Manteo: At The Crossroads Of History
The Town of Manteo, North Carolina sits on the eastern side of Roanoke Island, sandwiched between the beaches of the Outer Banks and NC’s mainland. Thousands of visitors pass through here every season, stopping to enjoy the scenery of Roanoke Island Festival Park or to linger at the shops and cafes perched along the town’s waterfront.
The town itself wraps around the waters of Shallowbag Bay, and the theme here is decidedly nautical. The daily weather report comes in the form of flags flying from the Manteo Weather Tower. Signals from the Roanoke Marshes Light still guide boats to safe harbor. Manteo is also home to the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, which houses a 1/3 scale replica of the USS Monitor in its Graveyard of The Atlantic tank, patrolled by sand tiger sharks, barracuda, and other local fish.
But while the people of Manteo take pride in their charming, picturesque seaside village of today, they are also keenly aware of this little island’s big place in history. Here, visitors can learn the details of one of England’s first attempts at New World colonization, one of history’s greatest puzzles, and a Civil War social experiment that was far ahead of its time.
It all began in 1584, when Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe were sent by Sir Walter Raleigh to find an ideal location for an English settlement. They returned with glowing reports about Roanoke Island’s lush vegetation, mild climate, and friendly Indians. Three years later, a group of 117 men, women, and children arrived on Roanoke Island to establish a colony there. One month later, Virginia Dare was born, the first English child born on American soil.
Ten days later, the Governor of the new colony set sail for England for supplies, but due to Great Britain’s war with Spain, he wasn’t able to return to Roanoke Island until 1590. When he arrived, the colonists had vanished, leaving only the word ‘CROATAN’ carved on a nearby tree.
What happened to the colonists remains one of history’s biggest mysteries, but it’s a big part of modern-day Manteo as well. From the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site to the “Lost Colony” Outdoor Drama, from a stone marker on Manteo’s waterfront to the lush English greenery of the Elizabethan Gardens, to street names such as “Queen Elizabeth Avenue”, “Sir Walter Raleigh Street”, and “Virginia Dare Road”, the Lost Colony still plays a big role in Mateo’s identity. Even one of the town’s upscale restaurants is named for the year of the colony’s founding, “1587”.
Nearly three hundred years later, Roanoke Island played a large role in Civil War history as well. In February of 1862, Union forces under the command of General Ambrose Burnside overran Confederate fortifications on Roanoke Island and took control of the waters of Northeastern North Carolina. Along with occupation of the island, the Union Army had to figure out what to do with the slaves who had been sent by their owners to help build the Southern fortifications.
The Union army decided to emancipate the former slaves, giving them a chance at a new life and employment as cooks, woodcutters, longshoremen and other skilled trades. Eventually, other slaves heard about what was happening on the island and escaped to the area from the mainland. By 1865, nearly 4,000 freed blacks had become part of this ‘Freedman’s Colony’, which now featured a small town with streets, schools, a church, and a sawmill operation.
After the war, a government order restored the land in the Freedman’s Colony back to its original owners, and the most of the colony’s residents moved elsewhere. In 1867, the colony was officially closed, but today, renewed interest in it has placed Roanoke Island on the National Underground Railroad “Network to Freedom” list of historic sites.
Manteo has embraced its history, but has one foot firmly planted in the present as well. With shops, restaurants, tree-lined streets, a quaint harbor, fishing charters, and more Bed and Breakfasts than any other Outer Banks town, Manteo is always ready to give its guests a ‘New World’ vacation… with Old World charm.
added: December 22, 2008
updated: April 15, 2013
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