America's Lost Colony: Can New Dig Solve Mystery?

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
March 2, 2004
More than four centuries ago, English colonists hoped to carve out a new life—and substantial profits—in the wild and strange land of North America. One group of colonists gave up and returned to England. A second colony, in what is now North Carolina, vanished in the 1580s and became immortalized in history as the "Lost Colony."

Today the prosperous little town of Manteo, North Carolina, surrounds the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, a national park protecting the place where the English tried to establish their first American colony—before Plymouth, before even Jamestown.

Archaeologists know that the colonists spent some time at this spot on the north end of Roanoke Island, but they don't know much more about those unlucky settlers.

That might change soon, however. A group of archaeologists and historians met in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, earlier this month to launch the First Colony Foundation to raise money for new archaeological excavations in the Fort Raleigh park. They plan to start digging into one of the United States' most enduring historical puzzles early this summer.

Even as the excavation looms, not everyone is eager for the answer to the Lost Colony mystery. North Carolina attorney Phil Evans, who helped start the First Colony Foundation, said, "I've always said I'd be just as happy if it was never solved. I like it being a mystery."

First Settlement

The story of the first English colony in North America has been fascinating historians and curiosity seekers for a very long time. The saga began on a summer day 420 years ago when co-captain Arthur Barlowe and a few dozen other Englishmen stood at the railing of their ship and peered anxiously across the water at a strange new world.

They had no idea what to expect, but the odor wafting to them from the small islands off the coast of what is now North Carolina filled Barlowe with wild hopes. The vegetation was at its summer peak, and the aroma was like that of "some delicate garden" full of fragrant flowers, he wrote later.

Barlowe was part of an expedition sent by Sir Walter Raleigh, an English courtier, to find a place for a colony. Roanoke Island, protected from the Atlantic Ocean by the slender sand dunes that came to be known as the Outer Banks, seemed a likely spot.

The soil, Barlowe said, was "the most plentiful, sweet, wholesome and fruitful of all the world." And the Native Americans living on the island were, in Barlowe's opinion, "gentle, loving and faithful, void of all guile and treason."

Based on Barlowe's report and backed by Queen Elizabeth, Raleigh sent an all-male colony of more than a hundred settlers to Roanoke Island in July 1585. For a while things went well.

Among the colonists were a brilliant scientist named Thomas Hariot and artist John White. Hariot set up the New World's first science laboratory, while White made detailed maps and drawings of the Indians and his new surroundings.

Problems soon befell the Englishmen, however. The Indians, angered by the harsh tactics of the colony commander, Sir Ralph Lane, became hostile. Supply ships from England didn't arrive, and food became scarce. So when Sir Francis Drake, on his way home from the West Indies, arrived at Roanoke Island in the summer of 1586, the discouraged colonists opted to return to England with Drake.

When the supply ships arrived shortly after Drake's departure, the crews found only a deserted settlement. Sir Richard Grenville, commander of the supply fleet, left behind 15 men to hold the island and sailed back to England.

Later, at an abbey in Ireland, Hariot started writing a book about the wonderful new land on the other side of the world. But on Roanoke Island, the tiny English garrison left by Greenville was in serious trouble.

The Indians had decided they'd had enough of the foreigners and attacked the settlement. The outnumbered Englishmen scrambled into their boat and fled.

They were never seen again.

Second Attempt

A second colony of about 115 English settlers—including women and children—landed on Roanoke Island in August 1587. They found only the charred ruins of the village. It was an ominous welcome. But the colonists decided to rebuild and make a new start.

John White, the artist who had returned as governor of the second colony, went back to England to gather more supplies. He intended to return to Roanoke Island right away, but war between England and Spain delayed him.

When White finally reached Roanoke Island in August 1590, he discovered that something had gone terribly wrong on the sweet-smelling island of fruitful soil. The colony was gone.

The only clue left was the cryptic word "Croatoan" carved on a tree. The word could have been a reference to a tribe of friendly Indians who lived south of Roanoke Island.

Some scholars think Indians may have killed the colonists; others think the English settlers moved farther inland and married into Native American tribes. A third theory says the colonists were killed by Spanish troops who came up from Florida. No one knows for certain what happened to the colonists.

The site of the settlement began gradually disappearing beneath the vegetation and shifting sands of Roanoke Island.

In 1607 England sent more colonists to the New World. This time they landed up the coast from Roanoke Island and founded a settlement called Jamestown in what is now Virginia. This colony managed to hold on through difficult times, and England had its permanent presence in North America. The Lost Colony of 1587 became a historical curiosity.

Recent Clues

Souvenir seekers have been digging on Roanoke Island at least since 1653, when trader John Farrar and three friends from Virginia landed on the island and left with artifacts from the English colonies.

Union soldiers stationed on Roanoke Island during the Civil War dug for artifacts, and in 1895, Philadelphia journalist Talcott Williams, who was also an amateur archaeologist, did some excavations in the area now enclosed by the national park boundaries.

Professional archaeologists have done several excavations since the late 1940s. They found artifacts undoubtedly left by the colonists, including remains from Hariot's science laboratory. But they didn't find the site of the colonists' village.

The members of the First Colony Foundation hope to learn more about Hariot's laboratory and the location of the village. Their curiosity has been piqued by several clues.

In 1982 Evans—who was then a student working at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site—discovered the remains of an old well thought to be from the 16th century. Evans found the remnants in Roanoke Sound, an indication of serious erosion on the northern end of the island.

In 2000 National Park Service archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar discovered rectangular-shaped objects buried beneath several feet of sand. (Park Service staff did not excavate the objects, but suspect they could be related to Hariot's work.) In 2002 a swimmer stepped on a 16th-century ax head in shallow water just off the northern end of Roanoke Island.

Finding the well and the ax head offshore has prompted some members of the First Colony Foundation to wonder if the site of the colonists' village eroded away and now is submerged. Underwater archaeologist Gordon Watts says that at least 600 feet (180 meters) and perhaps as much as a quarter-mile (0.4 kilometer) of the island has gone underwater since the 16th century.

"That's one fact that you cannot ignore," Watts said. "If you're doing a comprehensive search for the 1585-1587 settlement, you can't ignore the possibility that the site is now underwater."

Like any classic mystery, however, there's polite disagreement among some of the experts about where the village might have been. Acclaimed archaeologist Ivor Noël-Hume, who led an excavation in the Fort Raleigh National Historic Park in the 1990s, thinks it's highly unlikely the village site is now underwater.

"That's only a personal view, I do assure you," Noël-Hume said. "I wouldn't want to discourage further excavations. But I think you're going to find the remains of the settlement on a piece of land."

Noël-Hume says he'd like to see an excavation done in an area of sand dunes near the beach on the northern end. That could be "very informative," he says.

Virginia archaeologist Nick Luccketti, who also has worked at Fort Raleigh, says he has a reason to believe that maybe the village site hasn't been lost to erosion. "I've talked to collectors who have walked the beach on the north end for 30 years, and they don't have any 16th-century European artifacts in their collections," Luccketti said.

Despite their disagreements about where the colonial village may have been, the experts concur that the English effort to plant colonies on Roanoke Island was a milestone in U.S. history.

"It earned its place in American history when Thomas Hariot worked in the science center and sent back a report that said America is worthy of commercial investment," Noël-Hume said.

Luccketti thinks lessons learned at Roanoke Island helped ensure the survival of the Jamestown colony 20 years later. Hariot told the Jamestown colonists about the Native Americans' extreme fondness for copper ornaments, and so the colonists brought copper with them. When the Jamestown colonists were on the verge of starving, they traded copper to the Indians for food, and that saved the Jamestown colony from extinction, Luccketti says.

Still, Evans thinks the mystery of the Lost Colony also is important because it lures people into the story of Roanoke Island.

"As long as the Lost Colony is unexplained, it stays fascinating for a lot of people," Evans said. "It's their entry into the story. They go in trying to figure out what happened to the colonists, and then they learn history. I don't want to take away the mystery. That's what makes it different and exciting."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.