A New Hunt for the Fabled Lost Colony of the New World

June 11, 2018

In 1587, more than 100 men, women, and children settled on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina. War with Spain prevented speedy resupply of the colony—the first English settlement in the New World, backed by Elizabethan courtier Sir Walter Raleigh. When a rescue mission arrived 3 years later, the town was abandoned and the colonists had vanished.

What is commonly called the Lost Colony has captured the imagination of generations of professional and amateur sleuths, but the colonists’ fate is not the only mystery. Despite more than a century of digging, no trace has been found of the colonists’ town—only the remains of a small workshop and an earthen fort that may have been built later, according to a study to be published this year. Now, after a long hiatus, archaeologists plan to resume digging this fall. “I firmly believe that our program of re-excavation will provide answers to the vexing questions that past fieldwork has left us,” says archaeologist Eric Klingelhofer, vice president for research at the nonprofit First Colony Foundation in Durham, North Carolina.

The first colonists arrived in 1585, when a voyage from England landed more than 100 men here, among them a science team including Joachim Gans, a metallurgist from Prague and the first known practicing Jew in the Americas. According to eyewitness accounts, the colonists built a substantial town on the island’s north end. Gans built a small lab where he worked with scientist Thomas Harriot. After the English assassinated a local Native American leader, however, they faced hostility. After less than a year, they abandoned Roanoke and returned to England.

A second wave of colonists, including women and children, arrived in 1587 and rebuilt the decaying settlement. Their governor, artist John White, returned to England for supplies and more settlers, but war with Spain delayed him in England for 3 years. When he returned here in 1590, he found the town deserted.

By the time President James Monroe paid a visit in 1819, all that remained was the outline of an earthen fort, presumed to have been built by the 1585 all-male colony. Digs near the earthwork in the 1890s and 1940s yielded little. The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) subsequently reconstructed the earthen mound, forming the centerpiece of today’s Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

Then in the 1990s, archaeologists led by Ivor Noël Hume of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia uncovered remains of what archaeologists agree was the workshop where Gans tested rocks for precious metals and Harriot studied plants with medicinal properties, such as tobacco. Crucibles and pharmaceutical jars littered the floor, along with bits of brick from a special furnace. The layout closely resembled those in 16th century woodcuts of German alchemical workshops.

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