ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. — Evidence is mounting that at least part of John White’s lost colony may have ended up in Bertie County.

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Sherds from pottery found at Site X, a tract in Bertie County the lost colony may have inhabited after leaving Roanoke Island

Archaeologists have excavated 850 square feet of the tract in question and found dozens of artifacts including bale seals used to verify cloth quality; 16th-century nails; firing pans from snaphaunce guns of the day; aglets used to form tips on shirt lace strings; tenterhooks used to stretch hides; pieces of pottery jars for storing dried and salted fish; and bowl pieces like those found in Jamestown.

The findings do not prove Lost Colony residents lived there, but they certainly show they could have, said Clay Swindell, archaeologist and collections specialist at the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City.

A member of the First Colony Foundation, Swindell reported last week on the recent findings and conclusions drawn from them at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. He shared them with a reporter Thursday.

The rural site south of the Chowan River bridge has been inhabited for centuries first by Native Americans, then early English settlers, Swindell said. Later it became the site of a governor’s plantation. The ground is high and dry and lies next to the river, ideal for habitation.

“It’s got lots and lots of different time periods represented,” Swindell said.

A series of events led to the discovery of Site X. In 2007, a developer planned to build a large subdivision there. As usual, the state first required a search for historically significant sites or artifacts. A team found early English pottery and signs of a Native American village. Meanwhile, the development never panned out.

In 2012, researchers looking at a map that John White drew of eastern North Carolina in the 1580s found a patch covering what looked like a fort. The map is still preserved at the British Museum in London.

The fort symbol sat at the western end of the Albemarle Sound in what is now Bertie County, matching where the English artifacts were found.

“We put two and two together,” Swindell said.


Archaeologists excavate at Site X in Bertie County, where they have found dozens of artifacts dating from the late 1500s.

Before he left for England in 1587, John White told the colony to “remove 50 miles into the main.” That clue did not help archaeologists much at first, since a 50-mile radius from Roanoke Island covers most of northeastern North Carolina.

“No one had a good understanding where the 50 miles might be,” Swindell said.

The Bertie site lies 49.32 nautical miles (or 56.76 miles) from Roanoke Island, according to Google Earth.

Researchers are continuously discovering how the artifacts and writings may tie the Lost Colony to the Bertie site. The North Devon baluster jars used to provision ships with dried or salted fish were used in the late 1500s. The Surrey-Hampshire Border ware matches hundreds of pottery fragments found in early Jamestown, but was not used that much past the early 1600s. The explorers of the day wrote about the Chowan River and the tribes that lived there.

“That location is something they were familiar with,” Swindell said.

John White was part of all three Walter Raleigh expeditions from England to the North Carolina coast. In 1585 and 1586, he made the map preserved at the British Museum. In 1587, he returned to Roanoke Island with a group that included his daughter, Eleanor Dare, and son-in-law, Ananias Dare. Eleanor gave birth on Aug. 18 to Virginia, the first English baby born in the New World. He left the colony shortly afterward to resupply.

White could not return until three years later. By then, the colony was gone. He found the word “Croatoan” carved in a post and CRO carved into a tree. The Croatoan tribe lived around Buxton. White went there but could not find signs of the English.

Years later, Jamestown leaders sent a party south to search for the colonists, but bad relations with Native Americans hindered the effort. The party never made it to the Bertie site, Swindell said. The recent discoveries do not indicate a fort as was shown on the map, but only show evidence of a smaller group of early English there.

“We have new clues,” Swindell said. “That’s all we can say, there are new clue

This article originally ran in The Virginian-Pilot on July 16, 2016.

Photos courtesy of First Colony Foundation

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