By Rebecca Ruger
Archaeologists Find New Clue to Perhaps the Oldest Missing Persons’ Case in America
It might be considered the second attempt to colonize America. In 1584 England’s Queen Elizabeth I granted Sir Walter Raleigh a charter to establish a colony in the North America. Proclaiming the new Protestant religion to the New World, providing military bases to aid and abet the ongoing war with Spain, finding new sources for raw materials, and hoping to find the elusive northwest passage to the east were some of the reasons for England’s desire to expand its empire. Raleigh first sent a scouting expedition in April 1584, and then what essentially was the first settlement attempt in April 1585, which included five main ships. Ocean storms, shady captains with a greater liking for privateering than colonization, and ruination of food supplies among other woes created untold problems. Alas, 107 men were left to establish a colony. This lasted no more than a year, with most of them returning to England with Sir Francis Drake as he happened to be passing by after conducting raids in the Caribbean.
Raleigh was not deterred, nor apparently was the queen; a new group of 115 colonists—this time men and women and even children—were shipped in 1587. John White, an artist and friend of Raleigh, led the expedition. White was instructed to stop in Roanoke and retrieve any of the previous settlers who might still remain, but then to go on and colonize Chesapeake Bay. Enter another dastardly ship captain as, upon arrival and finding nothing but a skeleton—possible remains of an Englishman—he refused to let the colonists return to the ships, and they were forced to establish the colony where he’d dropped them, Roanoke island.
Among the 115 new colonists were White’s own daughter, Eleanor White, and her husband Ananias Dare. Eleanor would give birth to the first English child born on American soil, Virginia Dare, who came in to the world only a month after the settlers’ arrival.
There were immediately small tussles with the natives because of previous run-ins with the first expeditions, and 1587 colonist George Howe was killed by a native while innocently searching for crabs, it was reported. Hence, the now-Governor White was quickly persuaded to return to England to fetch more supplies and seek help. He sailed back to England in late 1587, leaving his daughter and granddaughter and the others, and hoping to return the following spring. Yet more dishonorable ships’ captains and the continuing war with Spain which required most all available ships plagued White’s efforts to return as promised to the Roanoke colony. He finally secured passage on a privateering excursion but did not land again in Roanoke until August 1590, three years later.
The settlement was deserted. Not a trace could be found of the 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children; likewise, there was no sign of a skirmish or battle, or anything to suggest the reason for their absence. However, the word Croatoan had been carved into a post around the abandoned village, and White took this to mean that for whatever reasons, the settlers had moved to Croatoan Island (Hatteras Island today). But poor John White would find no answers; a massive storm was coming and the men with him refused to stay, and no search was conducted at the at time. John White died in 1593, not knowing the fate of his daughter and granddaughter.
Sir Walter Raleigh would, years later, send ships to investigate, but as with all matters concerning the First Colony settlers, greed and the weather seemed to work against them, and no conclusive search (no competent search, really) was ever conducted. However, in 1607 when the Jamestown settlement was established, and some efforts were then taken to discover the fate of the Roanoke colony, several sources—including Captain John Smith—revealed that they were told by Chief Powhatan that his tribe had slaughtered the Roanoke colonists because they were living with another tribe that refused to integrate with the Powhatans. There is, however, no evidence to support this claim, and some historians believe that there was a misunderstanding and that Chief Powhatan actually referred to the 15 people left behind from the 1585 expedition, those who had not been returned to England by Drake.
Many suppositions and theories have played roles over the 400 plus years since "The Lost Colony" disappeared. Some maintain it’s possible the settlers did assimilate with any number of native tribes, or maybe they all perished from disease, but the facts are that no indications or evidence remain to tell their final story. The Lost Colony is possibly America’s oldest and most curious missing persons’ case.
So much mystery invites plenty of investigation, including even a DNA project throughout the region to see if the Roanoke settlers did indeed merge with the Croatans—a grand idea with little news, and fewer results after its initial statement. In the 20th century, many artifacts have been found in the North Carolina island regions—including a sword hilt and bowls—that can be traced back certainly to 16th and 17th century Europeans, but never decisively to the Lost Colony settlers. Until now?
Archaeologists from the Southeast Archaeology Center, part of the National Park Service, and the First Colony Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to uncovering answers about the Raleigh settlements, discovered two small pieces of Elizabethan pottery. The quarter-sized blue, white, and brown fragments are believed to be parts of a medicine or ointment jar, and were found only two feet underground, very near to an earthen mound that archaeologists believe was once a fort used by the Roanoke colonists. While plenty of pottery has been found or excavated over the years, typically the samples are too small to classify. But these pieces were large enough to recognize as tin-glaze type of pottery that can be confidently attributed to 1570s-1620s. While the small pieces of history are neither conclusive, nor answer those enduring questions about what did happen to the colonists, it points persistently to the possibility that they are digging in the right spot.
First Colony archaeologist Eric Deetz, speaking to the Virginian-Pilot, said, “It was an exciting find.” He estimated that the jar would likely have been 3 inches tall and 1.5 inches in diameter, calling it the most significant piece of pottery found in that area since the 1940s. Said, Deetz, “That pottery had something to do with the Elizabethan presence on that island.”
The Lost Colony, Lost Again
Exciting pottery finds aside, shoreline erosion may be one reason why no greater archaeological evidence has ever been found. It is entirely possible that the complete remains of the Roanoke colony settlement—and thus, the answers to the mystery of the Lost Colony—are buried underwater. Some estimates imagine that the shoreline has eroded as much as a quarter of a mile since 1587.
Additionally, some relics, or evidence thereof, have previously been found in or near the water—ground penetrating radar revealed several rectangular shaped objects concealed several deep in sand (these were not excavated but generally believed to be part of the 1584 visitation) , and in 2002, a swimmer stepped on a 16th century ax head in shallow water near Roanoke Island. Similar to the pottery shard finds, these clues are indicative of the actual presence of early settlements but lacking absolute clarity about exactly where they built their home and what their ultimate fate had been.
In the end, both the amateur and professional archaeologists are likely invigorated by any such finds to might provide further clues to this enduring mystery, and the casual beachcomber may indeed take a closer look at the pottery remnants they’ve found on the shores in North Carolina.
This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine July 2017 issue.