They were the first. Then they were gone. Forever.
But the search has never ceased for the lost colonists of Roanoke Island.
Now, Brenau University President Ed Schrader is among a new crop of scientific clue-hunters to explore the fate of the original 115 English colonists off the coast of present-day North Carolina in 1587.
“You get back to what’s history and what’s legend,” he said.
It’s an enduring mystery of the settling of the New World that has haunted and intrigued generations, sparking in recent years a History Channel docu-drama with scenes filmed on the Brenau campus and a new article in the June edition of National Geographic magazine – plus an accompanying book on the subject by the same author.
Schrader is a geologist by study and trade, and since the 1930s Brenau has housed dozens of stones that purportedly render an account of the what happened to the lost colonists.
The public got its first look at the “Dare Stones” when a California man walked into the history department of Emory University in Atlanta in 1937 with a 21-pound slab of quartzite he claimed to have unearthed along a coastal North Carolina floodplain.
Etched into its hard, varnished surface, the stone held the tale of what befell the colonists, most of whom died or were reportedly killed by American Indians.
Similar stones with similar stories emerged in the wake of this news, which are also archived at Brenau, though many have been discounted as obvious forgeries.
Schrader, for his part, figured the whole story was phony when he arrived on campus 14 years ago.
“So when I came … I saw a couple of the obviously counterfeit Dare Stones,” Schrader said. “It’s a hoax and I didn’t mess with it. I didn’t even look into it.”
But when finally his “curiosity piqued” about five years ago, his immediate impression was, he said, “Oh my god.”
“First of all, you kick yourself in the butt because this has been sitting around … and you’ve paid no attention to it,” he said.
The original stone, and the source of its name, is reputedly written by Eleanor Dare, who gave birth to a daughter, Virginia, the first English child born in the New World, shortly after landing on Roanoke.
Dare was the daughter of John White, the colony’s governor, who set sail for England on a re-supply mission but did not return for three years.
By that time, the colonists were gone, Roanoke Island abandoned, and few clues left about their whereabouts or fate.
Dare’s husband was a stone mason, and she likely learned the trade as well, Schrader said.
He believes the finely cut, intricate carvings, though imperfect as they are without rounded letters, for example, serve as evidence of the stone’s authenticity.
In fact, a noticeable chunk flaked off when a cross was carved into the upper-center half of one side of the stone.
Schrader said that represents “a soft touch.”
“To me, there’s just a stark difference between this stone, both in its text and its appearance, and all of those other stones,” Schrader said. “It also tells us the person was a relatively skilled stone carver. That’s proof of it right there.”
The stone itself is likely a grave marker, he added, with one side memorializing the dead (describing “Onlie Misarie & Warre”) and the other an SOS.
“It was like, ‘Give this to my father and get me the hell out of here,’” Schrader said.
Though there is ongoing academic debate about whether the language used, such as word choices and spellings, are of the Elizabethan Age, Schrader believes other evidence points to its legitimacy.
In 2016, he had the rock sampled.
“I cut this heel off so we could analyze it chemically and find out what kind of rock it is,” Schrader said, describing the slab as tabular, like pancakes flattened together.
The bright white quartz, being known to the Appalachian foothills and piedmont inland of the coastal plain where the stone was discovered, Schrader said, made it an “entirely possible source … within a reasonable distance. Just exactly what you’d expect to find.”
“That’s kind of where we are right now,” he added.
It’s not a matter of proving its authenticity, however, so much as investigating and disproving claims of fraud.
But Schrader, on a recent afternoon while holding the stone in his hand, said he’s more confident than ever in its genuine authorship.
The fascination with the lost colonists endures, Schrader said, because the story is likely to always remain “open-ended.” People can make up their own stories about the fate of the first European settlers.
There is “enough geologic inference to say, plausibly, it is real,” Schrader said. “Whether that’s real or not, I don’t know. But it’s one of the reasons people are attracted to this (story).