Long before Capt. John Smith met Pocahontas at Jamestown or the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, the first English colony in America was established in North Carolina in 1585. It was, however, doomed. Beset from the beginning by ill fortune, misplaced expectations, greed and arrogance, the settlers abandoned the village, then resettled it, before the entire population mysteriously vanished in 1590. The lost colonists of Roanoke Island were never seen or heard from again. Roanoke's story began with the earliest of reasons for colonization. While subsequent English settlements in America were established as havens for religious freedom or as commercial ventures to trade in natural resources, Roanoke was founded on an entirely different principle -- to aid England in a subversive sea war against Spain. In those days, England was a rather weak, backward country, not yet the great empire it would become. The island nation's ruler, Queen Elizabeth I, had firmly established it as a Protestant realm, solidifying the Reformation begun by her father, Henry VIII. Until Henry's reign from 1509-1547, England was Roman Catholic. In the meantime, Spain had emerged as the dominant Catholic power on the European continent and was seeking to expand its influence. Having conquered Portugal and occupied the Netherlands, the Spanish king, Philip II, viewed England as a nation of infidels ruled by a heretic. Encouraged by the pope, Spain sought to threaten England in every way possible. The English, naturally, fought back, targeting Spain's weak point -- its dependence on a constant influx of wealth, much in the form of gold carried by ships from its colonies in Central and South America. While Elizabeth had a deep aversion to war, she did encourage her subjects to commit a form of piracy known as privateering. English ships attacked Spanish convoys as they returned from the New World laden with treasure. The practice not only offered pirates the possibility of enormous wealth but also was seen as patriotic, defending England by weakening Spain. Privateering prompted the first settlement in America because English entrepreneurs thought that a base here would streamline their business, allowing pirate ships to resupply close to where they were pouncing on Spanish treasure vessels. No longer would they have to return home across the Atlantic so often during prime privateering seasons. By putting in nearby for food, water and other supplies, privateers could prey on Spanish ships more efficiently and profitably. Sir Walter Raleigh, a favorite of the queen who had risen from humble origins to wield great influence, championed an American privateering base. The crown granted him an exclusive "patent" on North American colonization, meaning that no other Englishman could venture there without his permission. Thus armed, Raleigh immediately sent an expedition to find a suitable site. He wanted the colony as close to Spanish shipping routes as possible but remote enough to avoid detection. Already, Spain had destroyed a French settlement on its turf, which Philip considered to extend from Florida as far north as the Chesapeake Bay. Raleigh wanted to avoid the same fate. The scouting expedition returned to England, accompanied by two Algonquian Indians named Manteo and Wanchese, and with glowing, though highly exaggerated, reports of the site discovered on an island that the Indians called Roanoke. Arthur Barlowe, who commanded one of the two ships on the mission, made the barrier island sound like Eden. "The soil is the most plentiful, sweet, fruitful and wholesome of all the world," he gushed. "The earth bringeth forth all things in abundance, as in the first creation, without toil or labor." Furthermore, he noted, Roanoke Island was tucked between what now is known as the Outer Banks and the North Carolina mainland, well hidden yet accessible to Spanish sea routes. Barlowe's desire to make the site highly appealing to investors contributed to its failure when reality dashed such expectations, Karen Ordahl Kupperman, writes in her book, Roanoke, The Abandoned Colony. The scouting reports encouraged several enthusiastic investors, and even Queen Elizabeth was swept up in the excitement. She knighted Raleigh, invested her own money and allowed the area to be named Virginia in her honor. Elizabeth was known as "the Virgin Queen," and the name originally applied to all territory in North America claimed by England. Five ships and two tenders called pinnaces, carrying about 600 men and led by the queen's flagship, the Tiger, left Plymouth, England, on April 9, 1585. Raleigh was not aboard because the queen wanted him by her side and refused to let him go. Storms scattered the ships as they crossed the Atlantic, and one was destroyed. Part of the group was forced to detour to Puerto Rico to build another ship while the remainder continued on to Roanoke. What they found was far from the paradise described by Barlowe. Access to the island was too shallow for the Tiger, and the flagship was forced to anchor in the ocean. When a storm battered it against the shore, its cargo -- including food and supplies intended to last the colonists for a year -- was destroyed. After this setback, expedition leaders decided that some of the ships and crew should return home immediately to bring back new supplies. The settlers who stayed were to seek a privateering base that offered a deeper harbor. Ralph Lane, designated governor of the colony, immediately set about erecting temporary housing and building a fort to protect the base. Algonquians living in the area welcomed the newcomers, sharing food, helping them to fish and generally serving as gracious and instructive hosts. Without this help, the English, whose supplies had been ruined, surely would have perished. The colonists did not return the favors. Lane and his group treated the local people as inferiors and threatened them with guns if they did not show subservience. Unbeknown to all, the settlers were spreading deadly diseases to which the natives had never been exposed. It wasn't long before the Indians had had enough of their greedy and arrogant visitors. They stopped giving food to the English and teaching them how to fish and raise their own crops. When relations became especially difficult, they killed some colonists. Roanoke's situation grew more desperate when anticipated supplies failed to arrive from England. Investors withheld money because England's primary interest was not in developing a sustainable colony but in reaping the rewards of privateering. Indeed, the English had already profited quickly as a result of the Tiger debacle. While returning home for more supplies, the would-be colonists had found and plundered a Spanish ship, and they brought back its loot, whetting the English appetite. This type of reward was the purpose of the original investment. The colony and its inhabitants were seen as dispensable means to that profitable end. The settlers remaining at Roanoke were similarly inclined. Most were adventurers and seekers of fortune, not particularly interested in developing a long-term colony. Their goal was quick profit from robbing the Spanish, discovering rich gold mines or a passage to the Orient . Mistreatment of the Indians, combined with indifference to a permanent colony, helped to sabotage Roanoke's prospects. Amid angry natives and with little to eat, Lane and his group leapt at the chance to leave the island when Sir Francis Drake, the English explorer and buccaneer, visited in 1586 after raiding Spanish colonies. The colonists returned to England, but they would not be the last to try to make a go of Roanoke. Not all those who returned had dismissed the idea of a long-term, self-sustaining colony. Among the party, for example, were Thomas Hariot, a scientist, and John White, a painter. Both took a more enlightened view of the native Americans, of what could be learned from them and of the land's potential beyond piracy. They had documented the region's plants and animals, taking copious notes and painting detailed pictures. White's Indian portraits and scenes offer one of few accurate perspectives of these people, while Hariot's book, Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, is an insightful catalog of early America and its bounty. The two envisioned a colony that would be an end in itself, slowly and steadily developing America's natural resources for export to England. This, they argued, would be a boon to the English economy and make it more independent from the vagaries of trade with its enemies. Hariot and White found it hard to generating enthusiasm for this vastly different perspective on American colonization, especially because investment returns were not expected to come quickly. But Raleigh and others reluctantly agreed to fund a new expedition to colonize America. The group planned to start at Roanoke and search for a more suitable location, probably in the Chesapeake Bay. White was to be governor of the new enterprise, called the City of Raleigh. Since it was to be a permanent colony, whole families were recruited, rather than only male fortune hunters as on the previous venture. On May 8, 1587, 117 hopeful colonists -- 91 men, 17 women and 9 children -- sailed for America aboard three ships. Among them was White's pregnant daughter, Eleanor, who would give birth to Virginia Dare, the first English child born on American soil. On arrival, the dark legacy of the first settlement asserted itself almost immediately. Indians attacked and killed one newcomer. Ironically, one of the attackers was Wanchese, who had accompanied the first explorers back to England in 1584. All vestiges of native hospitality had vanished. Worse, the settlers arrived too late in the year to grow crops and were expecting Indian help that no longer was forthcoming. Desperate for supplies, White sailed urgently back to England, promising to return as quickly as possible. But England was at war, facing the Spanish Armada, and Queen Elizabeth had ordered that all ships defend the homeland. Raleigh's interests, meanwhile, had shifted from America to his vast estates in Ireland. White was stuck in England. After three years, he finally was able to sail back to Roanoke. Arriving too late in the day to navigate the shallow course to the island and go ashore, White anchored offshore. He was gratified to see smoke rising from the settlement. To reassure the colonists that the ship was a friendly party, White and his crew sang English folk songs, sounded trumpets and shouted familiar greetings. No answer came. The next morning, White and his party discovered the source of the smoke seen the night before. It was just grass and rotting trees burning, apparently from natural causes. No one was in the area, and the settlement looked like a ghost town. White located his own house and was shocked, writing in his diary of "my books torn from the covers, the frames of some of my pictures and Maps rotten and spoiled with rain, and my armour almost eaten through with rust." Only one tantalizing clue to the colonists's possible whereabouts was visible. The word "CROATOAN" was carved in capital letters on a tree, and its probable abbreviation, "CRO," on another. The colonists had agreed to leave signs indicating their destination if they were forced to leave the island, and Croatoan was an island, about 50 miles south, known to be inhabited by friendly Indians. White decided to sail there, but a violent storm killed some of his men and destroyed the ship's anchor line. He abandoned his search and returned to England. To this day, no one knows what became of the more than 100 colonists, including little Virginia Dare. Twenty years after Roanoke's apparent abandonment, Jamestown was founded on Virginia's James River and became the first successful English colony in the New World. According to Capt. John Smith, writing in 1608, Jamestown settlers had heard that their predecessors from Roanoke were living among the Indians. One Jamestown colonist, George Perry, wrote that he had seen a young Indian boy of about 10 whose hair was "a perfect yellow" and with a "reasonable white skin, which is a Miracle amongst all Savages." Other accounts told of the lost colonists moving up to the Chesapeake Bay, as planned, and living in peace for 20 years among the Chesapeake Indians outside the domain of the "Great Emperor" Powhatan, in whose territory Jamestown was founded in 1607. Just before that founding, according to the tale, Powhatan ordered a purge of the Chesapeakes and their English neighbors, and all were slaughtered. Local legends in North Carolina maintain the Roanoke colonists stayed in the area and were absorbed by the native communities. The Lumbee Indians of Robeson County, for example, believe that they include descendants of Roanoke. Whatever their fate, the lost colonists and those who preceeded them opened England's route to America. CAPTION: PLAN YOUR EXPEDITION Virtually nothing of the original Roanoke remains, but the area now is part of the 150-acre Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. It features a reconstruction of the small earthen fort that the colonists built adjacent to their settlement to defend themselves. In the visitor center is an Elizabethan room, complete with original oak paneling and stone fireplace from a 16th-century home of the type in which English investors in the colony lived. Also, there are artifacts from the site, exhibits on the colonists and on Elizabethan life and copies of colonist John White's period watercolors. A short film relates the story of both attempts to establish a colony at Roanoke. Using drama, music and dance to tell the story of the ill-fated venture, "The Lost Colony" is presented at the site's Waterside Theater each summer. While the show is semi-fictional and tormenting mosquitoes have been known to play themselves during the outdoor performances, the play has been an Outer Banks area highlight since 1937. This year, performances are scheduled nightly, except Saturday, from June 5 through Aug. 29. The site also features the Elizabethan Gardens, which serve as a memorial to the lost colonists and provide examples of gardens on the estates of the expedition's wealthy English backers. Admission is free. For information, call 919-475-5772. CAPTION: Roanoke Island has a palisaded settlement, planted fields and even game in this Theodor de Bry map from his celebrated book America, printed in 1590. Roanoke Island today has a different shape but still lies between barrier islands and the mainland. CAPTION: John White, who became governor of the second Roanoke settlement, painted detailed images of early America, including native plants and animals. His most important record, however, is of the local Indians, including the one posing ceremoniously, far right. At the immediate right is White's composite painting of Indians fishing by day with dip net and spear, and by night with a fire in the canoe. In the background are weirs used to trap fish.