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Roanoke Island History

Roanoke Island’s history is legendary. Long before Jamestown and Plymouth were settled, the island played host to the first English-speaking colonists in America.

In 1584 an English fort and settlement with more than 100 men was established on the north end of the island, but it was abandoned the following year due to weather, lack of supplies and poor relations with the Native Americans. The colonists and natives didn’t get along despite the fact that the two local chiefs, Manteo and Wanchese, had been taken to England in hopes of forming good relations.

In 1587 another party of 110 English colonists, including women and children, set sail for the New World, reaching Roanoke Island in July of that year. On August 18, one of the colonists, Eleanor Dare, gave birth to the first English-speaking child in the New World, Virginia Dare. A week later, the baby’s grandfather, Capt. John White, was forced to return to England for badly needed supplies. Due to Spanish attacks on England, White was waylayed in England for three years, and when he returned to Roanoke Island in 1590 there was no sign of his granddaughter or the other colonists. Their houses were gone, and the only sign of human presence was the letters “CRO” and “CROATOAN” carved on two trees. This led some people to believe that the colonists had sought the help of the Croatoan Indians on Hatteras Island, but they were not there. The fate of the lost colonists is as much a mystery today as it was then, and their story has been retold in the outdoor drama The Lost Colony since 1937.

Roanoke Island was permanently settled in the mid-1600s, and many of the original family names — Etheridge, Baum, Daniels and others — are still very much alive on the island. In 1870 Dare County was formed, with the county seat and courthouse established on Roanoke Island at a site along Shallowbag Bay, now Manteo. The government center became known as Manteo in 1873 when the post office was established, but the town wasn’t incorporated until 1899. By then it had become a bustling center for business and trade as well.

Between 1984 and 1987, Roanoke Island and Manteo played a large part in America’s 400th anniversary celebration. Manteo’s downtown area was renovated and revitalized, and the centerpiece of the celebration, the Elizabeth II, a representative 16th-century sailing ship similar to what the colonists arrived in 400 years before, was constructed on a site at the Manteo waterfront. On July 13, 1984, Her Royal Highness the Princess Anne attended the dedication of the ship, which is now berthed in Shallowbag Bay at Roanoke Island Festival Park.

In 1999 the Town of Manteo celebrated its centennial birthday with many events, the publication of a coffee-table history book, Manteo, A Roanoke Island Town by Angel Ellis Khoury, and the establishment of a centennial clock on the corner of Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh streets downtown.

For a town that preserves its history and charm so well, Manteo has changed exponentially in the past couple of years. More shops, galleries and restaurants fill the downtown area than ever before, and Manteo has evolved into a destination for overnight stays and daytrips from the beaches. Some of the most popular Outer Banks attractions are found in Manteo and on Roanoke Island — the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, Roanoke Island Festival Park and the Elizabeth II, the NC Aquarium, the Elizabethan Gardens and, of course,The Lost Colony outdoor drama.

Boats docked at the waterfront, sailing and kayak tours leaving the docks, tourists dining on a patio or sipping a latte as they poke in and out of shops, kids licking ice cream cones at the waterfront park, bicyclists leisurely pedaling along side streets, quaint inns, restored historic homes with flourishing gardens, crabbers tending to their daily operations — all this and more is seen on a daily basis in Manteo.

Yet the small-town flavor of the town has remained. City folk often find it unsettling, but here nearly everyone says hello as they pass you on the street and asks about your health and chats about the weather before they get down to any business, like taking your lunch order or selling you a stamp. Manteo residents are all on a first-name basis, and visitors get the feeling that if they stayed a couple of days, they’d all be on a first-name basis too.

Enjoy your visit to Manteo and Roanoke Island. We hope you will use this guide to learn more about the history and present-day offerings of this wonderful place we call home.