Discover the traces of lost U.S. history

Fort Raleigh was home to earliest colonists, who mysteriously disappeared

? To get their start on a weeklong tour of early American historical sites, students from the Norfolk Collegiate School skipped Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown in their home state.

For the first days of Virginia – and indeed the first days of the New World – you’ve got to head for Roanoke Island on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

“They’re really interested in finding out about Virginia history,” said Helen Kisser, the teacher who led the students from the private elementary school on the tour this past summer. “Even though it’s part of North Carolina now, 400 years ago (the island) was part of Virginia.”

Jamestown may get more attention as the first permanent English colony to survive – and a new movie about the Jamestown settlement, “The New World,” may further popularize this notion in the public’s imagination. The movie, due out Wednesday, stars Colin Farrell as Capt. John Smith.

But if you’re teaching American history chronologically, the start comes at Roanoke Island. That’s where the earliest settlers sailing from England landed in 1585, decades before Jamestown was settled.

“Jamestown can claim rightfully they were the first English settlement, but I like to emphasize that before you can get to that story, this story happened first,” said Rob Bolling, a historian at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

Unsolved mystery

But it’s the unsolved mystery of what happened to those first Roanoke settlers that helps draw more than 250,000 people a year to the national park on the island’s northern tip. The settlers disappeared without a trace and are sometimes referred to as the lost colony.

History only records a few months in the lives of 117 men, women and children who sailed from England to Roanoke Island in May of 1587. Virginia Dare was born here on Aug. 18, 1587, the first birth recorded in an English settlement in the New World.

Soon after Dare’s birth, her grandfather, artist and Gov. John White, sailed back to England for more aid and supplies. He arrived in England that November as the country was preparing for war with Spain. With no ships to spare, White could not return until 1590.

If you go

Fort Raleigh National Historic Site: Manteo, N.C.; or (252) 473-5772. Open daily (except Christmas Day), 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Jamestown: Located on State Route 31, near Williamsburg, Va.; or (888) 593-4682.

“The New World”: Film about the Jamestown settlement starring Colin Farrell opens Wednesday;

When he arrived at Roanoke Island, he found no trace of the settlers, including his granddaughter. Their houses had been taken down and a defensive fence of wooden posts constructed. On one of the posts was carved “Croatoan,” the name of a nearby island. It was a signal the settlers had agreed to post if they left Roanoke Island, but missing was a Maltese cross, which would have told White trouble had forced the departure. His rusty armor lay in the sand, indicating the colonists had been gone for some time.

A lack of provisions and other limitations prohibited White from immediately sailing to Croatoan to search for the missing colonists. Several more attempts to find them between 1590 and 1602 also failed, leaving nothing more than 400 years of speculation about their fate.

Some theories say the members of the pre-Jamestown settlement may have ended up on Hatteras Island and mixed with the Indians there.

The mystery has served as the basis of the oldest outdoor symphonic drama in the nation. “The Lost Colony,” first performed here in 1937, takes place in a theater at Fort Raleigh on the shore of Roanoke Sound each summer.

“I’ve heard it described as a hook to get people interested,” Bolling said. “The word does get out in those ways, not in a grand way, but the drama that is performed here has also been a great tradition for vacationing families.”

Terry Runde, his wife and two children had already seen Colonial Jamestown and Williamsburg in Virginia. The family, from the Chicago suburb of Mount Prospect, Ill., visited Fort Raleigh last summer as part of a weeklong vacation on the Outer Banks.

Runde had his own theory on the missing colony.

“Given the climate and everything else, it’s no wonder they didn’t make it,” he said. “It seemed like a good place, but I would have gone more inland.”

Island has more history

Bolling said the lost colony often overshadows other parts of the island’s history, including a major Union victory during the Civil War in 1862. The island then became a Union stronghold and a refuge for slaves who escaped from across mainland North Carolina.

Inside the visitors center at the site, artifacts on display include Colonial-era tools and a telegram from President Kennedy in 1962 congratulating the cast and crew of “The Lost Colony” for rebounding after a hurricane had destroyed their theater.

The quiet wooded area that makes up the 355-acre Fort Raleigh National Historic Site also features a reconstruction of the small earthen fort the settlers built. It also includes a nature trail, Elizabethan Gardens and the Waterside Theater where “The Lost Colony” is performed.

Historical research remains ongoing, too.

Archaeologists finished an underwater dig off the northeast portion of the island in October but didn’t learn anything about the fate of the lost colony.

Some Civil War-era artifacts were found, and fragments of handmade brick that researchers will have tested, said Phil Evans, a former Fort Raleigh historian now with the First Colony Foundation, a Raleigh-based group of historians and archeologists studying Roanoke Island.

The group now is trying to raise about $35,000 to pay for land digs next year, including suspected wells colonists may have dug, also on the northeast part of the island, Evans said.

They also want to explore a potential harbor colonists may have used in the same area, Evans said.

“It’s simply the fact that it’s the most obviously sheltered spot on the island to put boats,” he said.

Bolling said the legacy left by the lost colonists demands additional exploration.

“I don’t know if we’ll resolve the mystery totally, and I don’t think archaeology will harm the allure of the mystery,” he said. “But I think we would owe the colonists the dignity of continuing the search and struggle.

“And in the process we’ll get more information about who they were.”