Wednesday, May 20, 2015

AMERICAN OXONIANS: The First 3 Wannabes (Updated Dec. 22, 2015)

Sir Walter Raleigh, first of the settlers. Born in East
Devon, England.
On May 14, 1607 English settlers with the London Company landed at what came to known as Jamestown, Virginia. It was named after James I of England. 

It was the first enduring English settlement in the New World. But it was not the first.

Sir Francis Drake was the first to voyage from England to the New World, but he never intended to colonize America, only to explore it.

A sailor from Devon and Cornwall in the southwestern corner of England, where pirates roamed and Cornish was spoken, Drake and his relative John Hawkins brought back valuable navigational and mapping information. Drake's work made possible the successes of the first settlers, many of them his relatives.

First Expeditions by Oxonians Raleigh, Gilbert and Harriot in 1578 and 1584

Three Oxonians–two of them related to Drake–tried to colonize America before the Jamestown Settlement. Their motive was not curiosity or a search for religious freedom. It was rather what I call the Oxford model–entrepreneurs seeking to serve the British Crown while creating wealth for their family through land development. The Oxford model was the pattern for most of the colonial American settlements south of what is now New York State. 

The Cambridge model was driven not by love of the Crown or eagerness to serve its imperial urges or even a wish to own land.They were driven by a wish to practice their nonconforming religion without the worry that their religion would be viewed as treasonous and therefore punishable by death . The Cambridge model was the typical source of settlers in New England. (The cases of Maryland and Pennsylvania were mixed because they involved a search for religious freedom by Catholics and Quakers as well as being blessed with large grants of land from the Crown.)

Explorations by Raleigh (with Gilbert and then Harriot)

1578. About 30 years before Jamestown, two Oxonians started the explorations that led to the enduring English settlements. The two men, half-brothers, both born in Devon, England, set off in 1578 to explore the New World. They were Sir Walter Raleigh (Oriel College, Oxford) and Sir Humphrey Gilbert (Eton and Oxford, probably also Oriel College). They brought back useful information.
1584. Six years later and more than 20 years before Jamestown, two Oxonians worked on an expedition to settle the New World–Sir Walter Raleigh and Thomas Harriot (St. Mary's College, Oxford - a now defunct college on Oriel land). Raleigh also hired a Cambridge man, another relative, Sir Richard Grenville. 
Raleigh's first settlement posse disembarked at Roanoke Island on July 4, 1584. Members of his expedition were trained in navigational skills by Thomas Harriot, who entered Raleigh's employment in the early 1580s, soon after coming down from Oxford. The Cambridge man involved was another Devon man and cousin of Raleigh, Sir Richard Grenville. 
1585. Raleigh sent Sir Richard Grenville off on a second expedition with five ships that left from Plymouth on April 9, 1585. During an initial exploration of the mainland coast, a sterling silver cup was lost and the Europeans blamed natives of the village of Aquascogoc for stealing it. The settlers responded by sacking and burning the village as punishment. This proved, we shall see, to be unwise.

Grenville decided to leave Ralph Lane and 107 other men to establish a colony at the north end of Roanoke Island. These men disembarked on August 17, 1585 and built a small fort on the island. Grenville promised to return in April 1586 with more men and fresh supplies. 

1586. April 1586 passed without any sign of Grenville's relief fleet. Meanwhile in June, bad blood from the colonists' destruction of the village of the natives spurred their attack on the fort, which the colonists repelled. Soon after, Sir Francis Drake paused on his way home from a successful raid in the Caribbean. He took the colonists, including the metallurgist Joachim Gans, back to England. The Roanoke colonists brought back to England tobacco, maize, and potatoes.

Grenville's relief fleet arrived shortly after Drake's departure.  Finding the colony abandoned, Grenville returned to England with the bulk of his force, leaving behind a small detachment to maintain an English presence and to protect Raleigh's claim to Roanoke Island.

1587. Raleigh then dispatched a new group of 115 colonists to establish a colony on Chesapeake Bay. They were led by John White, an artist and friend of Raleigh who had accompanied the previous expeditions to Roanoke. Thomas Harriot eventually sailed to Roanoke with the second group of settlers, where his skills as a naturalist became particularly important. White was later appointed Governor.

Raleigh named 12 assistants to aid in the settlement and sent them to Roanoke to check on the settlers. When they arrived on July 22, 1587, they found nothing except a skeleton. The fleet's commander, Simon Fernandez, refused to let the colonists return to the ships, insisting they stay to establish the new colony on Roanoke. Shortly thereafter, colonist George Howe was killed by a native while he was by himself  searching for crabs in Albemarle Sound.

Fearing for their lives, the colonists persuaded Governor White to return to England to explain the colony's desperate situation and ask for help. Left behind were about 115 colonists – the remaining men and women who had made the Atlantic crossing plus White's newly born granddaughter Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas. White sailed for England in late 1587. Plans for a relief fleet were delayed by the captain's refusal to return during the winter, and then the coming of the Spanish Armada and the subsequent Anglo-Spanish War for which every ship was commandeered. 

1588. In the spring of 1588, White managed to hire two small vessels and sailed for Roanoke.  But the captains of the ships attempted to capture several Spanish ships and instead were themselves captured and plundered. With nothing left to deliver to the colonists, the ships returned to England.

1590. White was unable to mount another resupply attempt for three more years. Finally, he gained passage on a privateering expedition that agreed to stop off at Roanoke on the way back from the Caribbean. He landed on August 18, 1590, on his granddaughter Virginia's third birthday, but found no trace of the 118 settlers... and no sign of any struggle.


Raleigh: Raleigh Trevelyan, Sir Walter Raleigh (2004).

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