BUXTON, N.C. (AP) – The ground teems with evidence that John White’s Lost Colony came here.
A few shovelfuls of earth in a school yard or private driveway can uncover relics dating to the late 1500s, when English settlers landed on - and then mysteriously left - Roanoke Island 50 miles to the north.
Mark Horton, a professor and archaeologist from England’s University of Bristol, and local historian Scott Dawson have led digs in Buxton backyards and wooded lots within sight of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse every year since 2009.
Each trip turns up thousands of artifacts including coins, parts of guns and swords, and pieces of English clothing mingled with arrowheads, beads and rock tools of the natives. Most of the finds are American Indian in origin, but there are enough Elizabethan remnants, Dawson said, to show that the missing colonists assimilated with the natives on present-day Hatteras Island.
“The colony did not know they were lost,” said Dawson, 38, founder of the Croatoan Archaeological Society. “What else do you need? There is this mountain of archaeology.”
The company of more than 100 settlers that over the last four centuries has become known as the Lost Colony is at the center of one of the great mysteries in American history. Different groups have focused on different theories and archaeological digs trying to learn its fate.
The National Park Service has conducted and sponsored excavations on Roanoke Island, the original landing spot, which have produced promising artifacts. Mainland areas of Bertie and Dare counties have revealed mixed English and American Indian relics.
For Dawson and Horton, the answers are on Hatteras.
England sent at least four expeditions to the Outer Banks in the late 1500s, including one led by White in the summer of 1587. He returned to England after only a few weeks for more supplies, and got delayed.
It was three years before he could return to Roanoke Island where he discovered that the colony - including his daughter, Eleanor Dare, and his granddaughter Virginia - had vanished.
White found “CROATOAN” carved on a post and “cro” on a tree, but none of the distress marks they had agreed upon.
“It’s very straightforward: They went to Croatan,” Dawson said. “They literally wrote it down.”
Croatoan natives including Manteo, a leader, from the area of modern-day Buxton befriended the Lost Colony settlers. Manteo traveled to England with the explorers and was baptized a Christian on Roanoke Island.
Another tribe in the area, the Secotans, was not friendly with the English or the Croatoans, giving them a common enemy, Dawson said. That would be why the settlers left Roanoke Island for safety and sustenance with the Croatoans, Dawson said.
White recorded that he was never able to search Hatteras Island because of weather and dwindling supplies. He returned to England, never seeing his fellow colonists again. But his writings indicate he took solace in the message carved into the post, Dawson said.
“I greatly joyed that I had found a certain token of their being at Croatoan where Manteo was born ...,” White wrote.
Explorer John Lawson visited Hatteras in 1701 and wrote of the natives he found, “These are them that wear English dress.”
They had gray eyes and knew the name of Walter Raleigh, he wrote.
“There’s no question there were Elizabethans at Hatteras Island,” said Phil Evans, president of the First Colony Foundation, which has sponsored digs in Bertie County where there may have been a fort.
Evidence shows the English were also in Hatteras before 1587 from previous expeditions, Evans said. Portions of the colony went inland, he said. Some died naturally. Some died at the hands of hostile tribes.
“There are any number of fates that could have befallen the Lost Colony,” he said.
A portion of the local discoveries are on display at the public library in Hatteras Village.
Dawson has found ancient pieces of history in the ground since childhood. Hurricane Emily in 1993 uncovered hundreds of relics and drew the attention of the late David Phelps, a professor from East Carolina University. He conducted digs here in the 1990s, finding solid evidence of native and English assimilation, including a gun lock and a ring.
Horton agreed to a test dig in 2009 after meeting Dawson in Manteo. Horton found ancient fragments after a few shovelfuls in a space about the size of a kitchen table.
The discoveries go beyond life in the 1500s. Hatteras Island students found loads of American Indian pottery and arrowheads dating back more than 1,000 years just 2 feet underground behind their school. Archaeologists found a token used centuries ago to take inventory of a ship’s goods in a local driveway. They later found a lead pencil and writing slate dating to the late 1500s that appear to bear images of letters and an Englishman with a gun.
Fragments from later events such as the Civil War show up frequently, Dawson said.
“Every single shovel has artifacts in it,” Dawson said. “This is the closest thing to time travel there is.”