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Search for America's "Lost Colony" Gets New Boost

Willie Drye in Manteo, North Carolina
for National Geographic News
October 13, 2005
 
On a recent rainy morning in Manteo, North Carolina, three veteran archaeologists sat down at a waterfront restaurant to discuss America's oldest mystery—the disappearance of England's first New World colony 415 years ago.

The archaeologists—Eric Klingelhoffer of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia; Nick Luccketti of the James River Institute in Williamsburg, Virginia; and Gordon Watts of the International Institute for Maritime Research in Washington, North Carolina—are planning a search for artifacts from the so-called Lost Colony.

The scientists' hopes have been stoked by recent research that turned up more than 200 possible artifact sites that could yield crucial clues.

The researchers have also reached a long-term agreement with the U.S. National Park Service to help with the hunt on park land, where the Lost Colony may be located.

It's only the latest boost in a search that has lasted some 400 years.

England's efforts to colonize the New World started in 1585 on Roanoke Island on the coast of what is now North Carolina. When ships carrying badly needed supplies from England reached Roanoke Island in 1590, they found the settlement abandoned and only a few inconclusive clues as to the fates of the colonists.

For four centuries, historians, archaeologists, writers, and tourists have visited the island to ponder this tantalizing, enduring mystery and the gap it has left in American history.

"It's like if we lost all the evidence of Neil Armstrong, and all the moon landings were just forgotten about, and 400 years later we had to figure it out," Klingelhoffer said. "This was the English beginning in the New World. We trace our origin to those folks standing on these sandy shores and wondering what to do."

Possible Sites

A lot has changed on Roanoke Island since the ill-fated colony vanished.

The town of Manteo has grown on the northern end of the island, where the colonists may have lived. And as much as one-half mile (0.8 kilometer) of the land where the colonists' village may have sat has been lost to erosion.

Watts, an underwater archaeologist, found about 230 possible artifact sites during a recent magnetometer survey of the waters just off Roanoke Island.

Watts and his divers intend to check all of the sites, but so far they haven't found anything from the 16th century. Still he's not discouraged.

"I don't think for a minute that all the evidence [from the English colonists] has been discovered," Watts said.

"It's here somewhere. If we're able to start and continue our effort annually, eliminate the possibilities one by one, it's inevitable that we're going to blunder into some evidence that puts us on the trail."

What Happened?

England actually made two failed attempts to plant a colony on Roanoke Island.

In July 1585 more than a hundred English settlers backed by Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I launched the colonization effort. The first group included Thomas Hariot, a scientist who set up the New World's first scientific laboratory.

But relations soured with the Native Americans in the area, and when Sir Francis Drake's fleet arrived at Roanoke Island in the summer of 1586, the colonists decided to return to England with him.

A second colony of 116 people arrived at Roanoke Island in August 1587. This is the group that disappeared virtually without a trace.

Amateur and professional archaeologists have been searching for artifacts since the 17th century.

The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site now protects at least part of the area occupied by the colonists, and several professional excavations have been done in the park since the 1940s.

The earlier excavations uncovered artifacts undoubtedly left behind by the colonists, including the site of Hariot's laboratory.

But the site of the village—and conclusive evidence about the fate of the colonists—has eluded historians and archaeologists.

Race Against Time

In 1982 Phil Evans, a student working at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, found the remains of an old well thought to be from the 16th century. But Evans made the discovery in the waters of Roanoke Sound, an indication of possible erosion since the time of the colony.

Evans, now an attorney in Durham, North Carolina, helped establish the First Colony Foundation to raise money for renewed exploration and excavations on Roanoke Island. The foundation has made an agreement with the U.S. National Park Service to search for artifacts.

But the archaeologists are now racing against more than erosion. New upscale housing developments in Manteo are claiming more land.

"If [the village site] is not on Park Service land, the increased pressure of development is a serious threat," said Luccketti, the Virginia archaeologist. "We have to try to find [the village site] ahead of development."

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