The Foundation of Wayne Community College scored another hit this past Tuesday when it invited Brent Lane, UNC professor of heritage economics, to speak on the topic “Why We Search for the Lost Colony.” Lane led the audience to see that “lost” is a relative term, especially for a historical event that still fascinates today.
In David Weil’s introduction of the speaker, Weil referred to a New York Times article in which Brent Lane was quoted. Lane has acquired two master’s degrees in economics and, by his own account, has been instrumental in solving some of the mystery surrounding the Virginia Dare story. Lane has ties to his birth county, Perquimans, as well as to Wayne County through his father-in-law, the well-known amateur horticulturist Ervin Watts.
Lane warmed up his audience by polling to determine how many of us were native to North Carolina, and to eastern North Carolina, and how many were present because they were students there not of their own choosing. The students created a diverse crowd of Latino, Muslim, and Caucasian ethnicities that illustrated points Lane made later about the United States being an amalgam of many different people.
Lane’s first slide depicted his hand holding a pale turquoise bead he dug up; it was a 400-year-old bead from Venice, Italy, brought here by settlers wishing to trade goods. Lane emphasized that the bead hooked him on archeology combined with history and his later discovery that “found” the “Lost Colony.” He had seen Paul Green’s version, the play “The Lost Colony” as a boy and had been fascinated. Lane commented on all the permutations of the story from History Channel interpretations to the “American Horror Story” TV series use of the materials.
Being an economist, Lane related the expeditions to Roanoke Island, which Sir Walter Raleigh planned, to the social and economic scene in England in 1587 when 117 men, women, and children landed on Roanoke Island. He said these potential settlers were ambitious risk-takers who left the tumult of an Elizabethan era engaged in a war with Spain and fighting economic depression as well. Raleigh had a 10-year plan, according to Lane, a business model which his half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert carried out. In 1584, Raleigh assembled a reconnaissance team of 108 men whose purpose would be to find a site, using his scientific expertise to lend credibility to his Roanoke Colony business plan. Lane pointed out that the late 16th century in England saw a confluence of modern capitalism, the age of discovery, and the scientific revolution. Thus, by April 1585, having raised $4 million to support the effort, Raleigh sent seven ships and 600 men, including a research team consisting of metallurgists, cartographers, geologists, botanists, apothecaries, linguists, physicians, and surgeons and others, for this “bioprospecting” venture.
Lane said Raleigh was not interested in discovering gold but in finding plants that would aid in industrial chemical and pharmaceutical research. Among these specialists stood Joachim Gans, metallurgist and native of Prague, who advised British mining and smelting industrialists. Lane said Gans was the first Jew in North America and noted that a highway marker would be erected to commemorate his contributions to the Roanoke Colony expedition.
Sir Walter Raleigh, rather than disdaining the natives he encountered, regarded the Indians as valuable assets. He brought to London the natives Manteo and Wanchese as ambassadors before sending 117 men, women, and children to Roanoke Island to launch a permanent colony.
In 1587, Governor John White left the colonists and the new-born Virginia Dare to return to England for necessary supplies. The war with Spain, however, took all the ships, delaying White’s return. By 1590, the colonists put into effect their original plan to move 50 miles inland, leaving the message “Croatoan” engraved on a tree. The word denoted a tribe and an island on the Outer Banks. Raleigh tried to sponsor a rescue voyage, but he was imprisoned, and his interest later was diverted to South America and gold.
One of the missions of the Jamestown 1608 expedition was to discover what had happened to the Roanoke Island colonists. Captain John Smith, finding that some had assimilated themselves into the native culture, living with Indians, sent a report and a map indicating the location of the Lost Colony survivors to the London investors. Chief Powhatan ordered attacks as well to eliminate the survivors, so the Virginia company reported all the Roanoke colonists were dead.
Lane showed several “lost colonies” that were eventually found, among them Fort San Juan in Morganton. As for the Roanoke Colony, archeologists have unearthed artifacts but no evidence of settlements. Only when Lane examined the map and noticed patches on it did anyone suspect a hidden fort and a secret walled city. Lane asked experts at the British Library to look at the back of the map; ultraviolet X-rays revealed a plan in invisible ink that came to be called Site X, situated 50 miles into the main as the colonists had intended.
Archeological digs began, revealing the presence of colonists at the conjoining of the Chowan and Roanoke rivers, Chowanoac Village and Metocuuem, areas bought for development of a marina until Lane and others of the Lost Colony Foundation acted to have the area designated as the Salmon Creek State Natural Area, forever protecting the site for future archeological discovery.
Lane pointed out the lessons for us today in this story: the Lost Colony story reflects the current challenges and opportunities we confront today as a state and a nation; the more people fictionalize and sensationalize history, the more we lose truth; the STEM programs in our schools today parallel the efforts of Raleigh’s plan that combined science and business; and most important, all of us bear the DNA of these first settlers who aligned themselves with native people for the sake of survival and continuance of the human race.
Thanks to the persistence of Brent Lane and his wife, who called and visited the British Library several times, we know more about the lost colonists who weren’t lost at all.