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New findings at the Lost Colony.

At Fort Raleigh, archaeologists unearth clues about the settlements that disappeared more than 400 years ago.

IT IS 1585 IN ENGLAND, and Sir Walter Raleigh--poet, warrior, and scholar--has persuaded Queen Elizabeth to help finance a colony in the New World. The queen is eager to claim the land before the Spanish do, and Sir Walter Raleigh's vision of expansion and material riches is well received. Raleigh dispatches seven ships, 107 colonists, and Sir Richard Grenville, one of England's finest captains, to sail across the ocean to an untamed and primitive land. After a three-month journey, they reach a place between the mainland of what is now North Carolina and its sandy barrier islands, an ideal site protected from attack.

It is 1991 on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Ivor Noel Hume, senior retired archaeologist at Colonial Williamsburg and current director of archaeological digs at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, discovers what he believes may have been America's first scientific laboratory. Hume unearths pieces of high-fired ceramic crucibles on this windswept island that date from Raleigh's 1585 colony.

The first site of English colonization is what is now the United States is not Jamestown, Virginia, as many believe, but Roanoke Island, a place often forgotten because it remains shrouded in mystery. More than 400 years after initial attempts to settle the area, questions remain about what happened to the three different groups of people who over a three-year period attempted to establish a colony here. The questions remain, in part, because clues that could help formulate answers have been obliterated by time or development.

Any hope of unraveling the mystery seemed lost until a 1991 dig sponsored by the National Geographic Society and conducted by the Virginia Company Foundation, a nonprofit archaeological research organization based in Williamsburg, Virginia. The dig at Fort Raleigh revealed pieces of smelted lead, pottery, crucibles, charcoal, and distilling apparatus used in metallurgy. Hume excavated 15 spots within a 70-foot square that had been dug 44 years earlier by J.C. Harrington, now a retired National Park Service (NPS) archaeologist. Working with a team of experts, Hume was able to identify the dirt floor of a 1585 laboratory, the site of what he considers the "birthplace of American science."

Two colonists who accompanied the 1585 expedition were German scientist Joachim Ganz and mathematician Thomas Hariot, who in 1588 wrote A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. According to Hume, who has studied this document, one of the primary purposes of the 1585 trip was to find copper and other precious metals. Hume believes Ganz and Hariot used the recently unearthed crucibles as well as other artifacts, which date back to this period, to conduct their experiments.

Today, the land around Fort Raleigh is similar to what the colonists found more than 400 years ago. Cedar, live oak, holly, and other trees grow on the island and may have been used to build boats, houses, or furniture. The historic site includes a small earthen fort reconstructed in 1950 by Harrington, who determined the location based on available evidence. Additional information discovered last year altered the Park Service's interpretation that this earth-work was the fort used by Roanoke's first colonists in 1585. Hume now believes the reconstructed fort actually represents a structure used by a group of 15 men left on the island in 1586, the second unsuccessful attempt at colonizing Roanoke.

Little information exists concerning the day-to-day life of the three separate groups of people who attempted to settle this 11-mile-long island from 1585 to 1587, although enough is available to reconstruct part of the picture. The futile forays began with Raleigh's cousin Sir Richard Grenville, who sailed to the new land with Ralph Lane, governor of the new settlement, and 107 colonists. The group arrived in July 1585 and found a temperate climate and a wooded island inhabited by Algonkian Indians, whose initial relations with the colonists were good. Because Roanoke was to serve as a lookout for Spanish and French ships, the colonists built a fort.

From the outset, the group faced some seemingly insurmountable challenges. They began with fewer supplies than they had provisioned, because their flagship, along with a significant portion of the goods, had been lost on the ocean voyage. Most of Lane's men were soldiers and knew little about farming. As a result, shortly after they arrived, the colonists began to rely on the Indians for food. In the beginning, the natives gladly provided trout, sturgeon, and other fish as well as maize, a native corn. But as food became scarce, and Lane's men began to demand rather than simply to expect food from the Indians, relations soured.

Meanwhile, Sir Grenville, who had returned to England for relief supplies and was expected back by Easter of the following spring, was late returning, and Lane suspected treachery from the tribe's Chief Wingina. Lane's men attacked the tribe and beheaded the chief, exacerbating an already deteriorating situation. Lane and his men were desperate, facing starvation, and expecting further conflicts with the natives. With Grenville gone and the Indians now hostile, the colonists did not wish to remain at Roanoke. When privateer Sir Francis Drake arrived in June 1586 from preying on trade ships in the Caribbean, he intended to leave additional supplies for the colonists before returning to England; however, severe storms ruined many of these provisions shortly after his arrival.

Despairing and fearful, the colonists insisted that Drake take them back to England. The departure was chaotic and so hasty that three men who had been traveling inland were left behind and never heard from again. Hariot and artist John White lost many of the writings and drawings that documented the 11-month stay in Roanoke--papers that may have helped Harrington or Hume locate more of the site, including a detailed drawing of the fort.

Only two days after Drake's departure, one of Grenville's ships arrived with relief supplies. Grenville followed with 600 men, but Lane and his party had already abandoned the colony. Grenville left 15 men to hold the area with enough supplies to last them two years. This second party is believed to have built a smaller fort for protection. Many historians believe this second group was massacred; however, only one skeleton was found a year later when John White returned with 116 settlers. The number of colonists lost at Roanoke had now grown to 18.

Raleigh and White, who served as governor of the third group, had decided that the success of establishing a colony depended on a commitment to the land. White, a trained surveyor as well as an artist, wanted families, not soldiers for his settlement. As an enticement, Raleigh promised the colonists 500-acre tracts of land and a voice in the government, and 116 people traded their lives in England for the unknown in the New World.

The colonists may have been doomed from the start. They, too, lost much of their food supply when one of their ships was wrecked in severe weather. While their intention was not to stay in Roanoke, but to check on Grenville's 15 men and then settle in the Chesapeake area, the ship's captain refused to take the colonists farther north. It was late summer, storm season had set in, and the captain and his crew were eager to travel to the Caribbean and begin privateering. No better than pirating, privateering involved preying on ships engaged in the lucrative West Indies trade. More often than not, the captain and crew shared in the stolen bounty.

The colonists had no choice but to endure a winter in Roanoke until a representative was able to return to England for more supplies. They sent Governor John White because he had influence with Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth. Unfortunately, White returned to a country at war with Spain and for three years was unable to come back to Roanoke, where he had left his daughter and granddaughter along with the others.

In 1590 White returned aboard a privateer's ship to an abandoned colony. Because the original destination was the Chesapeake, White was not surprised. He found that the colonists had built a palisade around their houses; however, the fort had been razed. Historians believe the colonists were aware of the previous relations with the natives and built the palisade for protection. White also found the word "Croatoan" carved on either a tree or a post that served as part of the palisade. The Croatoan were a friendly Native American tribe that lived on an island of the same name. The island, which today makes up most of Ocracoke Island and part of Hatteras Island, is about 50 miles south of Roanoke.

One theory suggests that a contingent of the 1587 colonists made their way in a small vessel to Croatoan to watch for ships, while the rest left for the Chesapeake area. White wanted to sail to Croatoan to investigate, but the ship's captain refused, again because he and the crew wanted to move on to the Caribbean. Forced to leave, White returned to England in November 1590 to find that Raleigh's attention and enthusiasm for the colonists had diminished. Raleigh also had lost favor with the queen.

The colonists were never heard from again. Despite his continued efforts to find them, White died not knowing the fate of his daughter, granddaughter, or colony. Some historians speculate the people of the third group were massacred, but White never found a Maltese cross, the distress sign he and the colonists had agreed upon should disaster befall them. And Hume notes that there is no archaeological evidence of a massacre. With the disappearance of this third and final group of colonists, the number of those lost at Roanoke rose to 134.

Nearly 400 years passed before archaeologists returned to look for clues. In 1941 Harrington began some of the first official excavations when the Park Service took over the site. Harrington and his team dug at various times during more than two decades. Some of the findings include an iron sickle, a glass bead, wrought-iron spikes, and a tiny cup from what is thought to be an apothecary's balance weights. The team dug trenches--a method which is used to find fixed structures but which archaeologists now know can destroy smaller evidence--to look for vestiges of the colonists.

Nearly 50 years later, with the benefit of improved methods, unburned charcoal was found five feet down in a pit that Harrington had located in 1974. Using carbon dating techniques, archaeologists determined that the charcoal dated back to the 1585 period. Because of the amount of charcoal found, archaeologists believed this area may have been used by Ganz and Hariot as a pit to heat metal. Some surmised that the pit, no more than 150 feet from the fort, may have been used as a dumping ground by the 1587 colonists. What has become clearer to archaeologists through recent digs is that the reconstructed earthwork at Fort Raleigh today is more than likely from the second group of 15 men.

Visitors often wonder why archaeologists have found so little, but many years of disturbance make it difficult to trace the events of the past. Hume says modern intrusions have destroyed 90 percent of the site and, long with it, the evidence an archaeologist needs to draw conclusions. These disturbances have included everything from a Civil War fort to a 1920s movie set. Union and Confederate encampments had been located on Roanoke Island, and soldiers pocketed inkwells and other artifacts from the site, evidence that may have offered valuable clues. The Freedman's Colony, a village of freed slaves, inhabited the island from 1863 to 1865. Although no archaeological evidence from the village has been found, it is recorded that 3,000 ex-slaves lived in the area until the federal government's Freedmans Bureau was abolished in 1865.

Nick Luccketti, executive director of the Virginia Company Foundation, points out that archaeological remains are fragile and usually not very far beneath the surface. "Modern impacts go well into the subsoil, and they would have destroy any evidence," he said. Alan Smigielski, NPS historian at Fort Raleigh, explained that any clues found at the site would be just a fraction of an inch long, and unlike Jamestown, where permanent structures were built, colonies at Roanoke never existed longer than 11 months.

Hume said to find the villages, forts, or other structures would take a major excavation, not just one or two digs. "We don't know where to look. With the expense of digging and putting everything back, you can't just go on a fishing trip." Hume points out that Harrington was permitted to dig in 1965 only because colonial-era bricks--believed to have been made by the colonists and used by the metallurgists for a furnace--were found when utility work was being done that year. Although Harrington succeeded in finding post holes and bricks that seemed to be connected to the fort area, his digging was restricted.

In the past, the Park Service was reluctant to allow digging. But a changing consciousness about historical sites and objects has encouraged the Park Service to alter its priorities from visitor access to preservation. In fact, the visitor center, which was built in 1966, may be sitting on top of the fort, palisade, or other clues to this unsolved mystery. In May, Hume and his team continued to search for the vestiges of the settlement. Excavation on the pit turned out to be disappointing when no further evidence surfaced.

The future of Fort Raleigh is as unclear as its past. The Park Service may choose to include a variety of interpretations for various periods and uses, although not everyone agrees with this approach. The site offers a portrait of American history. Here, the English first came into contact with Indians, Confederates built a Civil War fort, and freed slaves established a village. Algonkian Indians also lived on Roanoke, an aspect of the island's history that has been ignored in the past. The site also may have a role, albeit a small one, in the history of radio. It includes an area linked to Reginald Fessenden, an American pioneer in radio communications. But, Dr. Bennie C. Keel, NPS archaeologist at the Southeast Archaeology Center, says Fort Raleigh may not be the place to record American Indian history, nor the place to define the antebellum era, Civil War forts, or a slave community.

NPCA's Northeast Regional Director Bruce Craig, who also is former director of cultural resources, agrees. "While there is a place for aboriginal history, certainly the story of the continuum of history must take a back seat to the story of the 'lost colony.' The reason for including Fort Raleigh in the National Park System is its significance to England's earliest attempts at establishing colonies in the New World."

Today's most accepted theory about the third and final group, that the colonists went north to the Chesapeake Bay area where Raleigh wanted them to settle, may never be proved. "The area is now part of Norfolk, and excavators would have to dig up people's basements to find any clues," Smigielski said. One aspect of the theory contends that the colonists intermarried with the Chesapeakes, an Indian tribe, and later were massacred by a confederacy of Native Americans led by Powhatan.

Whichever approach the Park Service chooses for interpretation, it must present the Roanoke colonies as the foundation for Jamestown's success 22 years later. The Roanoke colonists had the courage and the will to journey to a new world. And it is important to recognize that the colonists would not have survived without the Algonkian Indians, who helped feed the English and taught them about the land. The site represents America today, a country of many backgrounds and many races dependent on each other.
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Title Annotation:archaeology dig on Roanoke Island, North Carolina
Author:McCarty, Laura P.
Publication:National Parks
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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