Teachers Handbook Part 3


The homesites of the colonists have yet to be found. Although some of the structures were apparently a story and a half, and all were "substantial", little evidence such as nails, broken glass or utensils has been found. These items were prized by the Indians and might have been carried away. The houses and outbuildings constructed by Ralph Lane's men in 1585 were rebuilt and used again by the 1587 settlement. Some 300 people lived in these semi-permanent structures over a 3-year period.

Where is there evidence of these structures today? Were their dwellings near the fort as would seem natural, or did the colonists move to a more favorable location, using the fort only in time of danger? Could the Indians have erased all signs of colonist habitation between the disappearance of the "Lost Colony" and the rediscovery of the fort? Archeological investigations have so far left these questions unanswered. The major feature uncovered thus far by archaeologists is an earthwork fort which is believed to have been constructed by either Ralph Lane's expedition in 1585 or by 15 men left by Sir Richard Grenville in 1586.

Much documentary evidence supports that the earthwork was built by Sir Walter Raleigh's colonists. According to a letter dated May 8, 1654, from Francis Yeardley to John Farrar of Jamestown, a young fur trader and three companions went to Roanoke Island in September 1653. An Indian chieftain "received them civilly and showed them the ruins of Sir Walter Raleigh's fort..."

Historian, traveller and surveyor John Lawson wrote in 1701 that "..a Brass-Gun, a Powder Horn and one small Quarter-deck-Gun made of iron staves and hooped with the same metal.." could be seen in the ruins of the fort.

An act of 1723 for establishing a proposed town of Carteret on Roanoke Island speaks of "three hundred Acres of Land lying of the No. E't side of the Said Island, commonly called Roanoak old plantation." This suggests that by the early eighteenth century the northeastern part of the island was generally regarded as the scene of Raleigh's settlement.

The earliest known map to show the earthwork fort is the Collet map of 1770. It places the fort at what appears to be its present site near the shoreline on the northeast side of the island. The structure is marked simply "Fort". A later copyist called it "Pain Fort", probably out of confusion over the notation of the Paine family residence on the Collet map.

Even well into the nineteenth century, scholars and journalists noted the fort structure. Historian Benson J. Lossing, wrote in 1850 that "slight traces of Lane's fort" could then be seen "near the north end" of Roanoke Island. Writer Edward C. Bruce reported in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in May 1860 that the trench of the fort was clearly traceable as a square of about 40 yards each way, with one corner thrown out in the form of a small bastion. He also mentioned fragments of stone and brick.

Partial archeological excavation of the fort area was undertaken by Talcott Williams in 1895. While he did not prove the existence of the fort archeologically, he did report finding many "fragments of charcoal and frequent firepits."

From 1935 through 1946, National Park Service historians made intensive studies of all available documentary and map data relating to the fort. They concluded that the fort surveyed by the Roanoke Colony Memorial Association in 1896 was Lane's fort. The historians further theorized that the shape of the fort was similar to a bastion built by Lane in Puerto Rico. However, they could not be sure of this because no picture or plan of the Roanoke fort has been found. National Park Service archeological work carried on under the direction of J.C. Harrington during the summers of 1947, 1948 and 1950 established the truth of the historians' conjectures. Enough of the fort moat, or ditch, was found intact to justify the restoration of the fort, and valuable artifact materials were recovered at the fort site and west of its entrance.

The restoration work began in 1950. Earthen fill which had accumulated since 1586 was removed from the fort's moat and placed where the parapet had been, thus restoring the parapet and the moat. The amount of earth in the ditch, as disclosed through archeological methods, determined the height of the parapet) which was shaped in accordance with data in such 16th-century manuals as Paul Ive's, The Practise of Fortification.

Lane's fort, as revealed and restored by the archeologists, is basically a square, with pointed bastions built on two sides of the square and an octagonal bastion built on a third side. The octagonal bastion is suggestive of the arrowhead bastion of Lane's Puerto Rico fort and the octagonal bastion of an English fort built in Maine in 1607.

The parapet of the fort encloses an area approximately 50 feet square. The interior had been dug into so many times and in so many places over the centuries that Harrington was unable to say for sure what structures had been inside the fort. Traces of what may have been one long structure or two short ones were found near the center of the fort at right angles to the main entrance. Presumably, there was also a well and a powder magazine. The few pieces of brick uncovered may relate to the footings or chimneys, or structures in the fort or the magazine. One brick fragment was of the proper gage to have been from the Elizabethan period; when the sizes of bricks were regulated by law.

Today, large dunes lie between the fort and Roanoke Sound and obstruct the view of the water. Archeological tests have determined that the dunes were formed after the settlement. Thus, the fort may have originally commanded a view of Roanoke Sound), a good defensive position.

Though the site of the fort has been located, the "Cittie" has not. The search is continuing, for until the actual dwelling places of the colonists are found, the story of English colonizing efforts on Roanoke Island will be incomplete. From written records, we know how they found food, dealt with the Indians, and searched for gold and pearls. We could learn much more about the people and their daily lives if their habitation sites could be found. The small bits of evidence merely heighten the mystery and serve to accentuate the fact that the fort was not the center of the settlement, but rather a defensive structure used in time of emergency.

Among the many objects brought to light by archeological excavation of the fort site was a wrought-iron sickle. It was found at the bottom of the moat. Undoubtedly, it was one of the tools used when the fort was built. Archeological evidence shows that the loose dirt of the fort's parapet began to wash back into the ditch almost as soon as the fort was completed. Even more interesting, perhaps, are three latten (an alloy of copper, zinc, and lead) counters which were found inside the fort. Such devices were popular in Europe during the 16th century for keeping arithmetical accounts. The three found at the fort carry the symbols of Tudor England and on one the name Hans Schultes Zu Nuremberg is readable. Schultes manufactured such counters between 1550 and 1574, when Nuremberg was a center for the making of counters. The Tudor symbol indicates he made this one for the English trade.

Also of great interest are the fragments of large Spanish olive jars found in the excavations. Because the colonists of 1585-86 traded for supplies in Puerto Rico and Haiti on their way to Roanoke Island, it was expected that such objects would be found in the ruins.

Fragments of pottery which appear to be either Spanish or Hispano-American, large iron spikes, a casement bar, and other materials were found. Indian pottery and traces of Indian campfires at various soil levels show that the American Indians returned to Roanoke Island and inhabited the fort area after the last colonists left.

While workmen were digging a utility trench in 1959, they discovered brick fragments near the restored earthworks. In subsequent archeological excavations during 1965, American Indian pottery, bricks, roofing tiles and a ceramic bottle were found within what appeared to be an outlying structure. This "Outwork" was presumably a structure related to the fort. After studying the "Outwork", archeologist J.C. Harrington concluded that it might have been built of logs because log molds were found on the site.

Only four whole bricks were found in the "Outwork". Many other brick shards were apparently used in American Indian campfires. Overall, the bricks were of poor quality. Scientific tests conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, determined that the bricks were likely made of local clay. While the bricks could not be precisely dated, they were similar in size to bricks found at Jamestown. An unusual feature of the bricks was that they were abraded. Archaeologists believe that the colonists possibly used them to sharpen weapons or to shine armor.

Archeologists were greatly excited in 1983 by the discovery of another possible fort site. During soil testing, a disturbance resembling the reconstructed fort in size and shape was found in the Visitor Center parking lot area. A later soil test in 1989 concluded that the disturbances actually resulted from park construction in the 1960's.

The latest archaeological excavations have yielded the most promise in the search for clues. In the Fall of 1991 archeologist Ivor Noel Hume and a team of veteran archeologists from the National Park Service and the Virginia Company Foundation uncovered the workplace of German metallurgist Joachim Ganz. The Ganz workshop, constructed in 1585, has been called "the birthplace of American Science".

More than sixty artifacts were found on what was the dirt floor of the laboratory. They included crucible sherds, fragments of chemical glassware, American Indian potsherds, and a piece of an Indian tobacco pipe. The thin shards of glass, possibly used in apothecary work, are the earliest examples of English glass ever found in America.

Ivor Noel Hume and his team returned for two weeks between October 24 and November 6, 1992 and continued excavating the Ganz/Harriot laboratory. This excavation has resulted in a possible new interpretation of J.C. Harrington's "Outwork".

Harrington had concluded in 1965 that the "Outwork" was likely related to a smaller earthen fort. Noel Hume now believes that the structure may have been either an independently standing watchtower or a building used for the safe storage of the Ganz/Harriot equipment.

A possible new interpretation of the earthen fort is also emerging. Archeologists found evidence that the Ganz/Harriot workshop and the fort were built by different colonial expeditions. It now seems possible to interpret the small earthen fort as having been built by a group of fifteen men left behind by Sir Richard Grenville in 1586. This interpretation challenges the older view that the fort was built by the soldiers of the 1585 Ralph Lane colony.

The recent archeological work at Fort Raleigh has raised new questions and challenged old answers. Yet, one thing is certain: there is now a better understanding of the first scientific work carried on by the English in North America and a renewed interest in solving the mystery of the "Lost Colony".

An adaptation of the Official National Park Service Handbook 130, FORT RALEIGH and the First English Settlement in the New World by Charles W. Porter III, produced by the Division of Publications, National Park Service, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, printed by the Government Printing Office.

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Last updated: April 14, 2015

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