Gum Neck possible haven for 'lost colonists'
Researcher has found artifacts linking Croatans to Tyrrell village
The Daily Advance, Elizabeth City, NC, April 14, 2002
Written by S. Brady Calhoun, Staff Writer
The story is as well-known as its subjects are lost.
A group of 117 English settlers, led by John White, lands and settles on Roanoke Island in 1586 during one of the worst droughts in 500 years. The local Croatan Indians can't produce enough food for everyone, so in a desperate attempt to save themselves, the settlers sent White back to England to get more supplies.
Unfortunately, because of a war between England and Spain. White can't get back for three long years. When he finally returns, the settlers have vanished. The only clues to their whereabouts are three letters--CRO--carved on one tree, and the word "Croatoan' on another.
The fate of the "lost colony" has been a mystery for more than 400 years, baffling most historians but prompting generations of others to concoct explanations for the mass disappearance.
Most of these explanations are based on exhaustive researches of documents in England and archaeolgical digs on Roanoke Island. But one researcher is now using a new technology to try and find out what happened to the lost colonists.
Fred Willard, director of the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research in Manteo, has been studying the colonists' disappearance for 10 years. Unlike other scientists who've focused on Roanoke Island, Willard has taken his search inland and is instead looking for a place: Croatoan.
"If you want to find the lost colony, you have to find the Croatan Indians," Willard said during a seminar he gave in Elizabeth City Saturday morning.
Helping Willard with his search is a new tool that uses radar to search underground: remote sensing technology. Willard used the technology for his search while completing independent study courses at Elizabeth City State University.
"I think that's what's nice about a small place. We're flexible enough to take on projects that support different interests," said Carolyn Mahoney, dean of mathematics, science and technology at ECSU. "This whole lost colony story is so intriguing to everyone."
Willard says ECSU's remote sensing technology has helped him accumulate more information about the lost colony in four years than others discovered in 40.
Historians have widely speculated that the Roanoke Island settlers had to join up with the Croatan Indians to survive, and that the two groups left the island and move inland, possibly somewhere in Tidewater, Virginia.
Willard, however, says he's found evidence tying the lost colonists to Gum Neck, a small community in Tyrrell County. Not only has Willard found 5,000 artifacts in Gum Neck that he says links the colonists to the area, most of the community's locals have last names similar to those of the lost English colonists.
"Everybody who lives in that community has the same story," Willard said. "There were Indians out there and we are related to them."
Willard says Gum Neck residents have for years claimed kinship to the missing colonists. Only now, after he traced their genealogy back to the Croatan Indians, has anyone believed them, he said.
"The hypothesis is that they are the direct descendants of the last king and queen of the Croatan Indians," he said.
To prove the hypothesis, a Washington D.C. company has been employed to conduct DNA testing, Willard said. When J.W.M. Productions has performed those tests, Willard hopes he will be able to prove what he already believes.
Gum Neck isn't the only place where the Croatans are believed to have lived for a time. Willard has found what he calls "the second-greatest archaeological find in North America" - behind the discovery of Blackbeard's ship off the North Carolina coast -- in Buxton.
"Fifty-six feet from where I put (the remote sensing equipment) in the ground, we found a gold seal ring," Willard said. "Lo and behold the seal is identified (as belonging) to the Kendell family, and there was an Abraham Kendell on the 1586 voyage."
Willard says he's "pretty sure" Kendell either gave the ring to the Indians as a gift or traded it for food.
Willard said his research has been greatly bolstered by the hard work of 79 dedicated volunteers.
"From one word carved on a tree in 1587, to one notation on a map drawn in 1729, we are now one group committed to rediscovery in 2002," he said.