Where was the colony?
Washington Daily News, Washington, NC, June 7, 2002
Written by Lawrence Keech, Staff Writer
Part 4 of a 4-part Series
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of articles about the Roanoke Voyages of the late 1500s, their place in history and the legends, facts and theories about the plight of more that 600 missing people. While commonly referred to at "The Lost Colony," the term "lost colony" is a modern term and pertains only to one group of settlers.
With dozens upon dozens of artifacts giving testament to the fact that the 1580 colonies were indeed in North Carolina, one puzzling fact remains -- where exactly did those people live?
"I think if the colony site is on what is today Roanoke Island, someone would have blundered onto it," Washington resident and underwater archaeologist Gordon Watts told the Daily News. "There has just been too much development not to have blundered into some evidence of the colony."
Watts presented a somewhat far-fetched hypothesis about the Lost Colony in the mid 1980s, and while his research turned up "absolutely nothing," more recent evidence shows he may have been right after all.
"I think the historical resources have been pretty much exhausted, and if we're going to find out any significant information about the colony site, how those people lived, how they died, whether they were killed at the site, whether they migrated somewhere and were assimilated into the Native American population -- the only potentially (important) source of information, I think, is going to be right out there in the water off Roanoke Island," Watts said.
Watts has little proof of his own, but two pieces of evidence back up his theory -- erosion and a pair of major finds.
"It's not unlikely," said Dr. E.Thomas Shields, East Carolina University professor and director of the Roanoke Colonies Research Office. "There is every possibility that it is underwater. We have no maps of how that island has changed over time. We have some sense of it since the 18th century, but ther earlier stuff we can't quite tell."
The first key to this hypothesis is erosion.
"A guy that did his thesis on the erosion at Manteo -- and all this was back in the '60s -- when he went out there with a group of us in the early '90s, he stood on shore and pointed out a line where there are fish wares and stuff like that and said, 'Pretty much that's were the shore line was in the 1960s when I was doing my research,'" Shields said.
But Shields points to Jamestown as one reason to discount the theory.
"For years and years, the big story was the James River has moved and shifted over, over time, and has washed away where the original James Fort is, and it has been washed away by the river," he said. "Just a couple years ago, they found James Fort and it is a big amazing thing and probably a corner of it has been lost to erosion. Most of the site is probably still there.
"While there is a good chance that stuff (on Roanoke Island) may be lost, when we have made that guess before, it has turned out wrong, so we won't say that it is definite."
But, Shields quickly steps back, North Carolina "is one of those places, when you talk to geologists -- geological time, they talk about millions and hundreds of millions of years -- this is the one place (on the Outer Banks) where they talk about a few years, 10 years and a 100 years, when you are talking about major shifts in that way."
Watts based his theory on those facts.
"If you look at the erosion patterns on Roanoke Island, I think the inescapable conclusion is that, whatever is left of the Raleigh colony is now under water," Watts said. "There has been a rise in sea level, a tremendous amount of erosion, and I think it's an almost inescapable conclusion."
Retired East Carolina University archaeologist Dr. David Phelps also has noted the erosion.
"That north end, with its high banks, has eroded extensively and whatever material would have been produced by the colony from that upper level has simple washed out," he said in a telephone interview from his Florida home. "(Watts) would be lucky if he found something like a big metal artifact."
Watts began his quest to prove his hypothesis in the 1980s.
"We spent about two summers looking for it unsuccessfully during the celebration, the 400th anniversary celebration in about 1985, '86 and '87, but the sonars and the magnetometers that we're using now are so much more sophisticated that we're going to go back and look again," Watts said.
Phelps remains skeptical.
"Gordon thought then he was going to get hits on the bottom of the sound showing buildings and everything else," Phelps said. "It's simply not there."
Though considered "unsuccessful" by Watts and practically implausible by others, Watts' hypothesis has drawn growing interest.
"If we go with what we have found, and that was the kind of science center we think it is (at Fort Raleigh State Historic Park), that would have normally been set away from town," Shields said, before pointing to a major find.
"If you are sitting in Waterside Theater (where the outdoor drama, "The Lost Colony" is performed) and looking at the stage, just off to the right, there is a little kind of cove and in the water there, they found in the 1980s an old barrel well, which is just where (the colonists) dug into the gound and put barrels on top of each other to create the hole, which dated to the 1580s.
"You don't want your water contaminated, but you don't want to walk too far (in) it, so that probably indicates that it would be in that area, but just a little bit away."
Phelps and Stan Riggs, a geologist and acclaimed East Carolina University expert on coastal North Carolina, made two big discoveries.
"He and I did a joint project in 1995 and '96, and using our archaeological methods, we drew lines out into the sound, that went out ... 100 or 200 meters or so and actually (dug) squares on the bottom of the sound with a suction hose, trying to reclaim artifacts," Phelps said of himself and Riggs.
In area protected from erosion, they found both the barrel well and a log well.
"Both came from right there to the east of Waterside Theater, in a little area that had been bulkheaded sometime in the past between the '30s and '50s," Phelps said. "I've seen the barrel well. It has disintegrated and I don't know that the Park Service has any of that left. They did radio carbon-date it.
As for the other well: "I have seen and measured the log well and have some photographs of it. It, too, dated early to the 1500s, but there is a range in the radio carbon dates that could have taken it on up into the 1600s. A radio carbon is not year-specific.
"Both are the kinds of things that could have been produced by the colony settlement, or they could have been put in later."
Another factor lending credence to Watts' theory are historical records, which indicate the colonists moved into an old Indian site. Phelps' and Riggs' work may have uncovered part of that village as well.
"We haven't finished it, but we did find evidence of the older Indians' site, stretching out into the sound, specifically off the Elizabethan Gardens. And to some extent off northwest point. But the idea is that there will be nothing but a scattering of artifacts on the sound bottom. Nothing will be intact out there, so I sort of doubt with Gordon's methods that he will find anything, unless he goes to really finite collection techniques," Phelps said. "We did find a few early pieces of English pottery in the same area there in the water. And we did find Indian pottery there. But that bulkheaded area is sort of a catch basin.
"Land excavations adjacent to it have turned up absolutely nothing. In fact, in the whole of Fort Raleigh -- around the "fort" -- there has been nothing but the science center Noah Humm excavated. That is not the settlement; that is a little specialty workshop, probably located near the Indian village that was there.
"There has been some more recent evidence, beyond the Elizabethan Gardens, that the Indian site is in that vicinity."
The current location of the barrel well further spurs Watts' determination in proving his theory.
"When they found those in 1982, those barrels were kind of just right on the edge (of the beach)," Shields said. "That has opened up just a little bit more, and they are just a little bit further out in the water now."
Historian Fred Willard of Elizabeth City State University believes the colony site is farther to the southeast but concedes it might have been on the northern tip.
"If the city was there, it's overboard," Willard said. "There's something out there, because they found the wells overboard. (The settlers) didn't place them overboard; (the wells) were on land at some point. They have already found a bunch of stuff out there. Until it's proven, it's anybody's shot. I wouldn't say it's wrong," Willard says of Watts' hypothesis..
Like Willard, Phelps believes Watts is looking in the wrong place.
"I think everybody I know is tending to look near Manteo on Doe's Creek," Phelps said. "The creek off Shallowbag Bay is the only safe place to protect smaller boats, and since there is no evidence around the fort whatsoever of any settlement, it's most logical that it is somewhere near Manteo.
"I know there are a lot of theories. But given the features of Roanoke Island, that is the only logical place it could be. There again, it would be a matter of being in people's yards to find any of it."
Still Watts, who has located and worked on the Civil War ships Monitor, the Hunley, and most recently the Alabama, has turned heads at Congress.
"This year we have a congressional appropriation," he said. "There are still a lot of details to be worked out, but (we have) a congressional appropriation of a million dollars to help fund the research," Watts said. "We have a very sophisticated magnetometer and a very, very high-resolution sonar, and we have an area that we are going to do a test remote sensing (on), which is one of the highest priority areas; and right now we are juggling his schedule, my schedule and weather.
"That test will tell us whether we need to be more intense in the lanes that we need to set up the remote sensing, and we will also take a look at some of the stuff we have found.
"... So, by systematic investigation or good luck, we hope to find some evidence of stuff associated with those colonists. There will probably be sufficient evidence surviving to say this is the site of the colony."
The site "could be as much as an eighth of a mile in some areas around the island and as much as a half mile in others," he adds. "There could be significant evidence to say this is the site of the colony, and this is what probably happened to these people. If we find large objects and no personal belongings, maybe they moved -- or we can say they were all massacred here on the site because here are the remains.
"The only way to answer questions like that now appears to be archaeology."