New search for The Lost Colony

The Coastland Times, Manteo, NC, April 1, 1999
Written by Pat Fulk

    Every school child in North Carolina knows the story of the first English colony on North American soil, the colony which disappeared into the mists of history with the word “Croatan” left behind to guide rescuers. But Elizabethan politics, monstrous storms, and the shifting sands of the Outer Banks combined to obliterate the trail of the Lost Colony, consigning their story to educated guess, myth and fable. The trail of the colonists, after they left Roanoke Island, has been cold for more than four hundred years.

    With grants through East Carolina University and Elizabeth City State University, new technologies are being used to find and follow the archeological evidence to a more certain outcome for the fabled colony than scholars have yet been able to provide. Satellite imaging and aerial photography have been put to work to identify sites for potential archeological investigation. The search has moved away from Roanoke Island to the Outer Banks and to mainland North Carolina.

    Leading the way is a small group of Outer Bankers who share a passion for North Carolina’s history. The Croatan Group is actively seeking answers to one of America’s oldest mysteries.

    Diversity of backgrounds and business interests has provided strength to the group, which has already met with notable success. Fred Willard, retired from the boating business, spent years picking the knots of 16th-century English from letters and documents and studying maps and charts created more than 400 years ago. Barbara Midgette is a member of the original family who took title to land on Hatteras Island from Mary Elks, the last Croatan Indian of record. Just days after Hurricane Emily struck the Outer Banks in 1993, Willard and Midgette found artifacts of an old Indian village on land now belonging to the Midgette family.

    Those artifacts captured the attention of Dr. David Phelps, renowned archeologist from East Carolina University. Joyce and Carl Bornfriend, owners of the Native American Museum in Frisco, offered facilities for seminars offered by Dr. Phelps, raising money and public interest. The project attracted some 150 volunteers who were trained by Phelps in the art and science of “the dig.” Kelly’s Restaurant in Nags Head and Conner’s Supermarket in Buxton provided goods and services. Buxton Village Books, owned by GeeGee Rosell, became the intellectual focal point for the project, gathering and disseminating information. The Midgette family generously allowed scientists and volunteers to occupy and excavate their land.

    In 1995, an intact Indian village was found buried under four feet of wind-blown sand. The excavated site is believed to be the Croatan Indian village to which some colonists may have fled after leaving Roanoke Island. Late in 1998, Dr. Phelps and the volunteers found a signet ring. That ring has now been linked to Ralph Lane’s expedition in 1585 or to Sir Francis Drake’s rescue effort in 1586.

    With the success of the Croatan village site as a launching point, Willard and some members of the group are turning their attention to other possible sites on the Outer Banks and on the mainland across the Croatan Sound from Roanoke Island. On the Outer Banks, tell-tale land formation suggest that Port Ferdinando, the inlet used by the colonists to gain access to the inland waterways, lies under the sand of present-day Bodie Island. On the banks of the inlet, Captain Arthur Barlow and Philip Amadas performed a ceremony in 1584 affirming England’s claim to the new land. Because of the inexorable, sometimes dramatic, movement of the Outer Banks to the southwest, Willard admits that chances of finding artifacts from the ceremony are slim. But, he says, if the ceremony took place on the northern banks of the relic inlet, traces may remain. If found, the Port Ferdinando site should take a place in history with Plymouth Rock and Jamestown.

    Although he admits the idea is controversial, Willard also believes a fort was located at Port Ferdinando. Aerial photography and satellite imaging may identify disruptions to normal topography. To the trained investigator, those disruptions can provide clues to the locations of relic structures that are not available to ground-level observers. The aerial search began in January, this year.

    Members of the group admire and rely upon the work of past scholars, but some insist that the search for the Lost Colony has been misplaced. For many years, that search was conducted in Virginia, along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. No evidence of the colony has every been found there.

    With grants and new technology available, Willard and a few Croatan Group members are also targeting possible sites on the North Carolina mainland in a triangle marked today by Mann’s Harbor, East Lake, and Lake Mattamuskeet. Willard points out the when the Croatan Indians left the Outer Banks, they may have gone to Milltail Creek and later to the Lake Mattamuskeet area. There, some historians believe, they stayed until the Tuscarora wars in 1713. If the English colonists remained with the Indians and were absorbed, over time, into the Croatan nation, some traces of the Lost Colony may be found mingled with Croatan artifacts.

Return to Articles