Everyday items reveal migration to Bertie County

In the decades-long search for clues to the fate of the elusive Lost Colony, little has been found that definitively points to the colonists’ day-to-day life. But recent archaeological findings near a Bertie County swamp provide strong evidence that up to a dozen of the relocated Roanoke colonists had actually lived there.

The First Colony Foundation, a nonprofit group of professional archaeologists and historians focused on the 1584-1587 Roanoke Voyages, held a press conference on Tuesday, Aug. 11 in Chapel Hill.  That event highlighted the significance, in particular, of the sherds of Surrey-Hampshire Border Ware and North Devon plain baluster jars that were dug up since 2012 from the Bertie location now called “Site X” – remnants of items that Native Americans did not want.  

“They weren’t interested in English ceramics,” Nick Luccketti, principal investigator with the James River Institute for Archaeology and the foundation member who is leading the dig, said in a telephone interview. “The artifacts are not indicative of trading.”

Up until now, almost all the Elizabethan-era artifacts unearthed in digs on Roanoke Island and Buxton can be associated with trading between the English and the Indians. The presence of Border Ware and baluster jars – used to hold provisions on sea voyages – indicate that between six and 12 of the remaining 100 colonists had moved to the Bertie site and lived there for some time, Luccketti said.

Finding the remains of everyday items the 1587 colonists would have used is a profound advancement in understanding what may have happened to the Lost Colony – 117 men, women and children who disappeared from their Roanoke Island settlement without a trace.

“(They’re) critical to our body of evidence,” Luccketti said. “It’s a case where the sum is more important than the parts.”

 The foundation team has also been careful to say that they have found the site of only a portion of the relocated colony.  “The land form isn’t big enough to support a settlement of 100 people,” Luccketti explained.

The Bertie site is same place that the foundation was led to explore in 2012 after the British Museum detected a previously unseen fort symbol hidden under a patch on the “La Virginea Pars” map painted by John White. White was a Roanoke Voyages artist who was the governor of the 1587 “Lost Colony” that disappeared after White left for supplies in August of that year. Before he left Roanoke Island, it was agreed that the colonists would head “50 miles into the maine.”

The Bertie site, at the confluence of the Roanoke, Chowan and Neuse rivers, is indeed 50 miles inland from Roanoke Island.  White’s 1585-86 map shows the North Carolina coast from the Chesapeake Bay to Cape Lookout, and west to mouths of the rivers, with markings of numerous Indian villages. But hidden under the patch on the map was a red and blue fort symbol.  And on top of the patch another fort symbol was drawn in invisible ink. 

That spurred the foundation to investigate further – with shovels.  The location is situated on low land between two cypress swamps bordering Salmon Creek across the Albemarle Sound from Edenton.

Although the Pars map clearly shows that Sir Walter Raleigh’s colonists were interested in the western Albemarle Sound, it was a coincidence in 2007 that led Luccketti’s James River Institute to first investigate the property as part of a routine requirement for a planned project.

During that work, numerous artifacts from Native American and early English settlements were found. Further examination by pottery experts determined that some pottery could date to the time of Raleigh’s colony.  The foundation came back in 2012 and 2014 to do further digging, and to date has excavated a total of about 850 square feet at the site.

Compared with “Site X,” Luccketti said, a survey of 21 colonial archaeological sites in Virginia and North Carolina, with the exception of early Jamestown, reveals scant finds of Border Ware.  According to a foundation brief on the findings, there was a steep decline in use of Border Ware after the Virginia Company of London, the sponsor of Jamestown, was dissolved in 1625.

The relatively large amount of Border Ware found in Bertie is likely a result of the colonists’ activity for some duration, the document explained, rather than brief visits from English exploratory parties led by Philip Amadas and Ralph Lane. There is also no historic evidence to show that any traders had settled in the area of “Site X” before Nathaniel Batts arrived in 1655, especially considering widespread Indian hostilities from the 1620s through the 1640s.

That hypothesis is further supported by a copy of the 1608 Zuniga map, a sketch of White’s map that had been stored in Spain. On that document, there are notations where Roanoke colonists who survived the Powhatan slaughter in the early 1600s were spotted in areas in the vicinity of the Bertie site. 

“All this evidence of survivors of the Lost Colony, all of the evidence points to inland, said Jim Horn, a historian and member of the foundation.  “It’s quite possible that there was a small group living on Croatoan, but by far, the larger group went inland.”

Horn said he believes that most of the settlers initially stayed together and built a settlement in the area that the foundation is currently exploringin Bertie.  About 20 years later, a number of them, according to reports, were killed by Powhatan. Smaller groups of survivors remained in several areas around the rivers, likely including “Site X.”

“The Zuniga map is really picking up those survivors post-attack,” Horn said. “I tend to accept that as reliable.”

Most historians believe that a small group of colonists went to live with the Croatan Indians at Croatoan, currently Buxton. Luccketti said it is unlikely that Native Americans would have accepted a large number of colonists because that would have added tremendous pressure to their food supply, which was already depleted by the worst drought in 800 years.

British archaeologist Mark Horton has been leading digs on Hatteras Island for the last few years, with the help of volunteer group Croatoan Archaeological Society. Earlier this summer, the group also announced finds of significant early English artifacts.

But Luccketti said that the two groups have had little sharing or discussion about their findings, mostly because of the sporadic nature of their work.  “We may be at the point now that we have both done enough work where we can look into a conversation with each other,” Luccketti said.

For the time being, Luccketti said the foundation is concentrating on securing the Bertie site, which is now patrolled by sheriff’s deputies.  Once the funds are available, he said, future digs are planned on Roanoke Island and at Bertie. A report on the findings so far will be completed before year’s end.

The foundation is encouraged that they’re getting closer to solving at least some of the mystery of the Lost Colony.   “Further excavation should help determine the nature and duration of the Elizabethan presence at Site X,” according to their brief.

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