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What “Sleepy Hollow” Didn’t Tell Us About Roanoke’s Lost Colony

Fox’s new fantasy series “Sleepy Hollow” touched on one of the biggest mysteries of American history on Monday: What happened to the lost colony of Roanoke? The fate of the lost colony has stumped historians for centuries. In 1585, Queen Elizabeth I chartered Sir. Walter Raleigh to establish a colony in North America. The colony,...

Fox’s new fantasy series “Sleepy Hollow” touched on one of the biggest mysteries of American history on Monday: What happened to the lost colony of Roanoke?

The fate of the lost colony has stumped historians for centuries. In 1585, Queen Elizabeth I chartered Sir. Walter Raleigh to establish a colony in North America. The colony, by initial accounts, was successful, with 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children. But when a supply ship led by John White (the grandfather of the first English child born in the Americas at Roanoke, Virginia Dare) landed in 1590, he found a deserted settlement and two mysterious carvings: “Croatoan” carved into a post and “Cro” on a nearby tree.

The settlers had vanished—without a trace, without a sign of struggle, and with no clue to what had happened.

So when “Sleepy Hollow” introduced a Roanoke plot line, we checked to see if any new discoveries had been made.

Turns out, we’re a little bit closer to the truth.

Eric Klingelhoffer, an archaeologist at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, and a member of a research project funded by National Geographic and the Waitt Grants program, talked to us about the ongoing efforts to find out what happened in Roanoke.

In Case of Emergency…

The “Croatoan” and “Cro” carvings led White to believe that the colonists had moved to Croatoan Island (known today as Hatteras Island). The governor of Roanoake had also provided instructions, in case of emergency, to travel to a location 50 miles away, or roughly where Croatoan Island was.

No sign of the settlers were ever found there.

But Klingelhoffer and his team think the colonists may have indeed moved to a location 50 miles away—just not in the direction originally discussed.

In particular, the team thinks Albemarle Sound, an estuary that is at the conjunction of several rivers, including the Roanoke, could be a key piece to the puzzle.

“This is well away from Roanoke,” Klingelhoffer points out. “Most people thought [the 50 miles away point] was in Cape Henry or the Chesapeake area in Virginia. But we thought, ‘This could be in any direction.’”

The team has some interesting findings to back this theory up. And the group is pushing previous expeditions with technology that goes beyond classical archaeological techniques.

“We employed land, sea, and air,” he said.

Soil testing in the area has shown signs of Native American life near the head of the sound. A researcher has also found early colonial artifacts as well. Klingelhoffer said that while the age of the artifacts hasn’t been verified, “they could be from the Elizabethan period.”

The shoreline in this area has also yielded clues. Near the mouth of a creek off the sound, archaeologists found remnants of what appear to be a wooden vessel.

“We’re not saying if there’s an Elizabethan ship,” he cautiously said. “But we want to go back to do a serious excavation and go back underwater to see what it is.”

Perhaps the most obvious confluence of modern technology with this age-old enigma is the usage of remote sensing and satellite pictures.

“We’ve done some aerial photography,” Klingelhoffer said. “[We used] ground penetrating radar across the most promising location for Elizabethan activity.”

The artifacts that have been found are promising, though age has yet to be verified. Still, Klingelhoffer is excited about what this might mean.

“No Europeans or Englishmen were on the sound until 1650,” he said. “Is this stuff a holdover from 1650 or earlier, like 1585 [when the Roanoke colony was founded]?”

Clues in Eroding Cliffs

Researchers are now racing against climate change to find out what happened to the lost colony.

Erosion has been a huge problem, washing artifacts out to sea and destroying clues that might point to Roanoke’s fate.

Klingelhoffer recalls an incident in 2007 where a cliff completely collapsed, revealing artifacts that may have come from a long ago village.

He worries that clues will wash away soon.

“The rising sea level is going to destroy [artifacts],” he said. “We need to solve the mystery.”

One thing for sure: Unlike the TV show, nobody expects to find the settlers living a ghostly existence… in New York’s Hudson River Valley.

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Meet the Author

Tanya Basu
Tanya Basu is a news apprentice at National Geographic. She is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Previously, she studied economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.