Big Chief Elizabeth

How England's Adventurers Wooed the Native Tribes

Giles Milton

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In April 1586, Queen Elizabeth I acquired a new and exotic title. A tribe of Native Americans had made her their weroanza—a word that meant "big chief". The news was received with great joy, both by the Queen and her favorite, Sir Walter Ralegh. His first American expedition had brought back a captive, Manteo, who caused a sensation in Elizabethan London. In 1587, Manteo was returned to his homeland as Lord and Governor, with more than one hundred English men, women, and children. In 1590, a supply ship arrived at the colony to discover that the settlers had vanished.

For almost twenty years the fate of Ralegh's colonists was to remain a mystery. When a new wave of settlers sailed to America to found Jamestown, their efforts to locate the lost colony were frustrated by the mighty chieftain, Powhatan, father of , who vowed to drive the English out of America. Only when it was too late did the settlers discover the incredible news that Ralegh's colonists had survived in the forests for almost two decades before being slaughtered in cold blood by henchmen. While Sir Walter Ralegh's "savage" had played a pivotal role in establishing the first English settlement in America, he had also unwittingly contributed to one of the earliest chapters in the decimation of the Native American population. The mystery of what happened to these colonists who seemed to vanish without a trace lies at the heart of this well-researched work of narrative history.


Read an Excerpt

  1Savages Among the IcebergsThe half-timbered mansion disappeared long ago, and the paved thoroughfare lies buried beneath the dust of centuries. The Great Fire tore the heart out of this corner of Elizabethan London, devouring books, buildings, and streets. One of the few things to survive is a small, insignificant-looking map—crinkled, faded, but still bearing the proud mark of its owner.This was once the treasured possession of Sir Humfrey Gilbert, a flamboyant adventurer, who suffered such adversity in the aftermath of his disastrous 1578 expedition to North America that even Queen


Praise for Big Chief Elizabeth

"Meet the first English settlers of Virginia in their own words and through their own eccentricities. In an exceptionally pungent, amusing, and accessible historical account, Giles Milton brings readers right into the midst of these colonists and their daunting American adventure . . . An entertaining, richly informative look at the past."—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"Genuinely fascinating . . . firmly based on the latest research . . . Big Chief Elizabeth proves to be a wonderful story of heroes and hard cases, courage and folly, trials and errors, and of bold dreams that finally come true."—Virginia Quarterly Review

"Compelling, enjoyable, informative, and insightful. Extensive use of primary documents allows [Milton] to expose the multiple reasons—the greed, ambition, vision, poor advice, desperation, arrogance, and ignorance—that drew men and some women away from England to the New World . . . The book's numerous references to sixteenth-century culture, attitudes, and politics make it a valuable choice for undergraduate courses. It could be used as a point of departure for discussing some of the main themes of the Tudor century: the emergent national identity and its association with the Protestant cause, the attraction of the new science, European aggression and the benefits expected from colonization, the fear of Spain, and the new relationship between crown and aristocracy. Furthermore, the book demonstrates how to situate historical events in their contexts."—Lynn Johnson, Towson University, Maryland Historical Magazine

"Extraordinary . . . [an] astonishing saga of courage, derring-do, and endurance . . . Giles Milton is a great storyteller, and Big Chief Elizabeth is a great story."—Melissa Bennetts, Christian Science Monitor

"[A] swashbuckling history . . . It's impossible to summarize Milton's book, from which marvellous, vivid stories spill out like swagsack booty. If Patrick O'Brian had scripted Gladiator it would read something like this."—Sukhdev Sandhu, The Guardian

"This is a marvellous story."—Charles Nicholl, The Sunday Times

"In his follow-up to best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg, Milton continues to find great stories hidden in history."—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"A spellbinding narrative on the preliminary attempts at colonization of North America by the British . . . Diligent scholarship and brilliant storytelling: a fascinating study that dispels many popular myths regarding America's colonization."—Kirkus Reviews

"Giles Milton brings to life Ralegh's exploits in glorious technicolor as he details Elizabethan attempts to establish settlements in America in the riveting Big Chief Elizabeth. This is a book that makes history fun, reliving the dreams and schemes of a parade of heroes and villains who dared to think big—and in doing so changed the world."—Ann Hellmuth, The Orlando Sentinel

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Giles Milton

  • Giles Milton is the author of the critically acclaimed Nathaniel's Nutmeg and The Riddle and the Knight. He lives in London.
  • Giles Milton Alexandra Milton





    Available Formats and Book Details

    Big Chief Elizabeth

    How England's Adventurers Wooed the Native Tribes

    Giles Milton

    • e-Book