New Clues Bring Search for Indigenous Village of Roanoke to Elizabethan Gardens

This article was originally published by Frank Graff on PBS North Carolina.

Discovering an Algonquian Village’s Connection to the Lost Colony

The story of an English settlement known as the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke and Sir Walter Raleigh’s early explorers remains one of the most fascinating mysteries of American history.

The search for what happened to the English settlers has recently focused on the Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo, where researchers uncovered more evidence of a farmstead belonging to the “Algonquian village of Roanoke” (also spelled Roanoac), an Indigenous community that hosted the explorers in 1584.

Excavations in March 2024 followed discoveries in the summer of 2023, when archaeologists from The First Colony Foundation uncovered what they believe are tantalizing clues. They dug up shards of Algonquian pottery dating back to the 1500s, along with a ring of copper wire they believe could have been an earring once worn by a warrior from an Indigenous tribe.

“Finding domestic pottery—the type used for cooking—in close proximity to an apparent piece of Native American jewelry strongly confirms we are digging in the midst of a settlement,” said Dr. Eric Klingelhofer, the First Colony Foundation’s Vice President of Research. “And Roanoac is the only known village at that site.”

“The copper ring indicates contact with the English,” Klingelhofer continued.

The ring was made of drawn copper, and Klingelhofer believes it was brought to America by English explorers as part of their trade goods. Indigenous peoples did not have the technology to produce such rounded strands, and neither the French nor Spanish explorers ventured as far north as Roanoke Island to trade.

The copper ring would have made for a valuable trade item. Historians say copper had spiritual significance for Indigenous tribes.

What does the soil say?

While artifacts were discovered last summer, the objective of the more recent dig was to find evidence of a farmstead where Algonquian families lived, worked and farmed. Archaeologists recovered charcoal and shards of Algonquian cooking pots.

Evidence from the past two digs appears to confirm a theory that the village of Roanoke was palisaded (surrounded by high walls) with about nine houses where the elite warrior class lived. The working class lived outside the walls on farmsteads, raising crops for themselves and the ruling class.

“The objects we found are important, but it’s their relationship to different soils which are evidence of links to the past, and together that’s what tells the story,” said Klingelhofer. “And we’re beginning to see that this site was more of a capital with a tribal seat where a ruler or chief lived, and it would be palisaded to keep him safe.”

The chief presided over a territory that comprised present-day Dare County, Roanoke Island and parts of the mainland at the time of English exploration and colonization.

Drawing a larger historical picture

“The new findings confirm a theory that matches what we know of the village,” added Klingelhofer. “It was described as a palisaded village because the explorers came here and recorded it. And these findings add to our story.”

The mystery of the Lost Colony is not only where the English settlers went, but also where the 117 men, women and children lived while on Roanoke Island.

History shows the colonists said they intended to move about 50 miles into the mainland; Salmon Creek is about that distance. The First Colony Foundation has been working at two sites in that area for years, and researchers are looking for a third site.

Another exploration is scheduled for this summer at nearby Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. The goal is to find evidence of the colonists’ original settlement.