A site thought to be linked to the Lost Colony is now part of a new state nature preserve

A swatch of swamp and farm land at the head of Albemarle Sound that may contain archaeological clues about the fate of the famed Lost Colony is now a state nature preserve.

The Salmon Creek State Natural Area covers 1,000 acres in a remote corner of Bertie County, where the creek meets the sound near the mouth of the Chowan River. The N.C. Coastal Land Trust bought the land and recently gave it to the state parks department.

The property had been approved for development of up to 2,800 homes and a 212-slip marina, said Camilla Herlevich, the land trust’s executive director. Though that project was abandoned with the recession 10 years ago, Herlevich said the owners put the property back on the market in early 2017.

“It was listed for a price for immediate sale but at a price below what we had planned to offer,” she said. “It became pretty clear to us that time is money.”

So the land trust borrowed money — something it seldom does — to buy the property, then sought grants from several sources, including the state Clean Water Management Trust Fund, the state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to pay off the loans.

The new nature preserve borders about 3.5 miles of the north bank of Salmon Creek and includes about 400 acres of cypress-gum swamp and mature bottomland forest. The rest of the property is farmed for trees and crops.

Near the shore of the sound is an area where archaeologists have found evidence of a Native American village as well as a European settlement from as early as the late 1500s. Phillip Evans, president of the First Colony Foundation, the nonprofit behind the work, said the findings include ceramics from the period as well as a lead seal made in Germany in the late 1500s, an item that people wouldn’t likely keep for long.

“It’s like the tag on your clothes; you throw it away,” Evans said. “It shows they are there, they’re active, and they’re using fabrics they brought with them.”

Evans calls the tag “a little piece of the answer to the mystery of the Lost Colony,” the attempt to establish an English settlement on Roanoke Island starting in 1585. When John White, the leader of the second of two expeditions to the island, returned from an extended trip to England in 1590, the settlers were gone.

In 2012, researchers at the British Museum in London took a closer look at a map White drew in the 1580s and discovered a patch covering a symbol near the mouth of Salmon Creek that suggests a fort or other settlement. The First Colony Foundation has focused its efforts on this area, known as “Site X,” which is surrounded by a larger Native American settlement called Mettaquem.

Archaeologists have known about Mettaquem for decades, but it was only during archaeological work required in advance of the potential development of the Salmon Creek property that English pottery thought to be from the 1600s turned up, said Nicholas Luccketti of the James River Institute for Archaeology in Williamsburg, Va., who did the surveys. Luccketti, who works with the First Colony Foundation, said later discoveries at Site X now suggest that some members of the Lost Colony were there.

“It’s not the relocation site of a large group of colonists,” he said. “Our speculation is that it’s just a few of them.”

Luccketti said the Salmon Creek property also likely contains artifacts from the home of Thomas Pollock, a colonial governor in the early 1700s who named his plantation Balgra after his ancestral home in Scotland. The development planned for this land would have been called Bal Gra Harbor.

Luccketti called the preservation of the site by the land trust “a remarkable achievement.”

“It’s an extremely rare occurrence for significant archaeological sites not to be destroyed by development,” he said.

The archaeological sites, as well as the swamp forests along the creek, are the main reasons the state is making it a natural area and not a park, which would receive far more visitors, said Katie Hall, spokeswoman for the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation. Hall said there will likely be some types of “low-impact” public use of the property, such as kayaking and canoeing, in the future.

“We’re just getting the property into our system,” she said. “We’ll start thinking about how it will be protected in the long-term and what that will mean for public access.”

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.