A simple lab test casts doubt on ‘Lost Colony’ theories

The fate of the Lost Colony on Roanoke is one of the most enduring mysteries in North Carolina’s history. No one knows what happened to the 117 people left on the island in 1587; they had all disappeared by the time English ships returned three years later.

The most popular theories are that the colonists died, from starvation or attack by Spaniards or Native Americans, or they assimilated with local tribes.

A common narrative is that at least some of the Roanoke colonists decamped for Croatan, sailing across the Pamlico Sound to what is now Hatteras Island. Archaeologists, historians and amateur Lost Colony sleuths hold up a gold ring, emblazoned with a lion and discovered on Hatteras in 1998, as one of the best pieces of evidence that the colonists made it to the Outer Banks islands and integrated themselves into the Native American community there.

After all, the only sign left by the colonists was the word “Croatan” carved in a tree.

East Carolina University archaeologist David Phelps, who found the ring, showed it to Lost Colony followers on the Outer Banks. Someone from Manteo talked to the London College of Arms and drew a possible link from the lion seal on the ring to the Kendall family.

Master Abraham Kendall was one of the earlier 1585 colonists at Roanoke. Archaeologists figured the valuable 18-carat gold ring was a tantalizing clue that would put the colonists on Hatteras Island.

But there’s a problem. The ring isn’t gold at all — it’s brass.

It turns out that Phelps never tested the ring. He took it to a jeweler in Nags Head, who looked at the ring and said he thought it was gold.

And those claims linking the ring to the Kendall family, they’re far from proven.

ECU’s Charles Ewen, who took up the Lost Colony research after Phelps retired and passed away, asked a simple question of the established narrative of the ring: “Well, how do I know that?”

That’s when he tested the ring.

In an interview, Ewen said he took the ring from a vault at ECU and went to a lab. An X-ray fluorescence device there, Ewen said, “looks a like a gun, and you zap whatever it is you want to test,” and it will reveal the chemical composition.

“So we zapped the ring, and it’s brass.”

And with that zap, one theory that has tantalized Lost Colony historians for almost 20 years went out the window.

“The one thing that everyone was hanging their hat on was that this was a gold ring,” Ewen said.

The idea of a unique gold ring with connections to the family of one of the colonists was the best evidence that some people from the Lost Colony made it to Croatan. But the new findings mean the ring is probably not connected to the Lost Colony, Ewen said, throwing out the 19-year-old hypothesis.

Andrew Lawler, with Smithsonian Magazine, tracked down Frank Riddick, the jeweler who had seen Phelps’ ring, in Nags Head, where he now runs Fishy Bizness, a charter fishing company. In a Smithsonian Magazine story, timed to come out at the same time Ewen announced his findings last week, Riddick acknowledged that he didn’t test the ring.

“Since this wasn’t about buying or selling, we didn’t do that,” Riddick said in the Smithsonian. “I just told him that I thought it was gold.”

Ewen added that his predecessor did not want to damage the ring with the acid testing technology available at the time.

Checking on the crest on the ring’s face, Ewen said, he also found other rings with a similar lion from sites, like Croatan, that dated to 100 years or so after the colonists went missing, including in a Native American grave in Rhode Island and at Jamestown. The lion on the ring, Ewen said, was relatively common in the 17th century.

“I’m real dubious about the Kendall connection,” he said.

“We have so little data that we can build these alternative narratives that sound really convincing,” Ewen said. He had hoped to find more evidence of English settlers on Hatteras, like European-style burials or building methods.

But Mark Horton, a University of Bristol archaeologist who heads the Cape Creek dig on Hatteras Island, said he’s not convinced the ring didn’t come from the 1587 settlers.

“The fact that the ring is brass actually makes it more similar to other British examples,” Horton told the Smithsonian. “I would argue that it was kept as an heirloom, passed down, and then discarded.”

Ewen presented his latest findings Saturday during a panel discussion at the Roanoke Island Festival Park in Manteo. Lawler, the Smithsonian reporter, moderated the panel with Ewen, Horton and Guy Prentice of the National Park Service Southeast Archaeological Center, who oversees excavations at Fort Raleigh.

Ewen said he is surprised by the subdued response to his news of the ring. “I expected more indignation and outrage,” he said. But, he added, people may need a little time to digest the research before the outrage sets in.

Duncan: 919-829-4880, @duncanreporting