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January 31, 2010

Special Edition

The Origins of the Lost Colonists

In the past few years, we've focused a great deal on the new technologies available by using DNA.  While we do need that technology, and for the families in the US from Eastern NC, and families in the UK from target areas to test, we also need to specifically identify those families whose members were part of the so-called "Lost Colony".  Otherwise, we have no clear base for comparison. 

To be clear, the colony was never "lost", it was abandoned, unintentionally, but abandoned just the same.  It was only "lost" to history, and in particular to the historians in Europe.  Just ask anyone on Hatteras Island today, or in 1701 when John Lawson asked them, or in-between, and they'll tell you what happened to the colonists.

Of course, our task is to prove they survived and descend to the present.

In the past, various individuals have focused on certain specific names, with some small measure of success.  For example, we know where Ananias Dare and his young wife, Eleanor White were married, and when.  We also now know where Ambrose Viccars and his wife, Elizabeth Phillips were married as well.  Both couples were married in London, the Dare's in 1583 and the Viccars in 1582.  Aside from that and some potentially exciting location possibilities for John White and Ananias Dare, we've all pretty much come up empty handed. 

I've extracted what Dr. William S. Powell had to say about his research into the colonists over his more than 30 year career.  He was saddened by how little he and others had been able to discover, despite decades of research.  My extractions of his final comments and summary of what he had been able to surmise about the identify of each colonists is found at this link on our website.

Since that time, Nelda Percival has discovered court filings pertaining to the guardianship of John Dare, illegitimate minor son of Ananias Dare, filed in 1594, shortly after the required 7 year wait required to declare someone dead.  In 1597, John was still a minor.

Other surname researchers in some cases have done extensive research on a particular surname, which is immensely helpful to us.  The most recent example of this is the Dare surname project who kindly contributed an "Ancient Dare Timeline" to our project.  However, we're still wrestling with some critical issues, like which John White is "the" John White, and which Ananias Dare is "the" Ananias Dare.  Minor details, no???

As we work through the volumes of both original documents and publications since the time of the colonists, it has become evident to us that while we are searching for individual colonists' families, we are also searching for a group of people who had to have some common bond, interest or opportunity to bring them together as the group that would become the "Lost Colonists".  These people, at least some of them, had to know each other.  They had to live close to each other.  They had to find out about the opportunity. 

White himself states in his journal that he feels particularly responsible because he himself recruited several members of the group.  We also know that many of the people in the "lost colonists" group and earlier voyages bore the same surname, and in some cases, the identical name, as a lost colonist.  This suggests a family connection between the groups at minimum.  We also know that Robert Coleman who drown on the 1590 rescue expedition was along, not as a sailor, but as a family member searching for his brother Thomas Coleman.  In the same vein, we know that John Pory from Jamestown was the brother of Anne who married "lost colonist" Robert Ellis.  Anne is not among the names on the colonist roster, so we don't know if she had died or if she stayed home, awaiting the next voyage to Virginia.  But her brother came to look for Robert more than 20 years later, and got breathtakingly close, prevented from making contact with reported colonists only by an Indian war.

Andy Powell, our British historical liaison as well as Mayor of Bideford, and I decided to take a look at our colonists in a bit of a different manner.  Rather than look for specific details, we decided to look at the 50,000 foot level and see what kinds of patterns we might be able to find.

Andy had previously done some demographic work with the colonists surnames.  He is in a unique position, of course, living in Bideford today, with access to records that are not available here.

After Andy analyzed each of the surnames and their variants, I asked him to write a summary document that described what he found.  As we expected, the colonists fell into several groupings, but not always where we expected.  What we did expect to find was a concentration in the West Country area centering on Devon, and we found that.  There was a secondary group in the West Midlands area and also one in Scotland.  Wondering about this?  Let's let Andy tell us what he found, and why he thinks it's particularly relevant to solving the mystery of the Lost Colony.  Our feature article in our Special Edition is courtesy of Bideford's Mayor Powell.

I'd like to thank both Mayor Andy Powell and Nelda Percival, our webmistress, for their continued hard work and perseverance in their search for the colonists.  Nelda extracted IGI information for all of the colonist surnames and a portion of Andy's recent work appears here. 



By Andy Powell

A number of years ago I formulated a theory that many of the Lost Colonists had common origins. The research I conducted at that time was not entirely laid down on scientific principles but it did provide enough evidence to support that theory.

Now, in 2010, Roberta Estes has recreated that exercise using a more scientific foundation; the outcome of which confirms much of my original results. It is thrilling to have one’s work vindicated and I extend my grateful thanks to Roberta for doing so.

If we analyze these results and combine them with what we know or can hypothesize with a degree of foundation, we obtain some interesting correlations.

Firstly, if we look at the 1585 voyage and the military colonists, many of their surnames and those of the accompanying mariners also appear in the 1587 colonists roster. Some may even be one and the same individual (e.g. Edward Powell). This is strongly suggestive of family connections, principally I believe, with the father seeing the Colony as a new beginning for his son and an escape from the relative poverty of workers in England at that time. We can be in no doubt that the exploits of their adventure in 1585 would have been told to family and friends.

There are also some anomalous individuals, several single women and obviously a great many single men. It is not unrealistic to suggest that some of them may have been miscreants of the day, or even surplus to requirements, and their landlord/s simply using the colony as a means to rid themselves of them. The reality of any of the singletons being girlfriend/boyfriend relationships seems unlikely given that we know some of the married couples tied the knot shortly before sailing, (e.g. The Dares and Viccars) and did so no doubt due to an awareness of the enormity of the task that lay before them and the likelihood of survival or even at return to England being slim at best.

As if to underline this, I have recently discovered a document which is a Last Will and Testament of Sir Richard Grenville, Admiral of the Fleet that took the 1585 Military Colony to Roanoke. It was written a few weeks before he sailed in 1585.

As for the number of single men, we have to assume that their passage was envisaged as a working party to set up the colony, possibly in the Chesapeake Bay area as originally intended.  What assumptions they had we can only guess at. Was it for the promises of a safe return to perhaps collect partners and sweethearts for the next voyage, or was it that they really were miscreant or surplus as considered, or was it simply a job? One thing we can be sure of, they did not sail with the intention of marrying and settling with the local ‘savages’ as the Croatoans were termed.

Secondly, the demographics themselves do reveal some relatively strong patterns; The West Midlands, Lincolnshire, West Scotland/Ireland, Portsmouth/Hampshire, Somerset/Dorset, Devon (Bideford/Plymouth), and West Cornwall; all feature very prominently.

Although rather subjective at this time I am inclined to largely dismiss London origins. My reasoning for this is twofold.

One, that London was fashionable and a Mecca for the landed gentry (witness the names associated with the Investors and ‘Gentlemen’ participants) and in almost every case, these people had estates in the country and simply used London as a giant commercial and communication hub, which is effectively what it was…. a central meeting place, and of course where money was discussed.

Two, such a large population would hardly know of any such venture to Virginia, and effectively signed up for it, without some form of mass marketing. Do we have any posters advertising the voyage? Any Parish records of the dozens of communities in London being asked for volunteers? Is there anything in the London guilds (such as the Painters and Stainers Guild) recording the request for volunteers of specific trades (as recommended by Hakluyt)? In short with such widespread for potential sources of evidence it would be surprising if nothing survived to support this theory. Yet there is nothing, thus, the only answer can be no.

If there were any London connections these would seem largely to point at White’s ‘Administrators’ who may in some part have been working on behalf of the Investors as (for example) book-keepers.

However, given that being a favoured courtier at the Elizabethan court was fickle at best, there being regular stories of deceit and treachery; it is hardly likely that any prominent individual whose downfall might result in the promotion of another at this court, or worse, result in the dismantling of their estate to the benefit of that rival; would have entrusted their personal finances to a (for example) ‘Roger Bailie & Co. Accountants’ for fear of that company being owned or influenced by a more powerful enemy. Nevertheless, if this was the case and such generic institutions were used, it seems hardly likely that their valuable and trusted employees would have simply been let go without some return from the colony investors; but there are no known records of any such correspondence.

So what of the other demographic areas?  I believe they fall largely into two distinct focus groups:


The Hampshire or more specifically Portsmouth connection could be down to one simple fact. The fitting out of the ships at Portsmouth for a voyage to plant a colony in Virginia would have been common knowledge amongst the towns-folk, as significant numbers of them would have been called upon to supply victuals etc. Given that Raleigh wanted 150 “Planters” and was well short even when finally sailing (117), we have to accept that some of the Colonists may simply have been speculative enquiries of the Ship’s Captains.

It is likely that the demographic traits surrounding Plymouth in Devon could be for exactly the same reason. Plymouth was a stopover for the outbound 1587 colony.


The West Midlands have a connection through the Earl of Shrewsbury an investor in the colony and one who was certainly known to Raleigh & Grenville. George Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury had a flagship called ‘Talbot’ of some 200 tunnes which took part in Drakes West Indian adventure; the one that relieved Ralph Lane’s colony.

The Lincolnshire connection has yet to be tied in via a known Investor but the nucleus of surnames largely exclusive to the area may be through Hakluyt’s advice for good builders; Lincolnshire being specifically known for this at the time, the evidence for which is in the signature style of the area’s house construction.

Somerset/West Dorset; the remaining Devon areas (North Devon ~ Bideford, and East Devon); and West Cornwall, all have overwhelming connections to the most pivotal players and investors in the Colony ~ Grenville (North Devon), Raleigh (East Devon), Sackville (Somerset and Dorset); and Sir John Arundell (West Cornwall).

The West Scotland/Southern Ireland (Cork) connection had been puzzling me for a long time but a recent discussion with Professor Mark Horton, who has studied early Scottish migratory patterns, revealed that in the case of the colonists it seems most likely that we can determine their migration as due to religious persecution.

In the late 1500’s Scotland was still a country in its own right under Mary, Queen of Scots; a staunchly Roman Catholic follower. There can be no doubt therefore that many Protestants were evicted from their lands.

Sir Walter Raleigh knew of their plight and had connections with the west coast area of Scotland. It seems very likely that given his need to secure his Irish estates from the Irish warlords, he took a ready-made colony from the west coast of Scotland and transplanted it to his estates in southern Ireland. Here we must also recognize that Grenville, Raleigh’s in-law through marriage, had estates. This explains the prevalence of Scottish names in Southern Ireland and probably the mixing in of a few loyal Irish workers also living and working on the English estates in Cork.

So how did they become colonists? We know that in the latter part of the 1580’s much of the Irish estates of Grenville and Raleigh were not faring well. I believe that when Grenville and Raleigh were looking for colonists they looked in part, to their Irish estates.

Excepting the ‘walk-on’ candidates at Plymouth and Portsmouth, the remaining demographic ‘hotspots’ leave us with one problem; the logistics of how they all came together to be ‘Lost’ Colonists.

What we have to look at in considering this is that England’s highways of the day were appalling; if they existed at all they were the remains of the once great Roman roads (still a feature of today’s highway network.) The distance from Bideford to Plymouth overland was three days by sea and could be up to four by land and even today this is still a two hour journey to cover a distance of 70 miles, which even in January 2010 was impassible for two days due to snow.

Further, many roads passed through woodlands renown for highway robbery; let alone the more rudimentary fact that few of the colonists would have had horses let alone carriages and carts by which to take their lives to port with.

This leaves sea travel, and whilst we know of occasional pirating activities, which would have created some risk, (Sir Richard Grenville was recorded as dealing with two notable cases at Padstow in 1581 and Studland Bay (Dorset) in 1582); sea travel was clearly the safest and simplest option.

For those in East Devon and West Dorset it would have been a simple matter of a coastal sailing, probably from Lyme Regis, a Port central to both areas (and of course known for Dare’s.)

Whilst those from the West Midlands could quite readily have sailed down the River Severn (a major navigable river through the area and not least upon which the town of Shrewsbury stands) and into the Bristol Channel. Possibly staying over or meeting up with others at Bideford.

The Lincolnshire contingent may have been hired specifically. There passage may have been via ship from London, or they may have braved the notorious but well travelled London-Portsmouth road. (It is not inconceivable that they may have been working on buildings in London, perhaps even Raleigh’s Durham House?)

As for the Scottish contingent and their Irish counterparts in southern Ireland, we need look no further than the local port of Youghal, the principal port serving these estates. Grenville, acting under instructions from Raleigh simply picked them up and transported them to Bideford; not only the nearest English Port, but Grenville’s home port. Youghal was also a Port which Bideford had traded with probably even before the 1500’s and did so right through until the 1930’s.

This connection would also explain why some of the Scottish surnames are so prevalent in the North Devon area today; e.g. Harris.

The Cornish contingent would have readily travelled from Falmouth.

What we now have is Colonists amassed around Bideford, Plymouth, and Portsmouth.

It is extremely unlikely that the majority of Colonists sailed from Bideford to board the ships at Portsmouth. For a start, to get from Bideford or any other western or northern point of origin they would have had to sail past Plymouth to get there; highly unlikely.

Interestingly, although not yet transcribed at the time of writing this, the 1589 Hakluyt document tells us (from a first-hand account) that three ships left Portsmouth in 1587 and then spent the next eight days riding at Cowes before sailing to Plymouth where they moored for a further two days.

Cowes is not twenty minutes out to sea from Portsmouth, being a principal port on the northern side of the neighbouring Isle of Wight. It is therefore inconceivable that the ships would have set sail with 117 colonists onboard only to anchor a few miles off-shore, for eight days.

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