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An English Explorer Describes the Riches of the Roanoke Colony

This account of the interactions between English explorers and Native Americans was written by Ralph Lane, one of the leaders of Sir Walter Raleigh's early colonizing expedition on what is now Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Despite being a prisoner of the English, Menatonon, the local tribal chief, obligingly tells his captors about the local geography and the riches to be found there. The author also credits Menatonon and his people with the salvation of the English during the month of March 1586, a time when the would-be settlers were without "one grain of Corn for seed to put in the ground."

The King of the said Province is called Menatonon, a man impotent in his limbs, but otherwise for a Savage, a very grave and wise man, and of a very singular good discourse in matters concerning the state, not only of his own Country, and the disposition of his own men, but also of his neighbors round about him as well far as near, and of the commodities that each Country yielded. When I had him prisoner with me, for two days that we were together, he gave me more understanding and light of the Country than I had received by all the searches and Savages that before I or any of my company had had conference with: it was in March last past 1586. Amongst other things he told me, that going three days journey in a Canoe, up his River of Chawanook, and then descending to the land, you are within four days journey to pass over land Northeast to a certain Kings country, whose Province lies upon the Sea, but his place of greatest strength is an Island situated, as he described unto me, in a Bay, the water round about the Island very deep. 

Out of this Bay he signified unto me, that this King had so great quantity of pearl, and does so ordinarily take the same, as that not only his own skins that he wears, and the better sort of his gentlemen and followers are full set with the said Pearls, but also his beds, and houses are garnished with them, and that he has such quantity of them, that it is a wonder to see.

The King was advised and of himself disposed, as a ready means to have assuredly brought us to ruin in the month of March 1586 himself also with all his Savages to have run away from us, and to have left his ground in the Island unsowed: which if he had done, there had been no possibility in common reason, (but by the immediate hand of God) that we could have been preserved from starving out of hand. For at that time we had no weirs for fish, neither could our men skill of the making of them, neither had we one grain of Corn for seed to put into the ground.

Source | Ralph Lane, 1586, An account of the particularities of the imployments of the English men left in Virginia by Richard Greenevill under the charge of Master Ralph Lane Generall of the same, from the 17. of August 1585. until the 18. of June 1586. at which time they departed the Countrey; sent and directed to Sir Walter Ralegh (Chapel Hill: The University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2004); from Documenting the American South,
Creator | Ralph Lane
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | Ralph Lane, “An English Explorer Describes the Riches of the Roanoke Colony,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 22, 2023,

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