ships that never came. They also began to fight with the Native Americans who lived in the area. When a ship captained by the English privateer Sir Francis Drake happened by, most of the men decided to leave Roanoke with Drake and return to England, although 15 remained behind.

4 The Vanished Settlement

In 1587, Raleigh sent yet another expedition to Roanoke, this time settlers to whom he had each promised a plot of land. The group of 100 included children and women, two of whom were pregnant, and was led by John White, whom Raleigh had named governor. When White and the settlers sought out the 15 men who had stayed behind from the previous colony, they were unable to find them. Seeking supplies, White sailed back to England, but the outbreak of war with the Spanish kept him from returning until 1590, at which point the colony at Roanoke had disappeared. The only sign of their presence was the word CROATOAN carved on a tree. Croatoan Island was nearby, but when White explored it, there was no sign of the vanished colonists who, historians believe, were either killed by Native Americans or absorbed a tribe.

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.