Protecting the past

Published 10:10 am Tuesday, September 12, 2017

BERTIE COUNTY — Somewhere near the confluence of Salmon Creek and the Albemarle Sound in eastern Bertie County, archaeologists continue to uncover artifacts that may reveal clues to the 400-year mystery of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island.

Today, thanks to the purchase of nearly 1,000 acres by the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust, this magnificent land and its natural, historic, archaeological, and cultural significance will be protected.

The Land Trust purchase is also located next to 137 acres of sound front property purchased by Bertie County that will one day hopefully be developed into a recreation area. The project, nicknamed ‘Tall Drink of Water’, will provide public water access for recreation and tourism.

In 2016, Bertie County Board of Commissioners chairman John Trent and vice-chairman Ernestine Byrd Bazemore successfully negotiated a $250,000 price reduction and executed an amendment to the original purchase agreement which dropped the price for the 137 acres to an even $1 million, providing a huge quarter-million dollar saving to the county.

Now the state and the NC Coastal Land Trust are following the lead of the Bertie Commissioners in its quest to provide a destination for adventure tourism, a historical learning environment and vast recreational venue for residents and visitors alike.

The 1,000 acres acquired by the Coastal Land Trust also features three-and-a-half miles of frontage along Salmon Creek, floodplain forests of cypress-gum swamp and bottomland hardwood forest along with tidal freshwater marsh recognized as ecologically significant by the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program.

“This shows the foresight that the governing body demonstrated when it secured the Albemarle Sound waterfront public access recreation area in 2015,” said Bertie County Manager Scott Sauer.

“Bertie County is leading this region in promoting heritage preservation, resource conservation and eco-tourism,” Sauer added. “It’s also important to note that by partnering with the school system, Bertie County has the ability to provide students with field study and science based ‘out of the classroom’ experiences in their own community while building a better understanding of our environment and ecosystems.”

And science will not be the only beneficiary, but also history.

The property is also the subject of archaeological research by The First Colony Foundation and is referred to as “Site X,” and it hosts a variety of significant archaeological resources. Indian artifacts have been found on the site. English artifacts attributable to the period and indicative of settlement by the Roanoke colonists have also been found, which some researchers say could be evidence that a group of survivors from The Lost Colony relocated to this area after leaving Roanoke Island in the late 1580s.

The deal secures an important archaeological site that has unearthed 16th century artifacts that could be evidence of stragglers from the well-known Lost Colony on Roanoke Island.

“This is the most ambitious and exciting project in the Coastal Land Trust’s history,” said Camilla Herlevich, executive director of the Coastal Land Trust. “We greatly appreciate the financing for the purchase, made possible with a loan from The Conservation Fund that will be repaid with public and private funding.”

Additional funding was provided by a grant from the Enviva Forest Conservation Fund. Now, more than $5 million must be raised in the months to come to ensure that these irreplaceable lands and resources can be turned over to North Carolina State Parks to allow generations to come to enjoy them.”

“This project is well worth the efforts by the Coastal Land Trust. It enhances and supports the County Commissioners’ commitment to protect the Albemarle Sound waterfront and to encourage ecotourism,” said Sauer.

Once all funds needed to repay the loan have been raised, the Coastal Land Trust will transfer the property to the state of North Carolina’s Division of Parks and Recreation for management as the Salmon Creek State Natural Area. Legislation authorizing creation of the new state natural area was enacted this summer by the N.C. General Assembly. Until that time, the land is subject to a farm and hunt leases and is closed to the public.

“The Salmon Creek area stands out due to its unique archaeological resources, its rich cultural history, and its truly pristine ecosystems,” said Mike Murphy, director of N.C. State Parks. “We are so grateful that the Coastal Land Trust is protecting this land so that it can become a state natural area in Bertie County, a beautiful part of our state that is currently underserved by the North Carolina State Parks system.”

“This is the most ambitious and exciting project in the Coastal Land Trust’s history,” North Carolina Natural Heritage Program Executive Director Camilla Herlevich said in a press release.

“For the first time, the Land Trust took loans for the total $4.85 million cost, which was below market value,” Lee Leidy, attorney and northeast region director, said in an interview. She added that by using grants and donations the loan is expected to be paid off by 2018.

With the window of opportunity to preserve an ecologically important ecosystem from development, coupled with the combined historic and cultural assets of the property, Land Trust officials knew they needed to act quickly. Bertie County, underserved in the state park system, would also stand to benefit with ecotourism revenue and outdoor recreational offerings.

Originally, survey work was done in 2007 as preparation for a 2,800-unit development and a 212-slip marina planned by Michael Flannelly, one of the property owners.

“At first, a lot of Native American artifacts were discovered,” Archeologist Nick Luccketti, investigator with the James River Institute for Archeology explained in an interview.

“It was a decent place to live 400 years ago, when the sea level was lower,” Luccketti added. “This place was higher and drier. It doesn’t look like an area you would select to settle down at now.”

Numerous excavations by archaeologists with the National Park Service and its charitable partner, the nonprofit National Park Foundation are planned including further digs this fall, and hopes in the near future to explore more areas along the Chowan River and Albemarle Sound.

Considering that archaeologists often contend with development marring important sites, Luccketti said he was pleased that conservation of Site X and the surrounding land by the Coastal Land Trust will not only preserve important Native American and Colonial sites, it will ensure protection of land that may provide a critical clue to the fate of the nation’s earliest settlers.