Artifacts detail Roanoke Voyages

Washington Daily News, Washington, NC, May 26, 2002
Written by Lawrence Keech, Staff Writer
Part 1 of a 4-part Series

    EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles about the Roanoke Voyages of the late 1500s, their place in history and the legends, facts and theories about the plight of more that 600 missing people. While commonly referred to as "The Lost Colony," the term "colony" is a modern term and only pertains to one group of settlers. Note that in the writing of John White, the English used the letter "u" for the current "v."

David Phelps (left) along with ECU graduate student Will Moore (second from left) and another student work on the Croatan dig site in current-day Cape Hatteras.

    A teacher's resource Web page reads, "117 men, women and children missing!" This site's author, along with several thousand other people, including hundreds of scientists, archaeologists and historians, and more than a handful of amateurs, have been plagued by a 413-year-old mystery.

    In 1587, 115 to 117 English settlers landed on Roanoke Island, not by choice, and began to clean up a village built in 1585 by Ralph Lane, in the first attempts by England to colonize the New World. (It should be noted that the Spanish already had been in North America for more than a decade.)

    The governor of the 1587 expedition, John White, returned to England for supplies in the same year, leaving his daughter and granddaughter behind. He was unable to return to North America until 1589. Upon that return, he found, on a tree "in the very browe thereof where curiously carued (carved) these faire Romane letters CRO: ..." and on the outside of a "strongly enclosed" wooden palisade "of great trees, with cortynes and flankers very Fort-like, and one of the cheife trees or postes at the right side of the entrance had the barke taken off, and 5. foote from the ground in fayre Capitall letters was grauren CROATOAN."

    Since that time, two questions have plagued historians, scientists, teachers and others: "Where did the colony go?" and "Where exactly was the colony located?"

    Two men are heading up projects that may answer both questions. This series will present information about their quests, as well as other theories and facts related to the story of "The Lost Colony of Roanoke."


    This is the first of two hypotheses by historian Fred Willard.

Where did the colonists go? -- Croatan

    Upon White's finding the letters "CRO" carved into a tree, he wrote, "which letters presently we knew to signifie the place, where I should find the planters seated, according to a secret token agreed upon betweene them and me at my last departure from them, which was that in any wayes they should not faile to write or carue on the trees or posts of the dores the name of the place where they should be seated; for at my coming away they were prepared to remoue (move) from Roanoak 50 miles into the maine.

    "Therefore at my departure from them in Anno 1587 I wiled them, that if they should happen to be distressed in any of those places, that then they should carue ouer the letters or name, a Crosse in this forme (a Maltese cross), but we found no such signe of distresse."

    White went on toward the village and found the "houses taken downe."

    "In 1587 (White) is leaving the colony for food. He goes back and the war with Spain breaks out," said Fred Willard, a reseracher looking for the 1585 colony and an aspiring archaeologist attending Elizabeth City State University. "The ship was loaded and ready to go. The following year, all the good ships are off fighting. He jumps on an old rotten vessel. They literally jumped for their lives in Morocco. The boat sinks at the slip and they barely get back with their life.

    "They go back and they get another small ship, because that's all that's left and the French pirates attack them.

    "In 1590, he finally goes ashore and on the first branch of the tree he sees the word 'cro' and then on the palisade village, he doesn't find the word 'Croatan,' he finds the word 'Croatoan,'" Willard notes.

    White leaves the island without having found the colony, his daughter or granddaughter. But he wrote, "I greatly ioyed that I had safely found a certaine token for their safe being at Croatoan, which is the place where Manteo was borne, and the Sauages of the Iland our friends."

    A storm struck and White was not able to search Croatan Island or the surrounding areas.

    "I think what Croatoan means is the area where the Croatan Indians were," Willard says. "Croatan is where the village was, but on the maps the area around the village is labeled as Croatoan."

    This part of Willard's theory could be dismissed easily, as the European's writing papers and drawing maps often differed on spellings.

    However, Croatan was the common term used to represent the Indians, which inhabited both Roanoke and current-day Hatteras islands. In 1612, John Smith began referring to the area as Croatoan lands.

'50 miles to the maine'

    White's remark, "50 miles to the maine", further sparked Willard's research.

    Of the line, he says, "Very specific words!"

    Willard, who located the Croatan site on Hatteras Island, believes the colony was not massacred at Roanoke, as some have suggested, but rather that it moved 50 miles away before being massacred.

    To make his point, he notes that Thomas Harriot was hired to help navigate the Roanoke ventures. Harriot is listed in the record books as a master historian and is credited with recorded algebra.

    "He was a scientist and a mathematician; he would not have gotten the measurements wrong," Willard said.

    Willard believes the colony, along with some of the Croatan Indians, moved northeast, rather than north, as most theories suggest.

    His first thoughts of the English and Croatans mixing relations helped direct him to the Croatan village.

    "The overall site has been known for a long time," said E. Thomas Shields Jr., who is the director of the Roanoke Colonies Research Office, part of the East Carolina University Department of English. "What Fred did was to find a specific place on the known site that David Phelps then felt was promising enough to dig. Fred was also instrumental in getting together a group to assist Dr. Phelps in the dig."

    Phelps, a retired ECU archaeologist and head of the Croatan Project, said the Croatan site was originally recorded in 1956. Phelps did testing at the site in 1983 and found "that at least some of the site was still intact."

    Willard's hunch, as some call it, gave him certain credibility among scholars -- to the tune that Elizabeth City State is trying to help fund the purchase of satellite photo images of the area, at 1,000 per photo. Willard recently has learned that additional funding may be coming in the form of a grant to the school, while others remain skeptical.

    "My hypothesis is there is a large sand dune, much the size of Jockey's Ridge, and it's gone," Willard states with confidence, before pointing to facts. "Croatan is under 16 inches to 4 feet of sand."

    With that much sand to dig, scientists needed more than maps and better guesswork as a starting point.

    "I found the deed with the same name of Croatoan and that map shows it as Croatoan lands," Willard says, showing a reporter his copy of the deed. "We absolutely know in 1777 when that deed was signed, with one brother and father here, that it was Croatoan."

    The deed granted Croatan land to a family and called it the "new Hatteras."

    Phelps dates the deed to 1759, a contradiction to Willard's date.

    Once the dig began, it didn't take long to prove Willard was correct.

    "We have been able to record some things that (we) have not been able to record other places, like some of the stuff coming out of the Croatan dig," Shields said. "Nothing huge, but enough to keep it going and let people know what's going on."

Signet Ring
Artifacts a significant find

    Willard and others believe the finds are quite huge, primarily because of two artifacts.

    "They found the two most interesting European artifacts, one would be 16-century or later," Shields said. "During the first several years, they found a coin that had been drilled and made into probably something to wear around the neck.

    "Then there is the signet ring, which was probably from the 1580s. It probably matches up to the Kendall family, which there were Kendalls on the expedition. What it is, is a ring that you would have worn that you would have sealed letters with. You would have melted wax and put your impression on it. It would have left your figure on it, which matched up with the Kendall family."

    Willard still gets excited talking about the find. "The ring and the bale seal, those are the two most identifiable. There is no question it's a 1580s ring. How it got there is anybody's guess."

    Phelps points out, "the only Kendall that was on the Roanoke colonies was a Master Kendall on the 1585, Lane's colony." He says that to point out that the artifacts date to the 1585 colony and not the 1587 "Lost Colony."

    However, it is still considered a major find.

    One thing about the Croatan site, Shields points out, is that it has been dug to help tell the history of the Croatan Indians, not the colonists, so finding the ring was unexpected.

    "The Croatan site is different in a number of ways, because it is more important as a Native American site, that part of it is history and only a small part of its history was that it had interaction with these people from the 1580s," he said. "The excavation they have done down there has only begun to touch the surface, because there are several sandhills.

    "There has been a long history of Native Americans in that spot, so what they are really looking for is the overall history of the Native Americans in that area."

    An additional story on the Croatan site is planned in the coming weeks.

Back to the deed

    Willard turned his attention back to the colony after the initial excitement wore off from the finds at the dig site; he went back to the deed he found to help locate the site. Part of the deed listed a second piece of land belonging to the Croatan, which is near the current area known as Gum Neck.

    "Gum Neck is exactly 50 miles from Roanoke Island," Willard said with a smile.

    He then turned to his satellite images.

    "I found five ridges in a million acres of what was swamp," he said. "Those five ridges are the only place where the Lost Colony could be. Gum Neck is 50 miles and on one of those ridges. My hypothesis is we are either going to find the Lost Colonists at Gum Neck, or there is a village directly across the river. We are going to find it in one of those two spots."

    Willard is not the first person to think the colonists moved to the east.

    In 1905, Samuel A'Court Ashe's comments were printed in Lew Barton's "The Most Ironic Story in American History," published in 1967: "It is probable that this point, 50 miles in the interior, where the colony was to locate, was the highland near Ohanoak, where there were goodly cornfields and pleasant surroundings."

    This site, on some maps, matches up with the Gum Neck area.

    A 1859 report in the United States Census of North Carolina further backs up that belief: "The region inhabited by the Croatans is a low woodland, swampy region locally known as a Pocosin land, abounding in whortleberries and blackberries, which bring some revenue to the people."

    Through more research, Willard has found seven deeds pointing to the same five ridges. However, he notes the Gum Neck site is on one side of the Alligator River when English explorers ventured down from Jamestown, but it was on the other side when the 1587 colony drew maps of the land. This site is also on one of the five ridges.

    "This is an interesting story," Willard begins. "In fact I have one person just working on that story alone."

    Willard says that John Gray Blount of Hyde County, in 1770, used federal script he had collected or bartered for with colonists. Blount then went to Congress and demanded an exchange.

    "Essentially, he bought what is mainland Dare County, or what I call Beechland," Willard said. "He then hired a group of people to go into the swamp land and begin cutting timbers. When they did, strange people came out of the woods. They were white people with guns. They were Indians, of course. One of the people told the timber cutters basically, 'Why are you here? My family has lived here for 200 years.'"

    Willard learned that there were as many as 500 people living in the area in 1840, when a disease, "black tongue, wiped most of them out and the rest, that weren't killed, moved." Willard thinks "black tongue" refers either to the black plague or anthrax.

    That made Willard look at the Beechland site harder. In the mid 1950s, a possibly stunning piece of evidence was discovered.

    "A road construction crew was working to put in the road to Beechland," he said. "They were putting a road through the swamp when a crane operator dug up two coffins. Several men on the crew said there were crosses on top of these coffins and they were Maltese crosses.

    "These coffins were basically a canoe with another canoe on top of it. It had a small child's remains inside."

    The coffins were reburied later. Their location is documented for future reference.

    A search party formulated in the early 1600s by the Jamestown colony had found similar crosses carved into trees in lower Virginia and northern North Carolina. This was also the symbol the Roanoke colonists were supposed to carve above their destination, if they had to leave Roanoke Island in distress.

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