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The Tragic Tale of Two American Indians Who Visited Tudor England

In the 16th century, two very different cultures collided: The East coast American Indian and the ambitious inhabitants of England. History commits extensive focus on the latter and their imperial colonization of the former's society but neglects to discuss the reverse: American Indians visiting Europe. What was it like for a Native American to visit the so-called "Old World"? What were the varying reactions from the American Indians who did see and interact with Europeans, particularly in England?

Disney, an unlikely source of obscure history information, produced a film, Pocahontas II, depicting a fictional version of Pocahontas traversing across the Atlantic to London, where she struggles to acclimate to a bizarrely different culture from her own.

However, contrary to popular preconceptions, Pocahontas was not the first American Indian to pay a visit to London. Before the indigenous Disney Princess was born, two chiefs from the Secotan People of Roanoke in modern-day coastal North Carolina. The English explorers called them Manteo and Wanchese. And they were the first American Indians to see the "Old World."

By New England Chromo. Lith. Co. - Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-3368 Public Domain


Given that both Manteo and Wanchese did not appear in historical records until they were already chiefs, their early lives are now a perpetual mystery for scholars. Before English explorers Arthur Barlowe, and Phillip Amadas, first made contact with the indigenous population in and around the island of Roanoke, the two chieftains had yet to be documented by literary recorded history.

Journeying alongside the expedition leaders were John White and Thomas Harriot poured hours of work into documenting this strange new culture they found themselves in.

Both Harriot and White hailed from England and came from scholarly backgrounds. Born in Oxford, Thomas Harriot is primarily known as the scientist who invented the greater than (>) and lesser than (<) signs found on nearly every keyboard in the world. And White, a cartographer, and artist, is responsible for the plethora of illustrations of Secotan tribes-people.

From these Englishmen's tediously constructed accounts, we can paint a picture of what Manteo and Wanchese were like and, most importantly, how they reacted to discovering their own "New World" across the Atlantic.

Thomas Harriot, in particular, focused his attention on communicating with the Secotan chieftains. While Manteo and Wanchese stayed in London, Harriot would sit with them and try learning their language (a variant dialect of Algonquin) to better communicate with the Secotan. While learning Algonquin, Harriot also tried teaching Manteo and Wanchese English, so they could, in turn, speak with English colonists and potentially serve as translators. For those pragmatic reasons and other ulterior motives not known by the Secotan chiefs, upon the English's departure from North Carolina in 1584, the explorers convinced Manteo and Wanchese to return with them to England.


While studying the indigenous population of Roanoke, John White painted a detailed watercolor depicting an unidentified Secotan chief standing tall and proud while holding his bow. The portrait also prominently displays Wanchese's elaborate body paint and tattoos, which covered his feet up to his face. In other illustrations, White drew Secotan chiefs, as well as ordinary folk, wearing "a chain of great pearles, or copper beades, or smoothe bones abowt their necks, and a plate of copper hinge upon a string," usually paired with a "mantle of rudely tanned skins of wild animals, no shirts, and a pelt before their privy parts." Matteo and Wanchese were probably dressed similarly to these 16th-century descriptions when they landed in the so-called "Old World."

However, upon entering the streets of London, the oddly dressed duo realized their current appearance would not match the fashion worn in Elizabethan London and decided to put Manteo and Wanchese through an English-style makeover.

Now that Manteo and Wanchese were up to Elizabethan snuff, they were given a tour of London and exposed to the marvelous advancements in European technology. Coming from a society that lived off the land, the tall buildings and elaborate inventions of cosmopolitan London must have seemed strange, almost divine, to the Secotan chiefs. Harriot confirmed this presumption when he wrote:

"Many things they sawe with mathematical instruments, sea compasses...[and] spring clocks that seemed to goe of themselves – and many other things we had – were so strange unto them, and so farre exceeded their capacities to comprehend the reason and meanes how they should be made and done, that they thought they were rather the works of gods than men.."

And, ironically, the English were just as fascinated by the Secotan. According to historical sources, Wanchese and Manteo caused a buzz in the courts of London. They were, after all, the first American Indians to visit England. Many noblemen were dying to see them and observe the inhabitants of the "New World" in all its exotic glory.

However, their guide, Sir Walter Raleigh, was intent on keeping Wanchese and Manteo away from the spotlight. So, to keep them away from the royal court, Raleigh had the two Secotan chiefs lodged at his massive Durham House, a mansion that sat on the edge of the River Thames. It had been gifted to him by his benefactor and admirer Queen Elizabeth I and proved to be the perfect location to obscurely enact the strategic plans he had for Wanchese and Manteo.

By John White - British Museum, London, Public Domain


In contrast to Harriot's slightly more scholarly curiosity, Sir Walter Raleigh's derived from a more shrewd motive: gathering information from the "savages" on the land he wanted to colonize.

To Raleigh, Wanchese and Manteo were merely walking and talking information carriers, who could also serve as advertisements to potential investors in Raleigh's future colony. In fact, the future of Roanoke was wholly dependent on obtaining capital. A settlement needed a sufficient amount of supplies and men, both of which did not come cheap.

To extract this valuable information, Raleigh tasked Harriot with learning their language and other customs and survival information they may know. Raleigh had much at stake. As a businessman and an Englishman, Raleigh wanted to utilize all the benefits the New World had to offer and build a legacy for his family, especially his beloved children, to carry on through the centuries.

Though many were disappointed by Raleigh's funding efforts, like the Englishmen who complained that "Yf the Report had beene true which was geven out by twoe straungers, Inhabitauntes of the same foreyne Nation" Walter still managed to obtain the funding. And as for the information Raleigh hoped to extract from Manteo and Wanchese, well, that was a different story.


Manteo's personality could not have been more different from his Secotanian counterpart Wanchese. For example, during their language exchanges with Harriot, Wanchese reacted very differently to learning English compared to Manteo.

From the moment Wanchese arrived in London, he began questioning the motives behind all the questions and language learning conducted by Harriot. For example, around Christman in 1584, Harriot attempted to hold a conversation with the Secotan chieftains in English, during which Wanchese participated very little. Meanwhile, Manteo embraced the moment and was able to converse in English relatively well. Manteo's motivation for learning English was to gain a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of the Christian faith, foreshadowing Manteo's future "Switzerland-like" position in the often tumultuous Anglo-Secotan relationship. The more open-minded Secotan chief of the two, Manteo embraced English culture and felt welcome in London.

In a complete 180, Wanchese considered himself more of a prisoner at Durham House than an honored guest.

Whether or not the Secotan chieftains were prisoners or guests, the always cooperative Manteo provided Raleigh and his employees what they were looking for: intel on how to survive in Roanoke. And once Manteo had given enough information to Harriot--and helped teach the English scholar Algonquin--Raleigh sent the two chiefs on a ship back to the New World, where Anglo-Indigenous relations were about to change drastically.


When the two chiefs returned to their tribe, their contrasting opinions on their new neighbors had not changed. Manteo, for example, became a mediator between the influx of English colonists and the Secotan tribes who did not want them there. The more open-minded of the two Atlantic crossing chiefs, Manteo tried his best to diffuse conflict between the two cultures he identified with but could not overcome the two parties' hatred for one another.

Many Secotan shared Wanchese's suspicion of the strange foreigners, and their skepticism was only exacerbated when their chieftain returned from London in 1585.

When Wanchese and Manteo landed in Roanoke, the English colonist Sir Richard Grenville instructed Wanchese to lead a party of Englishmen to announce their arrival to the Secotan. Wanchese, instead, snuck off from the party and vehemently warned his tribe to resist the English; because, in his now well-informed opinion, they could not trust them.

Eventually, Wanchese outright opposed English colonization, permanently switching to the anti-English side. Manteo, on the other hand, stayed on the pro-English until the colony was abandoned sometime between 1587 and 1590, after which both Wanchese and Manteo essentially disappeared from history.


Landon Girod

HFC Blog Writer

314 views4 comments


Malve von Hassell
Malve von Hassell
Oct 14, 2021

One of those stories where it absolutely hurts not to know more. Thank you for this introduction.

Oct 15, 2021
Replying to

Thank you Malve. I'm actually considering writing a book on the story. Partly because I want an excuse to research more into it.


Oct 14, 2021

Well done.

Oct 14, 2021
Replying to

Thank you!

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