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.

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