Old account may yield new clues to Lost Colony
Spanish pilot spoke of marshy location

The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, VA, February 3, 2005
Written by Catherine Kozak, Staff Writer


1589 Deposition

    A new translation of a 16th-century Spanish document may reinforce a hypothesis that the ill-fated Lost Colonists settled more toward the middle of Roanoke Island near Shallowbag Bay, rather than the north end of the island, where archaeologists have been searching for more than a century.

    Working off a copy of the original document that was located at the Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain, James Lavin, professor emeritus with the department of modern languages and literature at The College of William and Mary, said that Spanish pilot Pedro Diaz described a “flimsy” wooden fort that is “in the water,” possibly indicating a moat, and that it was located in a wet, marshy spot.

    That could mean that the elusive “Cittie of Raleigh” – which housed Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1587 colony of 117 men, women and children – had been situated near Mother Vineyard of Shallowbag Bay, miles away from the once-presumed location at what is now Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Lavin, a Spanish Golden Age scholar, said that Diaz had been held captive on an English ship and was relating what he had been told by an unnamed witness on Roanoke Island.

    Diaz gave the account during a deposition in 1589 to Pedro de Arana, the king’s accountant in Havana.

    “There were some areas in there where you wished he put down more details,” Lavin said. “It was a carelessly written document – sort of stream of consciousness, without any thought or precision.”

    The document was written on both sides of the paper, and some of the ink bled through to the other side. It included no punctuation and few capital letters. The previous translations, Lavin said, took liberties with punctuation, left out sections and paraphrased freely.

    Lavin discussed his translation last week with members of the nonprofit First Colony Foundation. He recommended that the foundation try to find the other two copies of the Diaz document, at least one of which is known to include more information than he had seen. The Spanish routinely made triplicate copies of their records.

    Fred Willard, the director of the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research, said he brought the foundation into the loop when he learned that the document had earlier been mistranslated. “The most exciting thing is, it’s a new look,” Willard said. “That doesn’t prove where the fort was. … It tells us where not to look.”

    The National Park Service, which is working on an agreement with the foundation, is seeking a grant to search for the additional Spanish documents, said Bennie Keel, regional archaeologist for the park service’s Southeast region. Keel also said that an archaeological survey of Fort Raleigh is nearly completed.

    The Cittie of Raleigh was established shortly after the settlers arrived in July 1587. Gov. John White left in late August to get supplies for the winter. When he was finally able to return in 1590, the colony and evidence of its fate were nowhere to be found. No definitive trace of the colony or its hapless inhabitants has since been located, and so it has come to be known as the Lost Colony.

    At least 33 excavations have been done in 379-acre Fort Raleigh in the quest for the remains of the colony, but no explorations have been done elsewhere on the island.

    In addition to going back to have another look with better technology in the park, the foundation would also like to explore underwater sites on the north end in Croatan Sound and at the opening of Shallowbag Bay, said Phil Evans, a foundation board member and former park service ranger at Fort Raleigh.

    Evans said that Mother Vineyard, today a residential neighborhood outside Manteo, has been cited before as a possible location of the 1587 fort and town, but it has never been professionally explored. Evans said the area between the earthen fort at Fort Raleigh and the Elizabethan Gardens is still an area of high interest in the search for the site of the Lost Colony.

    In the detective work of archaeology, the new translation has its place, Evans said.

    “It demonstrates that everything is not known,” Evans said. “There are other ways to find out. I really don’t think anything is ever going to jump up and say, 'Here it is!' I think everything is going to be learned incrementally.”

Blue dot - Fort Raleigh area
Red dot - Shallowbag Bay area

    But veteran archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume, who worked for 30 years in Colonial Williamsburg and serves as an adviser for the foundation, is skeptical that a different interpretation of the Diaz document will add much to the search, “I don’t think the Spanish translation has changed anything,” he said. “It’s still vague. And we have different opinions as to where the settlement was.”

    Nick Luccketti, principal architect at the James River Institute for Archaeology and a foundation board member, said it would be helpful to reconstruct what the island looked like in the late 16th century to determine where the marshy areas were then.

    Luccketti, who was one of the archaeologists who rediscovered James Fort, said that most people had thought that Jamestown had been washed away

    “The same conclusion has been made about the Lost Colony, but there may be some merit in re-examining some areas that were surveyed 50 to 60 years ago,” he said.

    “It’s a much slenderer needle in a haystack than the James Fort by the simple fact that the Lost Colony wasn’t there that long.”

      ~ See Research Papers for the translation of the 'Account of Pedro Diaz as Related to Pedro de Arana'

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