Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Another "We Found the Lost Colonists... Maybe" Article

A recent article in National Geographic magazine displays two sets of archaeological groups racing for position in Eastern North Carolina. The prize? Yet again, the "Lost Colony of Roanoke." There have been countless articles and claims in recent years on the Lost Colony of Roanoke and...

Ok... "We still don’t know what happened, and we are waiting to be persuaded,” says Dr. Charles Ewen, an archaeologist at [the Phelps Archaeology Laboratory of] East Carolina University who is not part of either team. “I don’t think anything is off the table.” 

Dr. Ewen, who specializes in historical archaeology (specifically the contact and colonial periods)  is absolutely correct. There's not yet enough evidence.

The National Geographic article written by Andrew Lawler gives a short introduction to the Lost Colony for those of you North Carolinians who have been in a historical closet your entire lives:
The search began when an anxious Englishman named John White waded ashore on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island 425 years ago this month. Appointed governor of the fledgling Roanoke colony by Sir Walter Raleigh, White was returning from England with desperately needed supplies.
But when he stepped ashore on August 18, 1590, he found the settlement looted and abandoned. The vanished colonists had left behind only two clues to their whereabouts: the word “Croatoan” carved on a prominent post and “Cro” etched into a tree.
Ever since, explorers, historians, archaeologists, and enthusiasts have sought to discover the fate of the 115 men, women, and children who were part of England’s first attempt to settle the New World. Efforts to solve America’s longest running historical mystery, dubbed the Lost Colony, produced dozens of theories but no clear answers.
The opposing teams searching in this race, as told by Lawler, are the First Colony Foundation in Bertie County and Mark Horton of the University of Bristol on Hatteras Island.

Lawler also states an "artifact unearthed recently [by Horton] at Cape Creek [Buxton on Hatteras Island] is part of the hilt of a rapier, a light sword of a type used in England in the late 16th century. In addition, a large copper ingot, a long iron bar, and German stoneware show up in what appear to be late 16th century levels. These may be signs of metallurgical work by Europeans—and possibly by Roanoke settlers—since Native Americans lacked this technology."

Again... finding artifacts of English origin on Hatteras proves nothing. We already know the colonists had visited with the Croatoan before the big event that sent them flying for a retreat. Also, the dig that Dr. Phelps performed in 1999 clearly shows that Europeans were on that spot working in a factory of sorts with the local Indians as early as 1650. This does not preclude an even earlier date... ships passed by and wrecked there often. So, continual contact could have been possible. Furthermore, these objects, especially those of metal, highly prized by Indians, may be there because of barter - not necessarily because of settlement - even the gold ring of the Kendalls.

Articles of the type mentioned in Lawler's article could easily have been left by these workers, and not Lost Colonists. A late 16th-century rapier may easily have been used in the 17th century. Still, as Ivor Noel Hume, a former Colonial Williamsburg archaeologist who excavated at Roanoke Island in the 1990s, suggests, neither stratigraphic data nor carbon dating will prove the difference of only a few years or even decades. In my opinion, none of what Horton has found is conclusive proof.

Deeds researched by Lost Colony Research Group; map plotted by Baylus C. Brooks (2009-2010). The "Elks" grant of 1759 (plus the "Farrow" and "Robb/Clark" parts to the north of it) was given to the Hatteras Indians by Gov. Arthur Dobbs. This was the town visited by John Lawson. Cape Creek is on the eastern end of this map at the red "Farrow" plot. Another town was indicated there by DeBry/White in 1591 and may have been noticed by Lawson, but in 1701, as "European."
Proof for the location of Lawson's "Indian Towne" from deeds, surveys, and the Dare County GIS. Maps researched by Lost Colony Research Group and created by Baylus C. Brooks (2009-2011)

For three summers in 2009 through August 2011, I volunteered as a historical researcher (and doubled as cartographer and map analyst) for a group called the Lost Colony Research Group. This group had sponsored archaeological digs before on Hatteras and this study of ours culminated in yet another dig there - yes, amidst the biting flies and mosquitoes of summer. We researched all aspects of the possibility that the Lost Colony fled to Hatteras Island to join the friendly Croatoan - actually, John White himself said that's where he believed that they went. So, why not? Still, we can't verify White's assumption because the archaeology has just never been conclusive on Hatteras. No buried cannon have ever appeared, also no buried bodies of Lost Colonists, and no boat's remains in the shallow sound waters. Where is the evidence for long-term sustained occupation? 

We have also to remember that a very small window of time - roughly 1585-1590 - is involved in the Roanoke colony period. Proving that the Lost Colony came there would involve only a brief few decades before Hatteras was again overrun by Europeans.

In fact, the "factory" that Horton proposes could easily have been the same one that ECU's late Dr. David Sutton Phelps found in precisely the same location in 1999, not operated by the Lost Colony, but Natives and Europeans together only a few decades later.  This scenario makes a great deal of sense - but, unfortunately, no flashy publicity. Most other archaeologists and scholars have agreed that Lost Colonists have not yet been found at Cape Creek or Buxton. I wrote in "John_Lawson's 'Indian Towne' on Hatteras Island, North Carolina" that:
Nancy Gray’s article in the ECU Report on Phelps’s archaeological dig near Buxton at “Cape Creek” explains that Phelps excavated two large fire pits next to each other, evidence for a “factory,” or “workshop,” dated by him from 1650 to 1720. The workshop artifacts included pipe pieces, bowls, gunflints, wine bottles, and two copper farthings (coins), one with a vague impression of the English monarch Charles II. Phelps asserted an early cooperative use of the island by both Indian and European, primarily for fiscal purposes.
This factory would be a perfect place to find, say... a "large copper ingot." 

In my opinion, the other end of the island has a much better chance, but has been oft neglected - again, not flashy enough. In my article, I argue that the colonists, IF - and it's still a huge IF - they assimilated with the native Croatoan, lived variously in at least three towns across the island, then migrated to the Frisco end of the island when the Europeans arrived in force (to make trinkets for sale back home), and some may have been employed by Europeans later at Cape Creek 1650-1720 or even earlier. I also argue for Lawson not necessarily having met Indians at Frisco with colonist blood, nor did he even recognize natives at Cape Creek as "Indian" and, so avoided that area in his ethnographic study:
Phelps proved conclusively that Lawson could not have been the first European to find the Hatteras Indians since White’s colonists. Lawson’s was not a unique discovery, although it was the first investigated and published by a historian. Lawson must have known about the European presence at the Buxton area. In fact, he may have thought it was simply a European town. Perhaps these were the “Men of the best Credit” of which Lawson spoke. They may have been wealthy merchants who maintained a permanent residence in the Albemarle, but worked on Hatteras. Presumably, they worked there with at least part of the Hatteras Indians in the workshop near the Buxton area. Lawson may not have viewed these “Indians” as phenotypically native enough to include in his ethnographic study, especially if the Lost Colony had blended with the Indians of Hatteras Island. The exposure to Europeans for the half century before Lawson’s arrival may have anglicized the Hatteras Indians at Cape Creek culturally and genetically so that they did not appear “Indian.” Furthermore, the early presence of Europeans in this area, revealed by the archaeological findings, may explain the genealogical source of the “gray eyes” legend related by Lawson in 1709. These merchants may have been among those who told an oft-repeated story of “Raleigh’s ship” to the Indians, who could have then related it to John Lawson as their own. While this might seriously undermine Lawson’s “Lost Colony” theory, it neither invalidates nor supports the supposition that White’s colonists came there before 1590.
Artifacts of European origin found there could have been left by later Europeans in that exact same location only a few decades later. Stratigraphic data nor carbon dating will prove the difference of only a few decades. As Lawler wrote in his article:

Dating material within a few decades to distinguish lost colonists from later settlers is difficult. Radiocarbon and other dating methods are not precise enough, and pottery styles don’t change uniformly over time and space.
For example, remains of a Border Ware pot found across the river in Edenton date to the late 17th century. “I couldn’t date artifacts between 1590 and 1630,” says [Ivor Noel] Hume, a respected expert in colonial material. “Did someone keep something for six weeks or six years? It is very hard to know.”
By the same token, little of what the First Colony Federation found in Bertie County is conclusive either. This area was the earliest focus of "official" European settlement in the Albemarle - indeed, all of North Carolina - with exception of the possible wrecks on Hatteras.

Still, they may have better evidence for an early European habitation that ceased, replaced by native, then squatted upon by more Europeans. This means a failed settlement that was taken over by Indians later - in other words, earlier Europeans. Nick Luccketti of First Colony Foundation says "unlike the Cape Creek site, there are no obvious trade goods that suggest exchange instead of resident colonists. He thinks that the colonists may have moved here to live among Indian allies after White’s departure." Clay Swindell of the Museum of the Albemarle adds "In all the team has found 275 pounds (125 kilograms) of Indian pottery covering several centuries of settlement." 

This is certainly better evidence, if still not absolutely conclusive - again, no cannon, bodies, or boats. The supposition here also is an artificially imposed "limit" of 1655 as the first "recorded" - I emphasize the "recorded" part - European settler, Nathaniel Batts. This limit is merely guesswork as well - no proof does not mean "no settlers." Also, there may have been multiple groups of migrations for the Lost Colony - from differences between the colonists or from splitting up to have a better chance at finding rescue - and, believe me, they wanted to be rescued!

Finding European artifacts at Cape Creek suggests perhaps that Europeans may have spent some time there - but we still don't know how much time or when. We also know that Roanoke colonists were stationed there for a time before they became "lost." I admit that a lot of European activity had occurred at Cape Creek - even well into the present. Buxton is still the site of much activity, while the site of the Elks Indian grant at Frisco is still undeveloped - and not so sexy. Lawson's "Indian Towne" on Hatteras existed peacefully for years there - mostly as an "Indian" town. And, yes they could have had colonist DNA, but that has yet to be proven. What the Lost Colony Research Group did actually prove was that European-Indian assimilation was highly likely - there is some evidence for this - but, little that makes a Broadway splash with the media.

All in all, Andrew Lawler, writing for National Geographic, did a pretty good job describing the race. Let's hope that the two teams struggling for this highly coveted but elusive prize don't bypass any cannon, bodies, or boats in their zeal to win - again, the media will be watching! My money is with Dr. Ewen, also the president of the Society for Historical Archaeology: “I don’t think anything is off the table.” Still, First Colony Foundation seems to be ahead in the race - if only by a shard!

A copy of my article can be obtained at North Carolina Historical Publications in the April 2014 issue of North Carolina Historical Review.

My website is http://baylusbrooks.com

A video presentation of the Hatteras Research can be seen on Youtube:

Here's one for the ladies... ;)

Blackbeard Reconsidered:

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