Woman hunts for secrets of the lost colony

Daily Press & Argus, Livingston, MI, July 17, 2007
Written by Jim Totten

- Photo by Alan Ward Brighton Township resident Roberta Estes is director of DNA research for an effort that hopes to answer the riddle of the fate of about 100 people who vanished from Roanoke Island, N.C., in the late 1580s.

    It has all the makings of a classic mystery.

    A group of 115 English men, woman and children settled on Roanoke Island, N.C., in 1587, in one of the first attempts to colonize the New World. The group's leader went back to England for supplies, and when he returned three years later, he found no one.

    "This is the greatest unsolved mystery in American history," said Roberta Estes, a Brighton Township woman and owner of DNA Explain, a private DNA-analysis company.

    Using DNA and her expertise in genealogy, she's hoping to help crack this case.

    Estes said the colony hadn't been burned, and there was no evidence of foul play. It appeared the colony had been taken down and moved. But where?

    A couple of clues were left behind. Estes said the name "Croatan" the name of a friendly American Indian tribe was carved in one of the trees. The colonists agreed they would put up a cross if they left in distress, but none was found. Estes said the group's leader spent the rest of his life searching for the group, never finding them.

    Estes said there are clues in historical documents that suggest the group moved inland and assimilated with the area's tribes. She said there are reports of other colonists coming in contact with native people who had a book in English, worshipped in a Christian way or had blond hair.

    "What we're hoping to do is use DNA to undercover some of this," Estes said.

    Estes is serving as director of DNA research for the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research, an independent group based in Washington, D.C. The group is working to figure out what happened to the colony settled 20 years before Jamestown.

    Estes said new advances in DNA analysis holds the promise of being able to connect pieces from his incident and come up with an answer.

    Using deeds and land-grant records, Estes said the group has developed a list of surnames, whom she called "people of interest," who could be connected to the settlers. The group is hoping to analyze DNA samples from these people.

    Estes said part of the challenge is there's no funding for the testing, so people would essentially have to volunteer to pay the $150 for the DNA test.

    "They have to want to find the answer, too," she said.

    Although Estes developed an expertise in DNA, her background is in computers. Since 1983, she has owned and operated Information Access Strategies, which helps businesses and municipalities incorporate computer technology. She's always had an interest in genealogy, and when DNA technology became available for family research in 2000, she started attending conferences to learn how to use the new tool.

    Estes said the answer for the Roanoke project won't come soon. She said it would probably be two to five years before the group has preliminary results.

    Estes called the work "exciting" and the "opportunity of a lifetime."

    Estes recalled the thrill of listening to the astronauts' first words when they walked on the moon in 1969.

    "This is like your own personal moonwalk," Estes said.

Return to Articles