It happened today - June 19, 2016

Sir Francis Drake (Wikipedia) On this date in history, the Roanoke Island settlement was abandoned. And you can see why. No, I’m not talking about the mysterious, never-solved disappearance of the colony founded in 1587. I’m talking about the first group, in 1585, who fled on June 19 1586 onto Sir Francis Drake’s ship, fresh from attacking the Spanish at St. Augustine.

I’m always amazed by the courage, mixed with apparently complete lack of judgement or even instinct for self-preservation, exhibited by these early colonists. The first group was dropped off by Sir Richard Grenville who promised to return with supplies but was delayed. So the colonists figured the best plan was an unprovoked attack on the local Algonquian group that was keeping them alive.

It wasn’t. But you guessed that. So facing starvation and revenge attacks they left. Except for 15 exceptionally bright guys who stayed behind.

Only to have another group show up in 1587 and find, you saw this coming, their bones. OK. We have a winner.

You see, John White, who was governor of the 1587 settlement established by Sir Walter Raleigh (yes, Drake and Raleigh – they are names in books because they were real adventurous people), led 113 people back to the region including his own recently married daughter Eleanor and her husband Ananias Dare to, well, they were aiming for the Chesapeake Bay but their navigator Simon Fernandez, nicknamed “the Swine (and why not set off into the total unknown in such hands or perhaps trotters), let them off for a break at Roanoke then wouldn’t let them back on board his ship or guide them any further, being apparently keen to set off and resume his old career as… a pirate.

So they settled down to make houses and farms, attack hostile Indians but accidentally strike their allies instead and generally otherwise become unable to purchase life insurance. Now Roanoke Island does seem to have been a reasonable site, big enough for a settlement but small enough to defend (eight miles by two miles) and inside the barrier islands, close enough to the mainland to trade but far enough for some security.

Let’s do it. White’s daughter gave birth three months after they arrived, to Virginia Dare, the first European child born in North America unless the Vikings got up to something we don’t know about. Unfortunately people need food, so White returned to England for more supplies (yes, they kept a ship when Fernandez left) with a cheery “Back soon… I hope” or words to that effect. Possibly not cheery because the anchor got fouled as they were leaving and many were hurt trying to free it. Then came bad weather driving those not dead of scurvy or starvation onto the west coast of Ireland, where White found he could not go back due to the imminent arrival of the Spanish Armada and a general embargo on ships leaving England until that mess was settled.

Finally he got two small unseaworthy ships and set out in 1588 only to get his rear end shot off by pirates – literally. He was hit “in the side of the buttoke”. It wasn’t until 1590 that he finally managed to stagger back to Roanoke through storms and piracy and drownings, to find nothing but ruined buildings and the mysterious inscriptions CRO on a tree and CROATOAN on a post, probably the name of a local tribe or their island. The rest is silence.

Well, not really. Evidently these events were seen as such a rousing success back in England, by people who hadn’t gone and weren’t about to, that a fresh expedition was mounted that established Jamestown and through a remarkable combination of poor planning and bad judgement somehow laid the foundations of the United States.

Maybe people figured life was short and uncertain anyway. But you have to admire the courage with which they figured in that case it would be good to get pregnant and head to that island where there was no food and the Indians were justifiably keen to slay you. The judgement is another question altogether.