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America’s First Science Center

Almost every American knows the story of the 1587 lost colony on Roanoke Island. What happened to the estimated 120 men, women, and children is a mystery that has never been completely solved even after 400 years of intense research and archaeology. Did the colonists intermix with the tribe of Indians called the Croatans a few miles south of the settlement on what is now Hatteras Island? Many theories have been put forth, and the investigation continues.

However, it was during the first Roanoke Island colony established in June 1585 that events occurred which perhaps had greater influences on subsequent English colonies in America than the famous 1587 colony. Among the 108 colonists, all men, who helped build the colony were two scientists and an artist: Thomas Harriot, Joachim Gans, and John White who interacted with the native Indians, explored the island and beyond, and set up a small laboratory to study the flora, fauna, and the mineral deposits found in the area. The colony existed for only a year, but the information gathered by these three men proved valuable to many colonists who came after them.

The 1585 colony was financed by Sir Walter Raleigh who had been granted a royal charter by Queen Elizabeth I to explore and colonize parts of the new world not already “possessed by any Christian Prince or inhabited by Christian people.” Thus, the charter opened up to Raleigh all the land north of Spanish Florida, which Spain claimed to be several miles north of Florida into what is now South Carolina.

Raleigh’s first voyage of exploration to America had been with his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert in 1578. On their way west from England, the fleet ran into a storm and had to turn back. Then in 1583 Gilbert, without Raleigh, explored in two ships what is now Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. On the return trip Gilbert drowned when his ship sank in a storm but the other ship in his fleet made it back to England.

A year later, Raleigh sent two ships under the command of Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to explore the land south of where Gilbert had been. In July 1584 they explored along the Virginia and Carolina coast and landed on an island the Indians called Roanoke at the northern end of Pamlico sound. After exploring the 3-miles wide by 12-miles long island and meeting with some of the Indians who lived in the area, they decided Roanoke Island would be a suitable place to establish a colony.

The Indians, who had probably seen or at least heard of European fishermen coming to the area for several years, were friendly and welcoming. Many of them showed great interest in the metal tools, guns, and other implements the English brought with them. After exploring the area for several weeks, Amadas and Barlowe sailed back to England in mid-September. Two local chiefs, Manteo and Wanchese, curious to find out more about the English, accepted an invitation to sail back with them.

The chiefs were treated as celebrities in London to the point that Walter Raleigh had to restrict access to them. A person especially interested in meeting them was Thomas Harriot, a bright young scientist, recently graduated from Oxford University, who was employed by Walter Raleigh as his astronomer and mathematician. Harriot spent several weeks with the Indians and learned to converse with them in their Algonquian language.

Based on the favorable report of Amadas and Barlowe, the next year, 1585, Raleigh outfitted seven ships with supplies, tools and useful trading goods for the Indians. On the ships with Manteo and Wanchese who were returning home, were some 500 men, a good many of whom were either soldiers, or English gentlemen who merely came along for the adventure or just wanted to get rich by finding gold. Also aboard, however, were Thomas Harriot, Joachim Gans, and John White who were to have a very positive impact on the expedition. To lead the fleet Raleigh recruited his cousin, the soldier and privateer Richard Grenville. His job was to safely get the ships to Virginia, and as Grenville saw it, to capture any Spanish treasure ships he might encounter along the way.

The expedition left England on April 9, 1585, but instead of heading directly for Virginia, Grenville, always the privateer in search of spoil, sailed first to Puerto Rico where he captured a Spanish ship laden with gold and silver. In late June, the fleet arrived at the outer banks and began searching for a suitable place to establish a settlement. Entering the Pamlico sound at a narrow inlet, The Tiger, one of the largest ships in the fleet, ran aground and most of the supplies aboard it were lost. This loss would have dire consequences later when food began to run low.

Ralph Lane, who Raleigh had appointed to be governor of the colony, felt that Grenville had wasted time and supplies in his diversion to Puerto Rico. The ships did not arrive in Pamlico Sound until June 26, which was too late for spring planting. The time delay and the loss of the Tiger caused a good deal of tension between the two men. In fact, at one point, Lane accused Grenville of “intolerable pride and insatiable ambition.”

The fleet first stopped at Aquascogoc, a Secotan Indian village on the shore of Pamlico Sound south of Roanoke Island. The Indians they encountered there were at first friendly and helpful. However, within a few days, a misunderstanding occurred when one of the Englishmen accused some Indians of stealing a silver cup from his baggage. Although the Indians denied having it, Grenville, not known as a man of mercy, had the entire Indian village burned in retaliation. Following this unpleasant incident, the fleet sailed north and in early August came to an Indian village that Amadas and Barlowe had visited the previous year.

Not having heard about the problems south of him, the village leader, Granganimeo, who remembered Amadas and Barlowe, welcomed the English. When being told that the party was looking for a place to settle, Granganimeo offered them Roanoke Island. Grenville eagerly accepted the generous offer and instructed his men to build their houses and fortifications there.

A few weeks later, Grenville, turned over the governorship of the colony to Ralph Lane and sailed back to England for more supplies leaving 108 men at Roanoke and promising to return the following April. On the way to England, he captured another Spanish freighter off the coast of Bermuda. Although Grenville’s methods were sometimes harsh, he had done what Raleigh had hired him to do. The colony he established had broken the Spanish monopoly on settlement in the new world, and he had returned to England with enough Spanish treasure to yield a nice return to Raleigh and his investors.

Among the men who remained on Roanoke were Harriot, Gans, and White. Although Thomas Harriot was only 25 years old when he came to Roanoke, he was already well known in England as a mathematician and astronomer and was an advisor to Raleigh and his captains on ocean navigation. And since he was the only one in the group who spoke the Algonquian language, he became the translator between the Indians and English.

Joachim Gans, was a metallurgist who in 1581 had moved to England from Prague, which was then part of the Kingdom of Bohemia. He worked to help the English develop faster and more efficient ways to extract metal from ores, especially copper. It so happens that Gans is known as the first person of Jewish heritage to come to Virginia. Raleigh had hired Gans to learn about the mineral content of the land, especially since Amadas and Barlowe had reported that some of the Indians they saw were wearing copper ornaments. Raleigh and others hoped that along with the copper, Gans could locate sources of gold and silver as the Spanish had done in South America.

John White was an artist who painted dozens watercolor pictures at Roanoke depicting how the Indians in the area lived. His paintings on such things as their homes, their ceremonial centers, how they prepared and ate food, and many other aspects of their daily lives are today of great historical value.

Harriot and Gans set up a laboratory just outside the walls of the small fort the colonists built on Roanoke. Archaeology done at the site by Ivor Noel Hume and his team in the 1990s yielded pieces of thin glass, possibly used in apothecary work, a chunk of antimony, which may have been mixed with lead to make harder bullets, cinders from a forge, traces of molten material, a goldsmith’s crucible, lumps of smelted copper, and other items to indicate scientific work and metallurgy. Hume called it ‘America’s first science center’.

Gans found copper, iron, and a small amount of silver near Roanoke Island, but none of these minerals in large quantities. The Indians he encountered who were wearing copper ornaments said it came from another tribe a long distance inland. He did not find gold which disappointed many of the colonists and Raleigh’s investors.

While Gans dug for mineral deposits, and White was studying and painting the coastal Algonquian Indians, Harriot traveled around the area collecting plant specimens as well as getting to know the natives better. One plant in particular he was interested in was the sassafras tree, whose roots could be boiled and made into a tea that supposedly cured a number of ailments from colds, to skin disease, to diarrhea. It was used by the Indians and became an important export item to Europe for many years. What we know as root beer is made from the root of the sassafras tree. Although it is still popular in some areas, it has been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration because it contains safrole, which in high doses can be a carcinogen. All root beer and sassafras tea sold in America today is supposed to have the safrole chemically removed.

Harriot made it a point to befriend the local Carolina Algonquian Indians and apparently had a good relationship with them. He made it a point to learn quite a bit about their food and how they lived. For example, from the Indians he learned about tobacco, which he apparently became addicted to, and corn or maize which he called “a graine of marvelous increase”. He wrote that a pound of corn seed could produce 300 or 400 pounds of edible grain.

Along with the scientific articles found by archaeologists at the laboratory site were shards of Indian pottery implying that a lively trade was taking place between Harriot, Gans, and the Indians. John White also was on good terms with the natives and painted them as strong, healthy, and handsome people.

Later, when he returned to England, Harriot published A Brief and True Report of the Newfound Land of Virginia, in which he described the land he had explored as well as how the natives lived. He also went into detail about the crops raised by the Indians and how they prepared them to eat.  The book contained many of John White’s paintings engraved by Theodore de Bry.

Although Harriot spoke about the land and its inhabitants very favorably, many in of the other colonists did not.  As time went on and food supplies began to run low some of the colonists, especially those from the English upper classes who were not used to gardening or supplying their own food, began to feel discontented. Also, the fact that gold had not been found became an unpleasant issue. Harriot had this to say about some of his fellow colonists who had given Raleigh and others a disparaging assessment of the Roanoke area when they returned to England:

“The cause of their ignorance was, in that they were of that many that were never out of the Island of Roanoke where we were seated, or not far, or at the leastwise in few places else, during the time of our abode in the country; or of that many that were after gold and silver was not soon found, as it was by them looked for, had little or no care of any other thing but to pamper their bellies; or of that many which had little understanding, less discretion, and more tongue than was needed or requisite.

Some also were of a nice bringing up, only in cities or towns, or such as never (as I may say) had seen the world before. Because there were not to be found any English cities, nor such fair houses, nor at their own wish any of their old accustomed dainty food, nor any soft beds of down or feathers: the country was to them miserable, and their reports thereof according.”

Obviously, Harriot felt as if not all of the English colonist contributed to the overall well being of the community. For example, when food began to run low, many of them either did not know how or were too pampered to help with such things as gardening or hunting. And, unfortunately, most of the colonists were not on good enough terms with the Indians and could not depend on them for food. To add to the colony’s problems, Ralph Lane was turning out to be a harsh leader who alienated not only the Indians but many of his men as well. It got to the point where most of the colonists were merely awaiting Grenville’s return with supplies and a trip back to England. But by the summer of 1586 he was still not back.

It turns out that several miles south of Roanoke, Francis Drake and his fleet of 25 ships had been harassing Spanish colonies along the Atlantic coast from South America to Florida. After attacking and burning St. Augustine in late May 1586, Drake sailed his fleet north toward Roanoke. He knew that Raleigh’s men had established a colony somewhere along the coast but he was not sure where it was. Along the way he sent a boat into what is now Charleston Harbor, but finding no settlement there, he continued north. On June 6 he spotted smoke and found the Roanoke colony.

By the time Drake arrived, most of the colonists were ready to go home. They had not found gold and Grenville had not yet returned with supplies and more settlers. Harriot had accumulated quite a bit of information about the plants and animals on Roanoke, and Gans had analyzed soil from several different locations for the mineral content. Meanwhile, John White had painted dozens of historically significant watercolor pictures. In the year they spent at Roanoke, these three talented men had gathered information important to the Roanoke colony as well as other settlements that followed.

A few days after Drake’s arrival, 93 of the 108 colonists, including Harriot, Gans, and White, went aboard Drake’s ships and sailed back to England, arriving there on July 22. Fifteen colonists stayed behind to maintain the settlement and await the arrival of Grenville. It turns out that Grenville arrived at Roanoke about 3 weeks later only to find an empty settlement. The fifteen men who stayed had apparently been killed by hostile Secotan warriors, probably in retaliation for the village Grenville had burned on his first voyage. Without taking the time to seek revenge for the killings, Grenville sailed back to England leaving Roanoke Island to the Indians. He felt he would be needed in England since the Spanish were threatening to attack with their large fleet of warships.

The next few years were eventful for Harriot, Gans, and White.


Thomas Harriot went on to make some important astronomical discoveries in England at about the same time as Galileo Galilei was making them in Italy. In 1608 he bought a “Dutch trunke”, an early telescope, and observed the four largest moons of Jupiter. He also observed sunspots and studied comets. In July 1609, he was the first to draw a detailed picture of the moon, some 4 months before Galileo drew his famous picture. He later worked with an apprentice who helped him make telescopes which he sold to astronomers around Europe.

It has been speculated that the reason Harriot is not better known today is because he did not publish his findings and remained largely unknown outside England. Although for a while he corresponded with German astronomer Johannes Kepler about the motions of planets, the larger scientific community did not know about his discoveries.  Galileo, on the other hand, did quite a bit of publishing and got credit for such things as discovering the moons of Jupiter and discovering sunspots.

Another example of Harriot not getting credit for his work was his discovery of the law of refraction, that is, how light bends when it passes through water, glass, or other mediums. He made this discovery in 1602, but today the phenomenon is called Snell’s Law after Willebord Snell, who did not discover it until 1621. The difference was that Snell published his work and got credit for the discovery and Harriot did not.

Harriot was also known in England as an astute mathematician; however, a book he wrote on mathematics entitled The Analytical Arts Applied To Solving Algebraic Equations, in which he introduced the now popular symbols greater than > and less than < was not published until 10 years after his death. Again, he did not get credit for the work during his lifetime.

It is suspected that the reason Harriot did not publish is that two of his patrons had gotten into trouble and Harriot felt as if he needed to keep a low profile. The most serious problem was that Walter Raleigh, who had been his patron and employer for several years, was imprisoned after the death of Queen Elizabeth I because of his suspected involvement in a plot to kill her successor King James I. Raleigh was kept in the Tower of London off and on from1603 until he was beheaded on October 29, 1618. Harriot also was imprisoned for a while but released when no evidence could be found that he was a conspirator in the plot.

Another of Harriot’s employers also was imprisoned because of a plot to kill James I in what has come to be called the Gunpowder Plot. After leaving the employment of Raleigh, Harriot worked for a few years under the patronage of Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland and lived at his estate Syon House in London. It was here that Harriot made many of his astronomical discoveries.

In 1605, Henry’s cousin Thomas Percy and others conspired to assassinate King James I because of his oppression of Catholics. The plot failed and the fact that the king survived is celebrated each year in England on November 5 as Guy Fawkes Day. Thomas and his co-conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, were captured and killed. Henry was accused of misprision, that is, of knowing about the plot but not telling the authorities, and as a result he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for several years. Harriot, himself, was never convicted of being involved in either plot, yet he probably felt that it was expedient for him to stay out of public life and not promote the fact that he was associated with these two men.

Harriot died in 1621 of skin cancer which some people felt was brought on by his excessive use of tobacco, a habit he no doubt picked up during his year at Roanoke. It is unfortunate for Harriot and for the scientific world in general that the political and religious intrigue, which he had no part in, kept him from publishing his important discoveries. In the last few years, he has been rediscovered and recognized for his many contributions to science, navigation, mathematics, and linguistics. In 1970 a crater on the moon was named after him, and the observatory at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia is named The Thomas Harriot Observatory.

Following his return from Roanoke, Joachim Gans continued his metallurgy work in England, settling in Bristol. For a while he helped the English produce cannons for their ships and wrote a manual on the production of saltpeter which helped increase the English manufacture of gunpowder. His manual was dedicated to Sir Francis Walsingham, principal secretary to the Queen.  Also, he set up classes where he taught Hebrew to Englishmen who wanted to read the bible in its original Hebrew language.

Although, he had become an important and productive citizen of England, in 1589 an anti-Semitic Anglican bishop who opposed allowing Jews to live in England, went to him and asked, “Do you deny Jesus Christ to be the son of God?” Gans replied, “What needeth the almighty God to have a son? Is he not almighty?” The bishop, interpreting answer as a denial of the divinity of Christ, had Gans arrested for blasphemy, and sent to London for trial.  

Little is known about Gans after his arrest. Most scholars believe he was found not guilty of blasphemy, but to appease the bishop, he apparently returned to Prague. Like Harriot, he was caught up in religious intrigue and prejudice that limited his services to science and to England.

John White first came to the new world in 1577 on a voyage with Martin Frobisher looking for a northwest passage to Asia. After having visited Greenland and Baffin Island they returned to England. His excellent watercolor painting and map making abilities attracted the attention of Raleigh who recruited him to sail on the 1585 voyage to America to paint pictures of the inhabitants and make a map of the area. It turned out that he and Thomas Harriot worked well together and explored far beyond the island of Roanoke.

White saw enough of the area to realize its potential to support a number of English colonies if whole families and not just soldiers were brought over. His enthusiasm for the area pleased Raleigh who asked him to sail on the next voyage the following year and act as governor of the colony.

In May 1587, under the leadership of White, a group of men, women, and children totaling about 115 left England. Aboard were White’s daughter Elenora and her husband Ananias Dare. After encountering rough weather, they arrived at Roanoke Island in late July and began refurbishing the fort and homes left from the previous colony.

Upon hearing that the 15 men left at Roanoke by Drake the previous year had been killed by hostile Secotan Indians, White decided to seek revenge by attacking an Indian village where he thought the killers lived. He and his soldiers attacked, and when they had killed one Indian and wounded several more, he realized he had attacked the wrong village, that this was a village of friendly Indians. This mistake led to a great deal of distrust among Indians who had previously been friendly and helpful. Arriving too late to plant crops, the colonists knew they could no longer depend on the Indians for food. White’s tenure as governor was getting off to a bad start.

The bright spot in these troubled weeks was that on August 18 his daughter Elenora gave birth to a healthy baby girl who she and Ananias named Virginia after their new home. Virginia Dare, granddaughter of John White, was the first English child born in America.

It was not long before food supplies began to run low and little help was coming from the local Indians. The colonist decided that White would sail back to England to bring back food and supplies. He was reluctant to leave his family and the colony, but in late 1587 he sailed back to England, hoping for a quick return.

The voyage was beset by bad weather and he barely made it to the west coast of Ireland. From there he finally got back to England but was not able to leave because of the threat to the English by the Spanish Armada.

The Armada was defeated in the summer of 1588 clearing the way for White to outfit ships and return to Roanoke. But following a number of delays and more threats from the Spanish as well as marauding French pirates, White was not able to leave England until March 1590. As luck would have it, White again encountered bad weather and he did not reach Roanoke until August 18, 1590, his granddaughter’s third birthday.

As we all know, the Roanoke settlement had been abandoned. All that White and his colonists found was CRO carved into a tree and the word CROTOAN carved into one of the wooden palisades surrounding the fort. White searched the area for over two months but finally gave up and in late October returned to England. He lived until 1593 never having learned the fate of his family members.

The watercolor paintings White made during his two trips to Roanoke are considered important historical documents in the history of America and today are housed in the British Museum in London. The lessons learned from the colonists who came to Virginia in 1585 and 1587, and especially Thomas Harriot, Joachim Gans, and John White helped subsequent colonists understand the perils as well as the opportunities they faced in the new world. Being a colonist was not an easy life. It required hard work, being resourceful, and it was very important to be on good terms with the local Indians. The English finally established a permanent colony in the Chesapeake Bay in 1607, but even on this third attempt, a large percentage of the colonist died of starvation and Indian warfare before the colony was considered a success.

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