North Carolina harbors one of American history's greatest mysteries

Tribune Newspapers
Mystery of Lost Colony in North Carolina remains unsolved.

Everyone enjoys a good mystery. And in the Outer Banks, plenty of people take turns sharing what is clearly America's oldest thriller — a true story from 425 years ago.

In 1590, English explorer John White arrived on Roanoke Island for a reunion with family and friends. Three years earlier, at the behest of Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I, more than 100 men, women and children settled on the northern tip of the island, proclaiming it England's first stake in the New World. Twenty years prior to the settlement of Jamestown, Va., the pioneers named their colony the "Cittie of Raleigh."

White arrived on Aug. 18, obviously aware of the date's significance. It was his granddaughter's 3rd birthday. Virginia Dare was the first English child born on what is now American soil.

There would be no party, no exchanges of news. To White's horror, the fort, the houses and the church were gone. His daughter and granddaughter were among 116 settlers who had vanished.

Modern-day visitors undertake their own journeys at the fort, an adjoining outdoor theater and a living-history park. All provide pieces of the puzzle, but none can answer the centuries-old question: What happened to the pilgrims of the Lost Colony?

A single word, Croatoan, carved into a fence post might have yielded an important clue. Mike Zatarga, a ranger at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, said that carving led White to believe the colonists had gone to live with friendly natives on what now is Hatteras Island, then known as Croatoan. A hurricane, however, prevented him from ever reaching there.

"Everything else is conjectural," Zatarga noted from beside the 16th Century earthen fort built to protect the settlers.

Presentations by rangers, plus a short film and a small museum, help interpret the mystery. Next door at the Westside Theatre, history is relived as "The Lost Colony," a captivating two-hour drama, unfolds.

"What a wilderness and desolation," actor Bradley Carter despairs. Carter engages the audience as Old Tom, the amiable drunkard who finds redemption in the New World. He delivers his lines from a stage on land once trod by the real colonists.

"You're on sacred ground," director Ira David Wood pointed out. "We perform where it happened."

Indeed, Fort Raleigh, the theater and the Elizabethan Gardens (a beautiful ode to the fanciful gardens that once delighted the queen) all rest along the waters of Roanoke Sound near the spot where the settlers landed.

According to Wood, the play, now in its 78th summer, owes part of its longevity to the setting beside Fort Raleigh. The huge stage comfortably accommodates a cast of 90 actors in elaborate costumes.

The production's alumni include the late Andy Griffith, who performed here in the late 1940s. He first played a soldier and then Sir Walter Raleigh. That role required him to wear a heavy metal helmet.

"Every time a thunder and lightning storm had blown up I was afraid I would be electrocuted," Griffith later recalled.

From Manteo's waterfront, near the corner of Sir Walter Raleigh Street and Queen Elizabeth Avenue, tourists eye pleasure craft in the harbor and, nearby, a sailing ship like those that carried the colonists across the Atlantic.

Built on the island, the Elizabeth II is a working replica that, from time to time, still heads out to sea. Most of the time, it's moored at Roanoke Island Festival Park, a state-run attraction where Lost Colony history is re-created.

"We're here to make our stand and declare the New World as part of England," Joel Prosper, dressed as a 16th Century tradesman, told visitors at the living-history settlement, which includes both a Tudor-style workshop and a tent that served as a dormitory.

"We set up field tents that allowed us to get in out of the weather," he said, still in character. "We were very pleased to get off that tight space (aboard the ship) after 110 days."

Given that most of those bound for "Verginia," the territory named in honor of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, weren't sailors, they spent their time in cramped quarters below the main deck, out of the way.

"Imagine having to share this deck with 40 of your closest friends," Robert Young, dressed as a youthful sailor, told guests.

Both Fort Raleigh and Festival Park explain England's three expeditions to the Outer Banks — in 1584, '85 and '87, when those planning to put down roots arrived. Journals and letters told of both welcoming and violent encounters with the Algonquian natives. Roanoke Island's two towns, Manteo and Wanchese, are named for natives who assisted the first expedition party and later sailed to England as living proof of the "savages" the soldiers had befriended.

A screening of the docudrama "The Legend of Two-Path" is a must during a visit to Festival Park. Although based on the writings of Englishmen, the 45-minute film shares the human interaction through the eyes of a Native American. Nearby, the park's native village replicates what the colonists would have witnessed.

In "The Lost Colony" theatrical production, it's not the Indians but Spanish conquerors who drive away settlers, including Old Tom, who has become a respected member of the clan.

"Deep I drowned me sorrows in the mug," he proclaims from the fort's parapet near the end of the show. "Roanoke, oh Roanoke, thou hast made a man of me!"

Of course, the denouement is pure fiction. Nobody knows what really happened to those 116 souls.

Possible clues are literally disappearing. The First Colony Foundation, a nonprofit group that has conducted archaeological digs at Fort Raleigh, paints a dire picture on its website. Erosion, it says, is the enemy.

"Our last tangible links with the Roanoke colonists are being torn from the shoreline and scattered into surrounding waters, where they may never be discovered or recovered," it concludes.

If you go

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site (1401 National Park Drive, Manteo, N.C.; 252-473-5772; http://www.nps.gov/fora) is open year-round, as are the Elizabethan Gardens (252-473-3234; http://www.elizabethangardens.org). "The Lost Colony"(252-473-6000; http://www.thelostcolony.org) is presented late May-late August. Roanoke Island Festival Park (252-475-1500; http://www.roanokeisland.com), across a bridge from downtown Manteo, is open March-December.

Visitors bureau: 877-629-4386, http://www.outerbanks.org

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