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England looks to the West (Second half of the 16th century)

This map is part of a series of 17 animated maps showing the history of The United States: a territorial history


In the second half of the 16th century, England resolutely turned its attention to the West. It concentrated on the colonization of Ireland and launched several initiatives in North America.

The first of these initiatives involved 6 maritime expeditions in search of the North-West Passage, which would make it possible to sail around the American continent to the North and facilitate trade with China’s wealth.

Three expeditions were led by Martin Frobisher between 1576 and 1578, followed, ten years later, by three more headed by John Davis. These voyages sought to explore the coasts of Baffin Island, make contact with the native population of Inuits and sail as far as the 73th parallel North Latitude; but the presence of ice forced the English sailors to turn back.

The second initiative was to establish a colony on the island of Newfoundland in order to take advantage of the development of cod fishing in this area in the North Atlantic Ocean. The plan was to tax the increasing number of ships that were using the island’s beaches for drying the fish before taking it back to Europe.

During 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s fleet of 5 ships reached Newfoundland and landed in St John’s Bay; but the harsh climate and the limited resources on the island soon discouraged this group of settlers.They left after a few weeks and Gilbert died during a shipwreck.

The founding of a colony directly on the American mainland was the objective for the third English initiative at the end of the 16th century.

In 1584, after receiving a royal patent from Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh launched a first expedition to the Outer Banks, in what is now North Carolina.This area appeared to be far enough away from Spain’s bases in Florida to be safe from an attack by its ships.

The island of Roanoke was chosen by the English as their colony and a fort was built there.It was hidden from the sea by an offshore bar.

Three years later in 1587, 110 settlers, including 18 women, arrived on several ships from England.They landed on the island of Roanoke and were left there in the first attempt at establishing a populated colony.

But because of Spain’s “invincible Armada” and its attack against England, the colony did not receive new supplies for three long years. When the first English ship arrived in 1590, all the settlers had disappeared with only one sign of their presence: the word ‘Croatoan’ was etched on two tree trunks.This was the name of both a nearby island and a tribe of Native Americans.

The mystery surrounding the fate of the settlers has never been resolved and Roanoke is now known as ‘the lost colony’.

 

This first attempt to found a settlement on North American soil was a failure but, from the base at Roanoke, the English explored Chesapeake Bay. Twenty years later, this bay became the cradle of English colonies in North America.