When considering an Outer Banks vacation, many travelers don’t realize the significant place in history that Roanoke Island holds. The area around the town of Manteo is where the first attempted English colony in America happened over four centuries ago. It’s where the first English child was born in this New World, part of the mysterious founding and fate of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island circa 1587.
With such an important place in American history, it’s no surprise that there are many special activities you can indulge in around Manteo. Here are just 5.
#1. Admire the historic buildings in Manteo
Manteo’s history stretches back into the late 16th century. The current town of Manteo is located 3 miles southeast of the original colony site and takes its name from a Native American Croatan, an Algonkian tribal chief who befriended the English settlers. Furthermore, many streets in the town are named after people associated with the famous 1587 colony, Queen Elizabeth Avenue, Budleigh Street, Sir Walter Raleigh Street, Ananias Dare Street, Croatan Avenue and many more.
More recently, in 1870 Manteo was named the seat of government for Dare County and in 1899 the waterfront community was incorporated. A selection of fine buildings survive from that key period and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A few surviving buildings include the George Washington Creef House is an L-shaped, 2-story Victorian building constructed around 1895. It is the oldest notable extant structure from Manteo’s past. The John T. Daniels House was constructed around the turn of the twentieth century. It is a 2-story I-shaped design (similar to a British Georgian style) with Queen Anne touches, a wrap-around porch, and an original kitchen. The Theodore S. Meekins House was built between 1904 and 1912. The original, 1-story section is the kitchen ell. The 2½-story main Queen Anne design section was added later. With its wraparound porch and 3-story corner tower, it is the most impressive historic house in Manteo.
#2. Appreciate local African American history
Did you know that the Outer Banks, and Roanoke Island in particular, are significant in the history of African Americans and the fight for equal rights? In 1880, Richard Etheridge, a former slave and African-American veteran of the Civil War, was appointed the keeper in charge of the Pea Island Lifesaving Station. As it was then not common practice to place a black man in leadership over a white crew, Etheridge was given a crew entirely composed of African-Americans who quickly gained a reputation of bravery within the service, saving many lives from the sea in dramatic shipwreck rescues.
Manteo is proud of this part of its history. Within the town, you’ll find a selection of monuments connected with the Pea Island Station. There is a bronze statue honoring Richard Etheridge erected in 2010. The Pea Island Cookhouse was moved to Sir Walter Raleigh Street in Manteo in 2006 and now houses the Cookhouse Museum. Exhibits inside the Cookhouse Museum include photographs, memorabilia, and records from the Pea Island Lifesaving Station and its crew. Adjacent to the Cookhouse Museum is the Herbert M. Collins Boathouse. This houses a surf boat similar to the one used by the crew of the Pea Island Lifesaving Station.
#3. Take in a Historic Show
Every summer since 1937, the same outdoor drama is repeatedly performed in the Manteo Waterside Theater between the end of May to mid-August. The Lost Colony tells the famous story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island. Over the years, many famous actors and actresses have appeared in the play, including Andy Griffith and Marjalene Thomas. This show is the longest-running outdoor symphonic performance in the U.S.
The Waterside Theater stage is 3 times larger than the average Broadway stage, and the production involves over 120 technicians, designers, volunteers, and actors. The design of the theater is such that the action occurs around the audience, with the stage boxing the seating on three sides. The play was written by Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Green and includes Native American dancing and epic battles. But many in the audience come to see the amazing costumes found in the recreated court of Queen Elizabeth I. The play also celebrates the birth of Virginia Dare, the first English citizen born in the colonies.
#4. Appreciate Roanoke’s maritime history
You can find the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum on the waterfront in downtown Manteo, inside the George Washington Creef Boathouse. It’s a great place to learn all about historic boat construction. The museum operates as a working boat shop. Staff and volunteers restore small craft and create replicas of historic craft, such as the type of ships believed to have transported the colonists to Roanoke Island in 1587. A small collection of restored and replica boats float in the waters of Shallowbag Bay in front of the museum.
Also on the waterfront is the Roanoke Marshes Light, which is operated by the museum. This is a reconstructed cottage-style, screw-pile lighthouse, a replica of the lighthouse that once stood at the southern entry to Croatan Sound. The original lighthouse, first lit in 1877, was replaced by an automated light in 1955.
#5. Visit the site of the original English colony
The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is located 3 miles northwest of downtown Manteo. Here are found the archaeological remains of England’s first settlements in the Americas. A visitor’s center displays exhibits concerning the earliest English expeditions and colonies, Roanoke’s part in the Civil War, and the history of the Freedmen’s Colony. The Freedmen’s Colony of Roanoke Island is especially important in American history because it was among the first safe havens for escaped and freed slaves in the South, and consequently, the first free school for black children and the first black churches in North Carolina.
Part of the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site has been transformed into the Elizabethan Gardens by the Garden Club of North Carolina. This 10-acres period garden is a memorial to the first colonists and features a replica Tudor gatehouse. The Thomas Hariot Nature Trail loops around the historic site. This 1.2-mile hiking trail is great for exploring the site, nature trips, and dog walking. If you’re worried about inclement weather while you’re on the trail, take along a waterproof backpack to keep your important items dry.