Team hopes DNA is clue to Lost Colony mystery
The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, VA, June 11, 2007
Written by Catherine Kozak
A DNA testing company and a genealogy enthusiast say they're trying to achieve what archaeologists have so far failed to do: find out what happened to the Lost Colony, the 1587 settlement on Roanoke Island that disappeared without a wisp of evidence.
"The Lost Colony story is the biggest unsolved mystery in the history of America," said Roberta Estes, owner of DNA Explain, a private DNA analysis company based in Brighton, Mich. "I don't know what we'll find in the end. Part of the big question for me is did the Lost Colony survive? Who is their family today? And where did they go?"
As director of DNA research for the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research, Estes will manage a multidisciplinary approach to tracking roots from a "most-wanted list" of people who might have connections to the Roanoke colonists or to the 16th century American Indians - or to both.
Estes said the team includes a professional genealogist, an anthropologist, a geneticist and a family tree DNA expert.
"It's a 5,000-piece puzzle, and we don't have the picture on the box yet," Estes said. "But we know what the process will be to put those pieces together."
By testing a cheek swab, two DNA lines can be traced - the paternal Y-line and the maternal mitochondrial line. Markers on the lines serve as addresses on the chromosomes. Genealogy then tries to fill in the blanks.
"In our case, with the Lost Colony, the only way we're going to trace who was who and if they survived is to use DNA," Estes said.
While DNA samples might be limited in making direct connections beyond living relatives - unless remains also are tested - they can provide clues to a person's country of origin and other shared family traits.
Testing of American Indian remains or known descendants of the colonists in England might be part of future research, Estes said.
The genesis for the project goes back to 2000, when Fred Willard, director of the Lost Colony center, developed a hypothesis based on deeds and historical narratives that some colonists had migrated inland to what are now East Lake, Chocowinity and Gum Neck.
To Willard's surprise, he found that many residents' surnames match those on the roster of the Lost Colony and that many of them have obvious American Indian heritage. One surname, Elk, is the same as the family that had held the deed to Croatan.
The reaction was overwhelming, Willard said. Hundreds of people called and e-mailed for more information.
"It got to the point where they literally were saying, 'Well, what are you going to do about the DNA?' "
Over time, 168 surnames have become of interest, Willard said. Of those, 48 match names on the roster of the Lost Colony - Gibbs, Brooks, Payne, Cahoon, Sawyer, Wahob, Berry, Squires, Jennette, Caroom, Mackey, Barber, Farrow and others.
Willard said the DNA project could be an invaluable dovetail to the years of archaeological explorations by the center.
"This is the first hard test for all of our multidiscipline research," he said. "As far as we're concerned, finding Croatan was big. But I think this is going to be much bigger."
The center will host the DNA research team at a symposium at 8 a.m. Sept. 7, 8 and 9 at the Farm Life School in Washington, N.C..
A $148 fee will be charged to test 25 DNA markers. For more information, contact the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research at (252) 792-3440 or WillardFred@hotmail.com.
To learn more about DNA testing see Estes' Web site at: www.dnaexplain.com.