Manteo (pop. 1,100), the county seat of Dare County, wraps around Shallowbag Bay on the eastern side of Roanoke Island, part of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Its early history is decisively linked with one of the New World’s greatest mysteries; it was on this island in 1584 that England established its first colony. The colonists met natives upon arriving, including an Algonquin chief named Manteo who accompanied them on a return trip to England, but relations between the groups soured. Two attempts at colonization failed; after the second, colonists who stayed behind in Roanoake had disappeared with few traces when ships from England returned in 1590. The Lost Colony, as it is now known, failed to thrive in this new environment and further settlement at the time was abandoned.
In 1870 the newly established Dare County chose the little fishing village of Manteo as the county seat. As offices and retail operations took off, the town still remained connected to its waterfront with most stores permitting both land and water access. The town of Manteo was incorporated in 1899. Permanent connections to the rest of the Outer Banks and to the mainland did not occur until bridge construction began in 1929.
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, a National Park unit, preserves remains of the original Roanoke colony settlement site and fort of 1585-1587. The fort site was the subject of intensive archaeological investigations from 1936 to 1948 and has been partially reconstructed. An adjoining Elizabethan Gardens were created as a memorial to the first colonists. The outdoor drama The Lost Colony has been running continuously in a waterside amphitheater at the site since 1936.
The town has a heavy tourist influx during the summer months, and the economy has shifted from the retail and commercial fishing sectors to one primarily based on tourism. Manteo is home to more bed and breakfast inns than any other Outer Banks town.
The town has restored an 1880s boat house as the North Carolina Maritime Museum, and the Outer Banks History Center and the Manteo Preservation Trust are active with a variety of preservation and interpretive projects. The Roanoke Island Festival Park near the downtown waterfront features interactive displays, special events, and a reproduction 16th century sailing vessel constructed in the 1980s at the Maritime Museum boat house to help celebrate and interpret the 400th anniversary of the Roanoke Colony. The Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse and the Manteo Weather Tower nearby represent the more recent maritime heritage of the area.
Designated a Preserve America Community in January 2007.