Seeking the Lost Colony
North Carolina's Down East magazine, Fall 2006
Written by Sarah Smith, Contributing Writer
Farm Life - The mystery of what happened to the Lost Colonists of 1587 has intrigued many people over the years.
The newly established Lost Colony Center for Science and Research is an outgrowth of the work of several hundred people who are making this mystery more than just an interest.
With somewhere between 300 and 400 people working with eight committees all over Eastern North Carolina, this group has made it possible to purchase and begin research at this center. Taking over the former Farm Life Academy in Martin County with a $1 million endowment and an anonymous donation has made this group the first full-time professional institute devoted to researching and locating the Lost Colony.
By using the disciplines of geology, oceanography, biology, geography, history, anthropology, English and Spanish translations, the researchers at the center have gotten closer to solving one of America's oldest and most intriguing mysteries.
The hypothesis of the center is this: "That the '1587 Lost Colony' migrated with the Croatan Indians 50 miles into the main-land to another Indian village, possibly at the head of the Alligator River, and built a new town."
According to Fred Willard, director of the center, the search for the Lost Colony is like connecting hundreds of dots.
"Most researchers have only found one or two dots, we have found out how to connect four or more dots and this is why we are different. You have to see the big picture first and that is what we have done."
Dot One: Croatan Capital
The first "dot" was the 1993 discovery of Croatan capital in Buxton on the Outer Banks. Willard was among those that stumbled across some remnants after the 1993 Hurricane Emily. Among the artifacts found were pottery and a land grant. This grant would prove to be a link in a later finding.
Dot Two: Land Grant
This breakthrough came about from the Croatan discovery (Dot One). Upon reviewing the land grant, researchers highlighted "William Elks and the rest of the Hatteras Indians." This gave them a name 'William Elks' to work with. It also gave them an area to search.
Dot Three: Satellite Imaging
Thanks to satellite imaging this "dot" was made possible. With the help of Elizabeth City State University, researchers were able to locate key areas to focus on in Eastern North Carolina. Using the satellite imaging, the scientists manipulated the software to search for soil within a 200-mile radius that would be conducive to growing enough corn to feed the 117 members of the English colony. Out of two million acres of land, only four acres fit this description. One of these sights happened to be right down the road form Buck Ridge at a place called Goshen.
Dot Four: Buck Ridge
After researching, the group was led to an area called Buck Ridge at the head of Alligator River in Tyrrell County. There they found the great-great-grandson of the signer of the land grant. When first visiting the site, Willard stumbled upon Indian pottery as well as early English kitchenware.
Dot Five: Indian Migration
Did the Croatan Indians in fact move with the English Colonists? Originally native to the Buxton area, the Croatan Indians only had possession of 40 acres on Hatteras Island. But after reviewing approximately one hundred maps, researchers noticed that they all indicate the Croatan Indians becoming more prominent and powerful inland. This area included the area around the Alligator River.
Dot Six: Port Ferdinando
The location of the Port Ferdinando is the next dot to be connected. One of the four forts erected during a colonization attempt led by Ralph Lane between 1585 served as a safe harbor for the Roanoke voyagers and a primary entrance to the sound behind the Outer Banks. The Ralph Lane fort is mentioned in most historical records and is thought to be near the present-day Bodie Lighthouse.
Dot Seven: Genealogy
By using genealogy to trace the surname Elks, three more names surfaced. Then research was done on these and so on. Currently the research center has 168 surnames to research. Many of these names are common in this five-county area. Names such as Elks, Gibbs, Alligood, Woolard, Barber, Squires, and Pierce, just to name a few, are on the list of descendants. In Martin County alone there are upwards of 5,000 names that fit in this category. According to Willard, within a 15-mile radius of the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research, there are approximately 26,000 people who could be possible descendants.
Dot Eight: Thomas Harriott
Thomas Harriott, said to be the "Einstein of his Day," was among the 117-member English Colony of 1587. He was a noted cartographer as well as mathematician. He was also the first scholar to note algebraic formulas. While in America, he kept a chronicle, which has since been lost, of the experiences and sent correspondence to his employer, Sir Walter Raleigh, back in England. In one of his letters, he alludes to a "secret commodity" that would make them wealthy. He was afraid to reveal its identity for fear of it being stolen. This intrigued many researchers.
Upon comparing two works written based on the original Thomas Harriott writings, Lost Colony researchers noticed something interesting on the cover of one book. The cover appeared to be a typical 16th century map, but when looking at the area near Goshen, at the head of the Alligator River, they noticed a tree drawn and labeled, "Sassafras Tree." To the normal eye, this may not appear odd except that no other trees on this map were labeled. Why was this one so important? After researching the Sassafras tree, scientists discovered that the Native Americans believed it to have the ability to cure Syphilis. The colonists could have easily believed this and thought it to be an easy way to earn some money back home. Scientists have since discovered that the Sassafras tree does not have healing powers. It does, however, contain the drug ecstasy which may have made the Native Americans as well as the English colonists feel better although they in fact had not improved.
Could this truly be a clue as to where the colonists ended up? It would be logical that the colonists went toward an area where they thought could support themselves and make them money. In 1587 and 1590, John White declared that the colony intended to move to Virginia but changed their minds and moved fifty miles into the mainland. Coincidentally, Goshen Ridge and the location on the map where the Sassafras tree was located are fify miles inland from Roanoke Island.
Is this just another lead that will end up in a dead end? Who knows. But it's hard to deny that the hunt is most of the intrigue.
According to Willard, "The hunt for the mystery is what's driving everything."
Sarah Smith is a freshman anthropology student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.