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Document Number: AJ-035
Author: Lane, Ralph, died 1603
Title: Lane's Account of the Englishmen Left in Virginia, 1585-1586
Source: Burrage, Henry S. (editor). Early English and French Voyages, Chiefly from Hakluyt, 1534-1608. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906). Pages 245-271.
Pages/Illustrations: 30 / 1
Citable URL:

Author Note

Ralph Lane (died 1603) was the second son of Sir Ralph Lane of Horton, Northamptonshire, England, and his wife Maud, daughter of William, Lord Parr. Lane was elected a member of Parliament in 1558. In 1563, he entered the service of Elizabeth I as a royal attendant, and later assisted the government in putting down rebellions in Ireland and in planning military efforts against the Spanish. In 1585, Lane was appointed governor of Sir Walter Raleigh’s proposed colony on Roanoke Island. After the English abandoned Roanoke in 1586, Lane hoped to lead another expedition to Virginia, but never returned to America, although Raleigh sent another colony to Roanoke in 1587. He resumed his activities against Spain and spent the rest of his life filling military posts in England and Ireland. William FitzWilliam, Lord Deputy of Ireland, knighted Lane in 1593. The following year, Irish rebels wounded Lane during an uprising. He never fully recovered from his injuries, and died in Dublin in October 1603.

Roanoke Expedition and Settlement, 1584-1586

The expedition left England April 27, 1584, with two ships to establish an English colony at Roanoke, North Carolina. The text presented here covers Lane’s administration of the colony from August 17, 1585, to June 18, 1586. Among Ralph Lane’s company of colonists, Sir Walter Raleigh sent Thomas Harriot, a mathematician and scientist, to study the native inhabitants as well as to explore and describe the economic potential of the region’s plants, animals, and minerals. To assist Harriot and Lane, Raleigh also hired John White, an artist, to make maps of the region and paint watercolors depicting the company’s discoveries; contemporary copies of White’s drawings are reproduced in AJ-119.

Raleigh’s colony did not start off well. The flagship, Tiger, ran aground approaching the coast of North Carolina and most of the colony’s food supplies were lost. After establishing the colony on Roanoke Island, Lane sent expeditions up to the Chesapeake Bay area and led an exploratory trip up the Chowan River. Lane’s policy of intimidation towards the Roanoke Indians and the settlement’s contradictory dependence on them for food soon led to problems. Living in fear of imminent attack and death by starvation, Lane despaired that the promised relief ship would ever come. These factors undoubtedly influenced the decision to abandon the Roanoke settlement. When Sir Francis Drake’s fleet anchored off Roanoke Island in June 1586, Drake agreed to leave men, supplies, and a ship behind so that the settlers would be able to return to England. Before the arrangements were finalized, however, a hurricane scattered the fleet and forced out to sea the ship that Drake offered to leave for Lane and his men. When the storm subsided, Lane and the settlers hastily boarded the remaining ships and abandoned their colony. In the process of evacuation, Drake’s sailors threw overboard most of the colony’s documents in order to save weight. This resulted in the loss of much of the information the colonists had gathered. The relief ship, followed by three more commanded by Sir Richard Grenville, arrived at the colony shortly after it had been deserted. Many criticized Lane’s lack of faith in Grenville but he and the other colonists still enjoyed minor celebrity upon their return to England.

This document presents the most thorough account of the general operations undertaken by Lane and his men. It is particularly important for the account it provides of the deteriorating English and Native American relations, and for its insights into Lane’s decision to abandon the colony and sail back to England with Drake’s fleet.

Document Note

Ralph Lane’s narrative first appeared in Richard Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations. . . (London: George Bishop and Ralph Newberie, 1589), 737-748.

Other Internet and Reference Sources

The State Library of North Carolina web site describes this first English settlement at

This text is also available from a variety of other online sources, including the University of North Carolina's “Documenting the American South” and the University of Virginia Library's Electronic Text Center's Virtual Jamestown at

For specific information on the Roanoke Colony, see the National Parks Service site, “Roanoke Revisited” at

The National Park Service has also placed their Fort Raleigh guidebook online at

Hume, Ivor Noël. The Virginia Adventure: Roanoke to James Towne, an Archeological Odyssey. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994) discusses the archaeological evidence that survives from Roanoke.

Short treatments of this first encounter between English settlers and Native Americans are:

Axtell, James. “At the Water’s Edge: Trading in the Sixteenth Century,” in After Columbus: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 144-81.

Salisbury, Neal. “The Indians’ Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of Europeans,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 53 (July 1996): 435-58.

Trigger, Bruce G. and William R. Swagerty. “Entertaining Strangers: North America in the Sixteenth Century,” in The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Volume I: North America, Part I (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 325-98.

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