Finding the Lost Colony

Published 9:03 am Monday, May 28, 2012

Recently news broke that a group of researchers believe Bertie County could have been the eventual landing point for members of what is known as the Lost Colony.

Officials with the British Museum and the First Colony Foundation announced May 3 that examination of a patch on a colonial map owned by the museum has led them to believe the Lost Colony may have moved to Bertie County, somewhere between Batchelor Bay and U.S. 17.

Since that time much of the speculation has centered on the Scotch Hall Preserve outside of Merry Hill, but researchers believe that is just one of several possible locations for the colony.

Earlier this week, the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald sent a list of questions to Brent Lane, Director of the UNC Center for Competitive Economies at the Kenan Flagler Business School for the University of North Carolina. Lane is one of the researchers leading the charge to find out additional information about the possibility of the Lost Colony relocation to Bertie County along the western bank of the Albemarle Sound.

Below are the questions posed by this newspaper and Lane’s answers.


Q:  To begin with, what led you to believe there may be something below the patches on the map?


A:  The historically unchallenged assumption that the “patches” were repairs or corrections was difficult for me to accept for several reasons. First, the likely prominent role of this map in Ralegh’s promotion of the Roanoke Colony made it less likely he would use a repaired or corrected map; 2) the map was compiled from numerous lesser versions or partial sketches – probably back in London after the 1585/6 Lane colony had returned – which provided amble opportunity to produce a final map requiring no corrections or repairs; and 3) the attention of detail to the accuracy of the map’s features suggested that every detail should be assumed to be significant, including the presence of the “patches”. While the most likely explanation for the patches was always repairs or corrections, these questions motivated my insistent inquiries to the British Museum.


Using the same logic, one must question why the “hidden fort” was concealed as it was, rather than a new version of the map being produced without the fort symbol. One explanation is it that served Ralegh’s purposes to have a deliberately concealed fort on the map, perhaps to convey the need for secrecy or urgency to establish and preserve the Roanoke Colony in the face of Spanish threats. Additionally, we know the White map was the basis for a widely reproduced (and consequently much better known) engraving by Theodore DeBry. The patch over the fort might have been placed to make it clear the fort location was not to be included in the engraving.


Q:  It has been widely speculated that the location of the fort would have been where the Scotch Hall Preserve is now. Do you believe that is the case? If so, why? If not, where do you think is a more likely location?

A:  The likely location indicated by the fort symbol could be anywhere from Batchelor Bay to the south to Highway 17 to the north. There are several known factors that could be used to narrow the intended location such as accessibility by boat or overland, relative elevation, view of incoming ships in the Albemarle Sound,  the presence of cleared land, occupancy by existing Indian villages, etc. Scotch Hall Preserve is just one of several locations that could fit such critieria. However, existing archaeological evidence suggests other locations are of more immediate interest.


Q: What is happening now in relation to the possibility of the Lost Colony ending up in Bertie County?


A:  Members of the First Colony research team are examining existing collections of artifacts previously found by professional archaeologists who identified locations and types of artifacts. This is an important phase in the narrowing the search area when artifacts from the relevant time period can be identified. The First Colony team met with archaeologists at UNC-Chapel Hill this week to examine collections stored there that represented nearly a century of activity.


The First Colony Foundation is currently finalizing an excavation plan at an unidentified Bertie County site. Excavation at that site is planned to begin in the fall of 2012.


Q: What do you see as the long-term process of finding out if this is a fact?


A: One has to assume that an initial excavation will begin the examination of a trail of evidence that could take a decade to conclude. If Roanoke Colonists relocated to this area of Bertie County they may not have left much material behind due to the relatively small scale and time period of their presence. The same area was the site of continued English, colonial and American settlements from 1650+ onward, all of which deposited artifacts on top of any evidence left by the Roanoke colonists. It will take considerable time and effort to sort through all this.
Q: What impact do you think this could have on Bertie County and the surrounding areas?


A: The effect on Bertie County could range from the inconsequential to the profound, depending on how the community acts to capitalize on the research process. Ideally, the research activity would engage with the community in ways that would provide information and experiences for visitors and tourists for the near-term economic benefits, while incorporating the many scientific disciplines involved in the research into the curricula of local school systems. Bertie County will benefit the most if the search for the Roanoke Colonists enhances the distinctiveness of its heritage “brand” for tourists, business and residents, and the quality of life of its citizens by improving education.


Q: What is the most exciting thing for the citizens of the region in your opinion?


A:  Citizens should appreciate that where they live has been recognized as an important and attractive location for centuries and millennia; that it has long played an important role in the cultural and economic history of NC, and that those attributes remain. But it may require the foresight and entrepreneurship of modern Sir Walter Raleghs to capitalize upon them.


Q: Previous archaeological digs on the west bank of the Chowan River revealed that sites north of the US 17 bridge (in the areas now known as Eden House and Black Rock) were occupied as early as 1660. Can it be proven that any of the descendants linked to the Lost Colony were among the first to occupy those aforementioned sites?


A:  Highly, highly, highly unlikely. If the Roanoke colonists relocated to Bertie County and were unsupplied by English ships, they would have either perished or been assimilated into the local Indian populations. Their likely eventual fate is itself very important in the history of the US. Bertie County may have been the location of the first “stirring of the melting pot” that became the American ideal.


The Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald will continue to provide information about the possibility of the Lost Colony being found in Bertie County.