When John White finally returned to Roanoke Island in 1590 with supplies for the colonists he left behind three years earlier, he found nothing but the letters "CRO" carved on a tree and then, on a post of a palisade, "CROATOAN," the name of a nearby American Indian capital town on present-day Hatteras Island. The carvings seemed consistent with an agreement between White and the colonists to leave a message indicating their destination should they leave the settlement, but there was no accompanying Maltese cross, the sign that their departure was precipitated by trouble.
What became of the 117 men, women, and children left behind, including White's own granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World? Lack of cooperation from the privateers on whose vessels he traveled prevented White from sailing to Croatan (as it is now spelled) to investigate. He returned to England with more questions than answers, the first of many to search for the Lost Colony.
How it happened
The story of the Lost Colony began several years earlier when Sir Walter Raleigh persuaded England's Queen Elizabeth I to colonize the New World based on favorable reports from a 1584 reconnaissance voyage by explorers Arthur Barlowe and Philip Amadas. The northern tip of Roanoke Island was selected for England's first settlement in the New World because of the initial friendliness of the American Indians, the fertile ground, access to water, and defensibility, but the site drew its share of problems from the start.
A military/scientific expedition of 108 men led by Ralph Lane arrived at Roanoke in 1585. The project ended when, low on supplies and plagued by deteriorating relations with the natives, the colonists availed themselves of the hospitality of Sir Francis Drake's passing fleet and headed back to England.
Just days after their departure, the long-awaited supply ship arrived, followed shortly by Sir Richard Grenville, the fleet's commander. Finding the colony deserted, Grenville made the decision to leave a 15-man garrison to hold the island and returned to England.
Raleigh tried a second approach to New World colonization in 1587, recruiting homesteaders, including 17 women and nine children, and deeding plots to be located on the lower end of the Chesapeake Bay, a site affording a deep water port. John White, who served as artist on the first voyage, was appointed governor. On their way, the party stopped at Roanoke to pick up the men left by Grenville the previous year. They found only the remains of one man.
By then, summer had advanced. The expedition's pilot, anxious to get back to privateering, refused to take the colonists on to Chesapeake Bay and left them at Roanoke. White went back to England for supplies, but his return was delayed by his country's war with Spain. The colony was left on its own for three long years while England's resources were diverted to defense against the formidable Spanish Armada.
Following White's fruitless search, Raleigh launched serveral unsuccessful attempts between 1590 and 1602 to locate the colonists. The Spanish were on the lookout for the colony as well, intending to destroy colonization by other countries, especially Elizabeth's England.
In later centuries, archaeological investigations have dominated the search for Raleigh's colonies. But the investigations, conducted since 1895, have not revealed the exact locaton of the fortifications and domestic cottages associated with either the 1585-86 or 1587 colonies, although some have offered tantalizing clues.
The First Colony Foundation
Three miles north of Manteo is the National Historic Site Fort Raleigh, part of the National Park Service and scene of recent archaeological endeavors. The activity is associated with an ongoing Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 2003 by historians, archaeologists, preservationists, and citizens interested in early colonial history, particularly Raleigh's Roanoke colonies.
The Roanoke colonies were not successful in terms of permanence, explains foundation president Phil Evans, but the reports and watercolors from these early experiences offered the only preview of the New World to those bound for Jamestown and Plymouth. While visitors today tramp over the authentic footprints of these later settlements, historians and archaeologists continue to search for the site of the original English colony. "It is one of the greatest stories in American history," says Evans.
The foundation's program employs an organized, multidisciplinary approach to its search, teaming technological remote sensing with traditional excavation, underwater archaeology, and archival research. While the goal is to locate the domestic settlement site of the 1587 colony and the fort that guarded it, the scope of the effort is more far-reaching, encompassing the American Indian culture of the period and Spanish interest in the English colony.
Among the most significant and problematic artifacts uncovered to date are the bottoms of two wooden objects, probably the remains of wells, typical of the Elizabethan period. The wells, one resembling a barrel and the other a hollowed tree stump, were discovered underwater in the 1980s by Evans, a Park Service historian at the time. Both objects have been radiocarbon dated to the late 1500s.
In 2006, archaeologists Dr. Eric Klingelhofer and Nicholas Luccketti explored a section of the rapidly eroding bluff where the wells were found. The area inside the boundary of the National Park property at Fort Raleigh also yielded pottery sherds dating to the time of the Raleigh colonists.
This year, Klingelhofer and Luccketti plan to excavate an area near the Fort Raleigh site where ground-penetrating rador was used by National Park Service archaeologists. Fragments of European ceramics were found near the targeted locations, some dating to the Elizabethan period.
Elsewhere on Roanoke Island, research revealed copper ornaments and blue glass beads almost identical to those depicted in John White's watercolors of American Indians, fueling hope that evidence survives outside the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.
The search efforts are methodical and long-term but hopefully will yield not only objects of interest but also clues to recreating the landscape of the period, explains Klingelhofer. Setting priorities for where and when to look is influenced by the season of the year, but the archaeological potential of a site also must be balanced with any threat from redevelopment, natural erosion, and the corrosion of the artifacts themselves. "It is quite a daunting challenge," admits Klingelhofer.
In the fall of 2005 and 2006, a team of underwater archaeologists conducted a series of research dives at Roanoke, sponsored by the First Colony Foundation with the help of a grant from the Washinton, D.C., Walter A. Bloedorn Foundation. Dr Gordon Watts directed the dives, using remote sensing in areas where erosion may have undermined the settlement's archaeological remains. So far, the dives have yielded nothing that could be related to the Raleigh colonies, but the searchers have only scratched the surface. Watts plans to continue the dives in 2007. His focus, the Shallowbag Bay and near the Lost Colony's Waterside Theatre at Manteo, is based on analysis on the historic rise in sea level, rate of erosion, and traditional English settlement patterns. A distinct "relic" shoreline has been indentified in the area, and Watts and his volunteer crew, working with the Institute of International Maritime Research, hope to find evidence of where the colonies were located.
The First Colony Foundation is also funding the completion of a final report by noted archaeologist Ivor NoŽl Hume who performed excavations on Roanoke Island in the 1990s. Hume uncovered the remains of a science center or workshop near the earthworks at Fort Raleigh, believed to have been used by scientist Thomas Hariot and metallurgist Joachim Gans of the 1585-86 Lane colony in their studies of metals and minerals. The work by Hume proposed the existing earthwork fort at the Fort Raleigh historic site was built during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), disturbing part of the science center remains. When the earthwork was built -- and why -- continues to be debated by researchers.
The quest for clues to unraveling the story of the Roanoke settlements also includes the re-examination of the report of White and other early findings. The foundation is helping to support a project undertaken by the National Park Service to research documents in the archives of Spain. Of particular interest is the account of Spanish Capt. Francisco Fernandez de Ecija, who in 1609 reported sighting people on what is now Hatteras Island playing European music and signaling his ship. Could the musicians have been the lost colonists or their descendants who relocated to Croatan?
The Croatan Project
The island identified as "Croatoan" on White's 1586 map of the North Carolina coast includes the southern part of Hatteras Island, extending from Buxton, site of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, to Hatteras Village and at least part of Ocracoke Island. Dr. David Phelps, professor emeritus at East Carolina University, is director of the Croatan Project, started in 1995 to study the culture of the ancient Croatan society on the island and the interaction with the English during the 1580s. Most significant among the Hatteras Island sites is Cape Creek at Buxton, the probable location of the Croatan capital town.
Before White left the colonists, the Croatans indicated they did not have the resources to support anyone else, so is it likely they would have taken on the care and feeding of the entire 1587 colony? Phelps's working assumption is that one or two of the colonists were dispatched to Croatan to wait for White, the intent being for them to lead him to the rest of the colonists.
From 1997 to 2000, grants from the Richard J. Reynolds III and Marie M. Reynolds Foundation and the Michael W. Kelly Foundation, along with private donors, funded fieldwork at the Buxton site, yielding many artifacts, including gun flints, copper farthings, lead bale seals, glass beads, and brass pins of European origin. But grabbing headlines was the discovery of a gold signet ring found in the area of the late 17th-century American Indian workshop/trading center. The ring bears a crest used by the Kendall family of England during the 16th century. A "Master Kendall" is recorded as a member of the 1585-86 Lane colony, but no Kendalls were associated with the 1587 Lost Colony. Phelps speculates Kendall may have been part of a 20-man group sent by Lane to live temporarily with the Croatans when supplies ran low. Could Kendall have lost the ring there or given it away as a gift? Or did the ring belong to Abraham Kendall, one of the captains in Drake's fleet?
The search for the Lost Colony -- where it was and where it went -- continues to yield more questions than answers.
Janet Prittard is a freelance writer who lives in Raleigh. Her brother, David Chiswell, provided research.