Postal Firsts

The emblem of the "Cittie of Ralegh" depicts a St George's Cross (red cross on white field) representing England, with a deer in the upper left corner, representing Sir Walter Ralegh.


In the spring of 1937, Franklin Delano Roosevelt accepted an invitation to attend a performance of Pulitzer prize winning playwright Paul Green's symphonic drama, The Lost Colony, which was to be presented near Manteo, North Carolina, on Roanoke Island. The occasion was the 350th anniversary of the birth of Virginia Dare, the first child born in America of English parents. Green's play, written to commemorate the birth of the child and the birthplace of English America was perceived by the President and the public as a hymn to the American Dream. President Roosevelt, himself an avid theatre goer and stamp collector, thought the occasion warranted a commemorative stamp. In a note to the Postmaster General he remarked that since our country cannot celebrate "thousand-year anniversaries" as can be done in foreign lands, we should not overlook a "350th anniversary." The President suggested that the stamp be square— first for a U.S. issue — and that the color be baby blue. The design should be "something like this," he wrote, adding a pencil sketch of a father standing in front of a cabin and holding a musket, with the mother seated beside him holding a baby.

The stamp, which was prepared largely according to Roosevelt's suggestions is one-inch square and printed in light blue. Arranged vertically on the left is "U.S. POSTAGE" in white gothic; on the right the designation "5 CENTS." The three figures are within a central oval above the legend "In memory of Virginia Dare/Born Roanoke 1587." The Postal Department printed 20,000,000 of the Virginia Dare stamps and offered them for first-day sale at Manteo, North Carolina on 18 August 1937.


On 12 August 1585, Ralph Lane, governor of the first English colony in North America, posted back to England the first letters from Virginia in the New World. These letters were dispatched from the initial landing site, Port Ferdinando, located near the present island of Portsmouth inside the Carolina banks, and Roanoke Island. The letters were addressed to Sir Philip Sidney, Richard Hakluyt and Sir Francis Walsingham, a principle advisor to Queen Elizabeth and a powerful member of the Privy Council. Walsingham had invested in the Virginia venture.

The General to whom Lane refers was Sir Richard Grenville, Captain — General (commander) of the seven-ship fleet which brought the first colonists to Virginia in 1585. Thomas Cavendish, High Marshall, was second-in-command; he also captained a small vessel, the Elizabeth. Cavendish and Grenville were early and often at loggerheads. Ralph Lane served as lieutenant and as civil governor of the colony.

Lane's letters of 12 August describe the nature of the land and the difficult passages over the outer bars. They tell of the grounding and near break-up of the Tyger, a ship of about 140 tuns belonging to the Queen. Worse than the damage to the ship was the loss of most of the food stores. Lane hints uneasiness as to how the colonists will survive the coming winter. The letter of 8 September — the colonists were by then at the "new fort" on Roanoke Island — xcomplains of Grenville's behavior, particularly of his malicious intent toward his subordinates. The letter concludes with faith in the colony's prospects under divine protection.

The conjunction of these "postal firsts" is almost, though not quite, perfect. Both pertain to the first English colonies in North America. However, the letters and the commemorated event, while sharing the same month, occurred two years apart. Virginia Dare was born during the 1587 "lost colony." Ralph Lane was governor of the 1585-1586 military settlement. He and his men elected to return to England in the summer of 1586. Theirs was not a "lost" colony, but rather an aborted one. The stamp, on the other hand, commemorates the birth of a child whose fate to this day remains obscure.

Letters From Ralph Lane to Sir Francis Walsingham
Posted from Port Ferdinando and Roanoke Island to the Court in
England 1585

12 AUGUST 1585 [From Port Ferdinando]

[Addressed] To The Right Honorable SIR FRANICS WALSINGHAM, Knight, Principal Secretary to Her Majesty and one of Her Highness' most honorable Privy Council: This be delivered at the court, of England./

Right honorable,
The bearer hereof Master Atkinson your honor's servant has carried himself so honestly, and so industriously in all occasions and actions of this voyage, that I cannot less do having some principal charge in the same to note him by this my bold letter to your honor, for one most worthy of great account among us, and with your honor, not to be the less reckoned of in this behalf, having done your honor by such his honest demeanors as much as any servant can do to so honorable a master: \

I have also written to your honor, by your servant Master Russell to a like effect, who notwithstanding the General's displeasure towards him; and his complaints, will nevertheless I am persuaded clear himself very well to your honor of every charge or imputation whatsoever: And even so sir, humbly committing your honor to the mercies of the Almighty, for this time I take my leave of the same.

From Port Ferdinando, in Virginia, the 12th of August: 1585

Your honor's, humble and most assured,

Ralph Lane
[Endorsed] 1585 12 August Master Ralph Lane.
from Virginia

12 AUGUST 1585 [From Port Ferdinando]

[Addressed] To The Right Honorable SIR FRANCIS WALSINGHAM, Knight, Principal Secretary to Her Majesty, and one of Her Highness', most honorable Privy Council: This be delivered at the court of England.

Right honorable,
With humble remembrance of all duty and most hearty affection unto you, according as I acknowledge myself to have most good cause: The General's return in his own person into England does presently cut me of[f] from using circumstances in report of the particularities of this country in this my letter unto your honor:/

Only this it my please you by me in generally to understand, that this our present arrival into these parts, though late in the year, (and that wholly through the default of him that intends to accuse others) has nevertheless discovered unto us so many, so rare, and so singular commodities (by the universal opinion both of our apothecaries and all our merchants here) of this her Majesty's new kingdom of Virginia, as all the kingdoms and states of christendom their commodities joined in one together, do not yield either more good, or more plentiful whatsoever for public use is needful, or pleasing for delight. The particularities whereof I leave to the General's report, as also to the judgements of all your honors, yourselves, and that upon the view, of a great amass of good things that he brings his ship presently freighted with; to avoid all suspicion of fraud:/

The things that we have had time as yet to see, and to send, are but such as are first come to hand with very small search, and which do present themselves upon the upper face of the earth: The [most] barren, and most sunken plats whereof , do nevertheless, everywhere yield somewhat that either for known virtue is of price in christendom, or somewhat at least to the smell pleasing; not having as yet found on all our search one stinking weed growing in this land; (a matter in all our opinions here very strange)/ Into the bowels of the earth as yet we have not searched: And thereof not meaning to advertise your honor, of any thing that my own eyes have not seen, I leave to certify your honor of what likelihoods found, or what the savages report of better matters:/

The main territory as it is vast and huge, and replenished as beforesaid, so also all the entries into the same are so by nature fortified to the seaward, by reason of a shoaly and most dangerous coast above 150 leagues lying all along this her Majesty's Dominion already discovered, that it is not with great shipping at any hand to be dealt with:/

There be only in all three entries, and ports; the one which we have named Trinity Harbor, the other [W]Ococan, in the entry whereof all our fleet struck aground, and the Tyger lying beating upon the shoal for the space of two hours by the dial, we were all in extreme hazard of being castaway, but in the end by the mere work of God floating of[f] we ran her aground hard to the shore, and so with great spoil of our provisions, saved ourselves and the noble ship also, with her back whole, which all the mariners aboard thought could not possibly but have been broken in sunder; having abided by just tally above, 89, strokes aground: The third entry and best harbor of all the rest, is the port which is called Ferdinando discovered by the Master and Pilot-Major of our fleet your honor's servant Simon Fernandez who truly has carried himself both with great skill, and great government all this voyage, notwithstanding this great cross to us all; as the whole gang of masters and mariners will with one voice affirm:/

The two harbors above mentioned (whereof Trinity harbor is one, and only eight feet, upon the bar at high water) are as you may judge:/ This other called the Ferdinando has a bar also, but at twelve feet upon the same at high water: and the bar very short, being within three, four, and five, fathom water: So at this port at the point of the land being fortified with a sconce it is not to be entered by all the force that Spain can make, we having the favor of God./

The climate is so wholesome, yet somewhat tending to heat, as that we have not had one sick since we entered into the country; but sundry that came sick, are recovered of long diseases especially of rheums.

Myself have undertaken with the favor of God, and in his fear, with a good company more as well of gentlemen as others, to remain here, the return of a new supply. As resolute rather to lose our lives than to defer a possession to her Majesty, our country, and that our most noble patron Sir Walter Ralegh, of so noble a kingdom, as by his most worthy endeavor and infinite charge, as also of your honor and the rest of the most honorable adventurers, our honorable entry is made into (by the mercy of God) to the conquest of: And for my own part do find myself better contented to live with fish for my daily food, and water for my daily drink, in the prosecution of such one action, than out of the same to live in the greatest plenty that the Court could give me: Comforted chiefly hereunto with an assurance of her Majesty's greatness hereby to grow by the addition of such a kingdom as this is to the rest of her dominions, by mean whereof likewise the Church of Christ through christendom, may by the mercy of God in servitude, and tyranny that by Spain (being the sword of that Antichrist of Rome and his sect) the same has of long time been most miserably oppressed with;/

Not doubting in the mercy of God, to be sufficiently provided for him, and most assured by faith in Christ that rather than He will suffer his enemies the papists to triumph over the overthrow, either of this most christian action or of us his poor servants in it through famine or other want, being in a vast country yet unmanured, (though most apt for it) that He will command even the ravines to feed us, as He did by His servant the prophet Habakkuk, and that only for his mercy's sake: To the which I most heartily commit your honor, and with my humble commendations to my Lady your wife, for this time I take my leave of the same:/

From the Port Ferdinando, in Virginia: The 12th of August: 1585

Your honor's humble and most assured during life:

Ralph Lane:///

[Endorsed] 12 August 1585. From Master Ralph Lane. Virginia.

8 SEPTEMBER 1585 [From the new fort in Virginia]

[Addressed] To the Right honorable SIR FRANCIS WALSINGHAM, Knight, Principal Secretary to the Queen's Majesty, and one [of] her highness' most honorable Privy Council, this be delivered at Court.

Right Honorable,
Since Sir Richard Grenville, by the time of the arrival of this letter is to deliver unto your honor as also to Sir Walter Ralegh our Lord, sundry complaints, against sundry gentlemen, of this service; and particularly against our High Marshall Master Cavendish, Master Edward Gorge [,] Master Francis Brooke our Treasurer, and Captain Clarke, Captain of the flyboat, I thought good thus much to advertise your honor and that most truly concerning them: that it is not possible for men to behave themselves more faithfully, and more industriously in an action, (the same by the General's only great default having been made both most painful and most perilous) than every of these gentlemen, but especially Master Cavendish our High Marshall, and Master Francis Brooke our Treasurer have done and that even since the first to the last:/

Contrariwise how Sir Richard Grenville General, has demeaned himself, from the first day of his entry into government at Plymouth, until the day of his departure from hence over the bar in the Port Ferdinando, far otherwise than my hope of him, though very agreeable to the expectations, and predictions of sundry wise and goodly persons of his own country, that knew him better than my self, and particularly how tyrannous an execution without any occasion of my part offered, he not only purposed, but even propounded the same, to have brought me, by indirect means, and most untrue surmises, to the question for my life, and that only for an advise, in a public consultation by me given, which if it had been executed had been for the great good of us all, but most chiefly of himself, I am thereof to refer your honor to an ample discourse of the whole voyage in a book to Sir Walter Ralegh dedicated of the same, wherein his used manner of proceeding towards all men in the action in generally, and particularly myself (the same to be approved by the testimonies and depositions of Master Cavendish, Master Edward Gorge, and Captain Clarke) is plainly and truly set down; which gentlemen he apart and together at diverse times sounded, by all means to have drawn their [con]sents to have joined with him upon a most untrue surmise of his own, to have brought my head in question:

So as for my own part I have had so much experience of his government, as I am humbly to desire your honor and the rest of my [most] honorable friends, to give me their favors to be freed from that place where Sir Richard Grenville is to carry any authority in chief. Assuring you sir, with all that the Lord has miraculously blest this action, that in time of his being among us, even through his intolerable pride, and insatiable ambition, it has not at three several times taken a final overthrow, the which had been greatly to have been pitied, not only in respect of the loss of so many subjects, but chiefly for the ruin of so honorable an action, which the Lord to his glory does daily bless here with a daily discovery of somewhat rare growing that Christendom wants, (as even three days before the date hereof a kind of guinea wheat found here growing and usual, that yields both corn, and sugar, whereof our physician here has sent an assay to our Lord Sir Walter Ralegh) or else of some fertile and pleasant provinces in the main fit to be civilly, and christianly inhabited, as at the present it is inhabited only with savages, but most populously, specially, towards the west; where there are towns of their fashion, situated upon most delicate plats of ground, distant from the other not above three English miles: So as upon one of their holidays there has been my company in the main that has seen above 700 persons, young and [old to]gether on a plain. I mean with the favor of the Almighty to visit that province and some part of the winter to pass there, being 140 miles within the main; in the meanwhile and during life, I am to pray to the Almighty to bless you and yours:/

From the New Fort in Virginia, the 8th day of September: 1585

Your honor's and most assured during life

Ralph Lane

Postscript -- Sir the bearer hereof our treasurer Master Brooke shall deliver to your honor a true copy of the whole discourse of the voyage, directed to Sir Walter Ralegh: and subscribed, and to be confirmed with sundry credible depositions:/

[Endorsed] 1585. 8th September 1585. Master Ralph Lane. Virginia.

Transcribed from State Papers, Colonial, c.o. by lebame houston and Wynne Dough. Spelling and
possessives modernized; spacing added; capitalization altered; punctuation retained.

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