Fort Raleigh National Historic Site directly connects the American people with the Court of Queen Elizabeth and the golden age of English art, literature, and adventure. The figures who play the chief roles in the story of the exploration and attempted settlement of the island are the epic figures of English history: Queen Elizabeth, after whom the new land was named "Virginia," is easily the premier sovereign of England; Sir Walter Raleigh, poet, soldier, and statesman, and the inspiration and financial mainstay of the Roanoke Island project, is the best remembered of gallant English courtiers; Sir Richard Grenville, of the Revenge, who brought the first colony to America in 1585 and left another small group there in 1586, is the Elizabethan hero who in 1592 taught English sailors how to dare and die in the face of overwhelming odds; Sir Frances Drake, who rescued the first colony from starvation, is famous as the first English circumnavigator of the globe and as the preeminent seadog and explorer of English history.
As Plymouth and other early New England sites connect the United States with the great European movement known as the Reformation, so the scene of Raleigh's settlements connects the American people with the powerful activating force known as the Renaissance. When energized by the Renaissance movement, the human spirit knew no earthly bounds nor recognized any limits to intellectual or physical endeavor. Thus, Raleigh, who was born a gentleman of only moderate estate, willed to be the favorite of a Queen, aspired to found an empire across the seas in the teeth of Imperial Spain and undertook in prison to write the history of the world! For the glory and enrichment of England, Sir Francis Drake pillaged the cities and mighty galleons of Spain and dared to sail around the globe. Sir Richard Grenville, shortly after his memorable voyages to Roanoke Island, gave the British Navy an immortal tradition by dueling for a day and a night with one small ship against a Spanish fleet of 53.
Truly heroic was the Roanoke Island colonial venture. Here, despite the hostility of Spain and Spanish Florida, the greatest naval and colonial power of that day, the agents of Sir Walter Raleigh and the subjects of Queen Elizabeth suffered, or died, in the first serious effort to begin the conquest of the larger part of the North American continent by the slow process of agriculture, industry, trade, and natural increase. The hardships of the first colony under Governor Lane, 1585-86, and the disappearance of the "Lost Colony" of 1587 taught the English the practical difficulties that would be attendant upon the conquest of the continent and enabled them to grow in colonial wisdom. Thus, the birth of Virginia Dare, in the "Citie of Raleigh in Virginia," August 18, 1587, first child of English parentage to be born in the New World, was a prophetic symbol of the future rise of a new English-speaking nation beyond the seas.
Jamestown, Va., commemorates the successful settlement of English America growing out of the dreams of Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Humphrey Gilbert, his elder half-brother. Fort Raleigh, because of the tragic mystery of the "Lost Colony," memorializes better than any other site the cost of early English colonial effort. To a certain degree it also commemorates a forgotten part of the price that England paid for English liberty. The colonists at Fort Raleigh were, in a sense, sacrificed that England might employ all her fighting strength against the juggernaut of Spain in the battle against the Armada. To relieve the Roanoke colony in 1588, in the place of Grenville's warships, only two small pinnaces could be spared, and these did not reach Roanoke. For the glorious victory over the Armada and for the gradual emergence of British sea power after 1588, England gave her infant colony in America.