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3 Feb 2020
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History & Culture

Whether you come to the Outer Banks to eat all the seafood you can get your hands on, visit local attractions, or simply get away from it all, part of what makes this place so appealing is that it's made up of several islands that each offer their own appeal and unique history. To the East of mainland North Carolina (across the Croatan Sound) and to the West of Nags Head (across the Roanoke Sound) sits one such island with no shortage of small-town coastal charm that is deeply rooted in American history, drawing thousands of visitors year after year. Made up of the towns of Manteo and Wanchese, Historic Roanoke Island is one destination you won’t want to miss.

Roanoke Island Facts

Size: Roanoke Island is about 8 miles long and only 2 miles wide.

Location: Unlike the other parts of the Outer Banks, Roanoke Island does not share its borders with the Atlantic Ocean but is instead entirely situated within sound waters. Connected to US Highway 64, it provides the west entrance and exit to the rest of the Outer Banks and acts as a hurricane evacuation route. Taking 64 East over the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge will take visitors from the mainland to the island and continuing on a series of smaller bridges (the Washington Baum Bridge and Melvin R. Daniels Bridge) will put travelers in Nags Head.

Terrain: Roanoke Island has a slightly different terrain than many of the outer barrier islands. It’s made up of marshland, sound beaches, and pine tree forests.

Name Origins: “Roanoke” derives from the Roanoac/Roanoke (Carolina Algonquian) tribe who lived in the area while “Wanchese” came from a tribal chief who interacted with the colonists. The name “Manteo” is also comes from a chief from the local Croatoan (Carolina Algonquian) tribe with the same name.

Roanoke Island History

The Lost Colony

Roanoke Island is most known for being the destination of a series of trial settlements in the late 1500s funded by Sir Walter Raleigh by order of Queen Elizabeth I of England. The first expedition in 1584 was simply a scouting voyage to become familiar with the area to find a good location for a settlement. The sailors returned to England with local tribal leaders, Wanchese and Manteo, in order to report their positive findings on the land conditions. This led to a second trip, or first settlement attempt, in 1585. The voyage from England back to Roanoke Island consisted of roughly 600 sailors and the two Algonquian leaders in tow. A series of delays, weather complications, and disagreements between the fleet commander, Sir Richard Grenville, and appointed governor of the new colony, Ralph Lane, ultimately destroyed any hopes of a successful settlement. After one of the cargo ships carrying supplies was damaged, the team split with most returning home to England. A group of about 100 settlers stayed with the governor and a small community was built.

Unfortunately, relations which had once been positive, began to deteriorate between the settlers and local Algonquian tribes. The settlers were heavily dependent on the tribe for survival, unable to sustain themselves off the land and their existing supplies. At the same time, English disease raced through the native population. To seal an already complicated relationship, the leader of the Secotan (Carolina Algonquian) tribe was killed before he could carry out an alleged plot to wipe out the settlers. Eventually, a fleet led by Sir Francis Drake arrived along the Outer Banks coast in June 1586 and Drake agreed to help Lane find a better location for the settlement. Before further scouting could continue, however, an Atlantic hurricane forced the entire colony to return to England.

By 1587, one more attempt would be made by the English to settle on Roanoke Island. This go around, 116 men, women, and children arrived at Roanoke Island to establish a permanent English settlement. John White was appointed governor of this establishment and among the settlers was his daughter, Eleanor Dare, and son in law, Ananias Dare. They gave birth to their daughter, Virginia, who is recognized as being the first-born English citizen on American soil. Shortly after, Governor White sailed back to England with the promise to return with more provisions for the settlement. Sadly, war and other financial delays prevented White from sailing back to Roanoke for three years.

When he was finally able to return, White arrived on location to find that the settlement had been completed deserted with no trace of the colonists. His only clues were the words “CROATOAN” carved into a palisade at the site and the letters “CRO” carved into a tree leading him to believe that the settlers had possibly moved to the location of the nearby Croatoan tribe. Despite plans to search for his family and the other settlers, another hurricane caused him to return to England and he was never able to raise the funds or resources to return to Roanoke ever again.

Although the area was eventually settled and grew into a fishing and farming community, the fate of those original colonists still remains a great mystery today. Some of the theories and folklore to explain the disappearance include hurricanes, starvation, war with the natives, and relocation. Many believe that the colonists simply assimilated with nearby tribes in order to survive. With little historical evidence to support any of these theories, researches, genealogists, historians and archeologists are still searching for answers. This failed settlement is infamously known as “The Lost Colony.”

Civil War Years

During the Civil War, Roanoke Island was originally controlled by the Confederate Army. However, General Ambrose E. Burnside of the Union Army led an expedition onto the island that would become known as the Battle of Roanoke Island. The battle took place from February 7 to February 8, 1862 and resulted in the Union Army successfully taking control of the three confederate forts stationed there. After the battle, the Union held control of Roanoke Island for the rest of the Civil War. Learn more about the Battle of Roanoke Island in this short video by the Outer Banks History Center on CurrentTV.

By 1863, Roanoke Island also became home to several escaped African Americans from mainland North Carolina. After they were freed by decree of the Emancipation Proclamation, a community was built on the island, now known as Freedmen’s Colony. Churches, schools, workplaces and homes were built for the newly freed slaves with the hopes that a successful community could emerge. Although the colony mostly thrived throughout the duration of the war, and reached a population of over 3,000, Union-occupied land was returned to the original owners after the war ended leaving the majority of the community without land rights and forcing them to relocate. By 1867, the colony was officially decommissioned although a small population of about 60 households remained on the island, according to an 1870 census report. To commemorate the colony, a marble monument was established on the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site in 2001 and the site is considered part of the National Underground Railroad Network. The First Light of Freedom monument reads, “If you can cross the creek to Roanoke Island, you will find ‘safe haven’.”

The Town of Manteo

With a beautiful location and quaint community feel, the Town of Manteo welcomes tens of thousands of visitors year after year. Other than its several historic sites, the main destination is the Manteo Waterfront in Historic Downtown Manteo. Manteo Waterfront is often the location of seasonal events and is comprised of a marina, waterfront gazebo, George Washington Creef Boathouse, family-run Pioneer Theater, the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse, and dozens of shops and restaurants.

town of manteo nc
Manteo Restaurants
Manteo Attractions

Coastal NC Refuges Gateway Visitor Center — The Coastal NC Refuges Gateway Visitor Center represents 11 different national wildlife refuges and a national fish hatchery to educate and entice visitors through an interactive exhibit, audio-visual programs in a multi-sensory theater and a virtual ride in a Cessna airplane. The LEED certified and energy efficient center also features roughly 35 acres of wild wetlands to explore over four distinct walking trails ranging from .12 to .66 miles in length. (Open daily. Located at 100 Conservation Way, Manteo, NC 29754). Admission is free. Gift shop has items for purchase and all funds proceed refuge programs.

Elizabethan Gardens — First opened in 1960, the Elizabethan Gardens were actually built in memory of the original settlers of The Lost Colony. Acting as a living museum, visitors can wander through the luxurious Elizabethan-era style gardens to view dozens of historic artifacts and a vibrant collection of local trees, shrubs, flowers, and herbs. The Elizabethan Gardens are also home to the annual holiday Winter Lights festival. (Open daily except for select holidays and month of February. Located at 1411 National Park Dr. Manteo, NC 27954). Admission ticket purchase required.

Elizabethan Gardens Manteo

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site — The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is a 355+ acre park that will truly connect visitors with local history through various monuments, trails, and an informational visitor’s center. This site is home to the location of the earliest English settlements, including the infamous “Lost Colony,” the Freedmen's Colony, and site of radio transmission experiments in the early 1900s. Visitor’s can also purchase tickets to the award winning annual theater performance, The Lost Colony, performed at the adjacent Waterside Theater. (Open daily from sunrise to sunset with specific hours for the visitor center and Theater play. Located at 1401 National Park Dr. Manteo, NC 27954). Admission to the park is free but The Lost Colony requires ticket purchase.

Coastal NC Refuges Gateway Visitor Center

Island Farm — The Island Farm is another hidden gem for history lovers. This living history site features the homestead of the Ethridge family (since 1757) and gives visitors an inside look into what life was like on the island in the mid-1800s. Tour buildings like a farmhouse, wood shed, and various barns while interacting with live interpreters. Demonstrations are tailored to school-aged children and range from woodworking and musket firing to farming and 19th century cooking. (Open seasonally Tuesday-Friday. Located at 1140 N. US HWY. 64, Manteo, NC 27954). Admission ticket purchase required; children 5 & under are free. 62.5% of the admission is deductible as a charitable contribution.

Jumpmasters OBX Trampoline Park — Visitors will love this trampoline park, 3-D climbing wall, foam pit, ninja obstacle course, and axe throwing center. Located at 728 US Hwy. 64, Manteo, NC 27954. *Club Seaside Partner offering a 20% discount to all Seaside Vacations Guests.

NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island — The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is a 68,000 sq. ft. complex designed to teach visitors about the Atlantic Ocean’s and North Carolina’s inland aquatic ecosystems as well as promote the importance of marine conservation. Both kids and adults will enjoy paying a visit to this modern facility with interactive exhibits, soundside pier, educational progams, and the STAR Center sea turtle hospital. Open daily 9-5. Located at 374 Airport Rd. Manteo, NC 27954. Admission ticket purchase required.

NC Aquarium Roanoke Island

Roanoke Island Festival Park — The Roanoke Island Festival Park is a fun, interactive family attraction that celebrates the first English settlement in America. Costumed interpreters are on site to teach visitors about life in 1585, especially kids who will enjoy trying on armor, practice woodworking, watch a blacksmith at work, and even play Elizabethan-era games. An American Indian Town Exhibit with will teach visitors about the history and culture of the Algonquian people and allow them to practice skills such as cordage, basket weaving and boat building. The best part of the park is the Elizabeth II which represents one of the seven ships that brought the colonists to America from England. Kids will love climbing abord the ship! *Seaside Vacations guests are eligible to receive 1 complimentary ticket to the Roanoke Island Festival Park with purchase of 1 adult ticket! Open seasonally. Located at 1 Festival Park, Manteo, NC 27954. Admission ticket purchase required.

Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse — The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is a 37-foot tall replica of the lighthouse that was built in Wanchese in 1877 but was eventually lost to the Albemarle Sound during water transit after being decommissioned in 1955. Sitting on a 40-yard long boardwalk above the sound, the operational structure uses a fourth-order Fresnel Lens that emits a fixed white light to help boats navigate as they enter and leave the Shallowbag Bay area. Although the tower is not open for climbing, visitors are welcome to explore the boardwalk and go inside to view a small exhibit about the structure’s history. (Inside building open seasonally. Located at 300 Queen Elizabeth Ave. Manteo, NC 27954). Admission is free and the boardwalk is always open.

Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse

The Christmas Shop — The Outer Banks Christmas Shop and General Store has been an island favorite since 1967. With over 15,000 square feet of shopping space, browse Christmas décor, jewelry and gifts along with locally made crafts, art, candy, snacks, and more. There is also an awesome multi-room Halloween shop for all your costume and décor needs. Located at 621 US Hwy. 64, Manteo, NC 27954.

Manteo Events

Bluegrass Island Festival — Held annually at the Roanoke Island Festival Park, the Bluegrass Island Festival is a multi-day celebration of bluegrass by the water with dozens of locally and nationally acclaimed bands. Dozens of food and merchandise vendors are also on site. Tickets are required but they sell out fast! Individual day tickets, full event pass, and VIP backstage tickets are sold.

Christmas Tree Lighting — The annual Christmas Tree Lighting at Manteo Waterfront is another free, family-friendly event with holiday music, hot cocoa, holiday lights, and a visit from Santa!

Christmas Parade — What’s Christmas without an annual Christmas Parade? Enjoy an array of floats and performances with spectacular holiday music and decorations winding through the streets of Manteo.

Dare Day Festival — The Dare Day Festival is a free family-friendly annual celebration that takes place on the Manteo Waterfront on the first Saturday in June featuring food, drinks, crafts, music, shopping, and more.

Downtown Manteo Farmer’s Market — Opened May through October on Saturdays between 8AM – Noon, the Dowtown Manteo Farmer’s Market offers visitors everything from crafts, jewelry and art to pastries, preserves, and fresh local produce.

Fourth of July — The Fourth of July Celebration in downtown Manteo features everything from contests and live music to food/craft vendors and fireworks over the water, with free admission.

New Year in the New World — The New Year in the New World is a huge annual (and free) bash celebrating New Year’s Eve in downtown Manteo. Visit for family-friendly fun including games, great food, live music, an early ball drop for the kids, and fireworks over the water at midnight!

The Town of Wanchese

A visit to the town of Wanchese is a visit to a charming, quiet village whose heritage in the fishing industry is unmistakable. Throughout history, the town has flourished as a fishing town due to the proximity to Oregon Inlet and the surrounding bodies of sound waters. Today, it is home to the Wanchese Seafood Industrial Park which serves as a hub for East Coast-based marine businesses such as seafood processing plants, boat builders, and fishing supply vendors. Although the marinas primarily house commercial fishing charters, there are also plenty of tourist charters available.

Wanchese Restaurants
Wanchese Marina Restaurant
Wanchese Attractions

Fishin’ Fannatic — For the ultimate OBX fishing experience, book a fishing charter on Fishin’ Fannatic—a 53’ Viking Sportfish boat outfitted with advanced fishing navigation along with twin man engines, spacious cockpit, AC, wrap-around couches and on-board restroom! With over 35 years of experience with fishing on the Outer Banks, Captain Mark Fann and his crew are always ready to answer questions and assist in making your excursion an awesome one. All gear and licenses included. Charters include a 4-hour nearshore, a 6-hour nearshore, full day offshore, full day swordfish, and an overnight trip. Located at 4457 Mill Landing Rd. Wanchese, NC 27981. *Club Seaside Partner offering a $50.00 discount off the total price of fishing charters booked by guests of Seaside Vacations. 

Secotan Market This local farmers market featuers local vendors and vendors across Eastern North Carolina offering produce, meat, arts, crafts, and more! Vendors vary weekly. Open Saturday mornings year-round (check website for hours).

Harbor Star Dolphin Tours — Get an up-close and personal look at everyone’s favorite sea creature—Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins! Harbor Star Dolphin Tours offers 2-hour dolphin excusions that the whole family is certain to remember. Located at 4457 Mill Landing Rd. Wanchese, NC 27981. *Club Seaside Partner offering the following promotion: when a Seaside Vacations guest books a Harbor Star Wild Dolphin Tour at Wanchese Marina, their kid will eat FREE at The Landing Grill before or after the tour

Wanchese Marina Fishing Charters —  Offering a diverse fleet and knowledgeable captains, fishing enthusiasts will love taking a half or full-day charter out of Wanchese Marina to test their luck in the open seas. Inshore, nearshore, and offshore charters all available. Licenses, bait, and tackle are all included with your charter. Located at 4457 Mill Landing Rd. Wanchese, NC 27981. *Club Seaside Partner offering complimentary refreshments and T-Shirt discounts for Seaside Vacations guests who book a half or full day charter

Vacation Rentals on Roanoke Island

This year, Seaside Vacations added three new vacation rentals on Roanoke Island for our guests to enjoy! Located just half a mile from Manteo Waterfront, a short 10-minute walk will let you explore the local shops and restaurants without the hassle of finding a parking space. Sites like Island Farm, the Elizabethan Gardens and the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island are less than an 8-minute drive away making it easy to tour the island's historic sites right from your rental. When you are ready to hit the beach, the E. Gulfstream St., Jennette’s Pier, and Gray Eagle St. beach accesses with public parking are also only a short drive away (roughly 10-12 minutes). From the convenient location of these rentals, you can also head north to experience the main Outer Banks areas from Nags Head to Corolla, or you can hop on the new Marc Basnight Bridge and head south for a daytrip to Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island.

Check out these new rentals that are perfect for couples and small families: #IC1 - Little Lifeboat House, #IC2 - Endless Summer Cottage, and #IC3 - The Wright Getaway. Amenities include air conditioning, Dolby Surround Home Theater systems, WiFi, linens, outdoor patio and Jacuzzi tubs. Full and partial week rentals available.


Seaside Vacations Blog Author Jessie See

About the Author: Jessie has been coming to the Outer Banks since she was just 5 years old. She loved it here so much that she finally relocated in 2018. Now her mission is to show the world that the Outer Banks is an incredible place that everyone should experience. When she isn't working, you can find Jessie hanging out with her friends, chilling at home with a good book, or discovering a new Outer Banks adventure.