America Unearthed searches for Roanoke colonists: America's oldest cold case

Norman Byrd's picture

Did the Roanoke Colony, the first English settlement in North America, one day simply vanish in its entirety without a trace -- as history tells it -- or did the colonists end up in what is present day Georgia?

If nothing else, the archeological/geological/historical investigative show "America Unearthed" will make one think. In the latest installment, show host and forensic geologist Scott Wolter took on the task of looking into what is considered America's oldest cold case: The disappearance of the Roanoke Colony in 1587.

In "Mystery of Roanoke," Wolter starts his search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke by first taking a good hard look at the Dare Stones, a set of 48 rocks and tablets with lettering etched upon them purporting to chronicle a seemingly westward migration of at least a few of the colonists of Roanoke, or John White's Colony, a small English settlement that was founded in July 1584. The stones -- which many consider part of an elaborate hoax because they were all found within a four-year period -- supposedly are the work of Eleanor Dare, the mother of Virginia Dare, the first European child known to be born in America. Finding the stones collected at Brenau University, Wolter soon concludes that the carved-upon stones show appropriate aging and weathering signs (and are made up of different mineralogical constructs) to be considered authentic.

Of course, given his history of skepticism and butting heads with academics that easily dismiss what doesn't fit into traditional historical avenues, Wolter thinks history just might have the Lost Colony of Roanoke story wrong and heads to where the story begins -- off the coast of North Carolina.

Speaking with Rob Bolling, National Park Service Ranger, Wolter discovers that the colonists would have had it rough, surrounded primarily by hostile natives and only a few tribes willing to tolerate their existence. When Wolter floats the idea that the colonists may have, for some undetermined reason, moved as a group westward, Bolling noted that doing so would have most likely ensured attacks by native tribesmen and the killing off and eventual assimilation of all the colonists into various local tribes. While with Bolling, Wolter toured the mounded remains of the what looked like a fort at Roanoke. They also discovered a fair amount of sassafras, a tree whose bark was used to makes teas and was also used as medicine (thought to be a curative for syphilis). Another clue: The famous carved lettering on the palisades of the letters C-R-O-A-T-O-A-N, the last known communication between the colonists and those who returned from England to find the entire colony -- as many as 118 people -- gone.

Wolter knows that "Croatoan" can mean at least two things: The colonists were signaling to those who came later that they had gone to live with or near a local tribe that called themselves the Croatoan or they had gone to a nearby island on the Outer Banks known as Croatoan (now Hatteras Island). So he went to talk with someone versed in native history and lore.

At the Histories and Mysteries Museum on Hatteras, Wolter met historian Scott Dawson, who shared with him his thoughts and theories that the colonists actually moved from the original settlement and came to live in the area. He showed Wolter some artifacts found in the Croatoan settlement area that dated close to the timeframe necessary -- but not conclusively. But when Wolter suggested, given the evidence of the Dare Stones, that the colonists might have went westward, Dawson stonewalled him, refusing to even accept the possibility that even part of the Roanoke Colony might have gone west.

Disappointed, Wolter was on his way home when his wife clued him onto a new discovery at the British Museum of the "Virginea Pars" map created by John White. There was a "patch" on the map that when analyzed seemed to indicate a hidden clue that just might have something to do with the colony. So instead of heading back home to Minnesota, Wolter booked a flight to England.

While there and looking at the map, he thought the hidden symbol looked every bit like the fortress of the original Roanoke settlement. And he put forth the theory that sassafras in the area could have been big business for those needing medicine for syphilis, which was a scourge at the time. Although he was gently rebuffed on the idea that the Queen at the time had the disease, the idea that the Dare Stones and the sassafras trade could be clues as to what might have happened to the Lost Colony.

Back in North Carolina, Wolter visits the site of where the fort would have been built. In fact, the site is now a golf course but is directly across the Chowan River from where the first Dare Stone was found, a stone thought to have been a message left for Eleanor Dare's father, John White.

But are the Dare Stones real or just clever fakes like many consider them to be? If they are authentic, might they not tell a harrowing tale of westward movement by remnants of the Lost Colony, a tale that took them through South Carolina and at least as far as northern Georgia? But what if the Dare Stones were simply the chronicle of Eleanor and a small number of colonists, perhaps taken captive at some point, the other colonists moving to the Croatoan settlement for greater safety? Could the last word written, "CROATOAN," been their destination? Or could they have attempted to join up with the local Croatoan tribe, known to be friendly, been attacked, taken captive and eventually assimilated into local tribes and/or simply perished?

Regardless, to date no trace of the colonists have ever been found. Nothing definitive, that is. And as such, despite alternative theories and due to the questionable authenticity of the Dare Stones, the Lost Colony of Roanoke remains America's oldest cold case.

"America Unearthed" airs on History 2 Channel at 10 p.m. (EST) on Fridays.

Take Home Message: Wolter became a bit angry with the historian in Hatteras, Scott Dawson, because he wouldn't even accept as a possibility that at least a few of the Roanoke colonists had gone west. But he failed to take into consideration that although it was well and good for him to speculate and countenance the idea that the Dare Stones could be authentic, the Hatteras historian had a vested interest (he put together the Histories and Mysteries Museum and was working to find more artifacts at the Croatoan settlement) in maintaining that his theory of the colonists making their way to Croatoan was the only sensible interpretation of the facts as they currently exist. Besides, most academicians and historians believe the Dare Stones to be part of a hoax, so it shouldn't be too surprising that Dawson dismissed the idea of a westward migration without much consideration. But Wolter's anger was misplaced. Academic stonewalling can only be eroded by additional facts suggesting and proving the established theories wrong. His next move, his trip to England, might have done just that. And that was a positive move for all concerned, adding to his theory, the knowledge base surrounding the Roanoke case, and perhaps opening up new lines of questioning as to the possibility that the Lost Colony might have ended up somewhere other than at "CROATOAN" or horrifically wiped from the face of the Earth.

(photo credit: British Museum, Wikimedia Commons)

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