Are These Rocks the Final Clue to the Fate of the Lost Colony, or a Forgery?

70 years ago, tourists found a collection of rocks carved with the story of what happened to the Lost Colony, but they were dismissed as false. Now they're getting attention again.

The Dare Stones Come out of the Basement
June 14, 2018

First Stone Discovered in 1937

It is probably safe to call this story "Romancing the Stone" (to borrow a title from Hollywood). Here’s why. The public got its first look at what are called the Dare Stones in 1937, when a man walked into the geology department at Emory University carrying a 21-pound rock he claimed he had found near the North Carolina-Virginia border. He was looking for someone who could explain the strange markings on the stone.

Emory researchers deciphered the message and discovered a heartbreaking plea from Eleanor Dare to her father, Governor John White. It was Eleanor who gave birth to Virginia Dare, soon after the English colonists landed on Roanoke Island. Virginia was the first English child born in the new world. The message told by the carved letters begins “Father Soone After You Goe for England Wee Cam Hither”. It goes on to explain how the colony suffered two years of “Onlie Misarie & Warre.” Half the settlers died during that period. The remaining English were killed in Indian attacks, including Virginia and Eleanor’s husband Ananais.

The tourist told the scientists he found the stone about 50 miles inland from Roanoke Island. That matches Governor White’s description that the settler’s had planned to move about 50 miles inland. Remember in 1587, the English colony’s Governor, John White left about 115 colonists on Roanoke Island, promising to return soon from England with supplies. Because of war, weather and other issues, he didn’t return from three years. When White arrived in 1590, he found an empty settlement. The only clue to the colonists’ fate were the words “Croatoan” and “Cro” carved into a gatepost and a tree nearby. Some thought it meant the settlers left for Hatteras Island, which was known as Croatan Island back then. But the mystery was never solved.

Georgia stonecutter finds close to 40 more stones with similar markings

The Emory team claimed the message to be authentic. Soon after, a Georgia stonecutter found almost 40 more stones, with messages also claiming to be written by Eleanor Dare. Those messages told of a hellish journey by the remaining colonists, which ended near present day Atlanta.

Yes it’s all amazing and it plays to the public’s fascination with one of history’s biggest mysteries: the fate of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. But does it solve the mystery? Hardly. That’s because there are lots of questions. Not long after the discovery of the additional stones, the Emory team started to question the authenticity of the first stone. The questions grew when the tourist who claimed to have found the stone couldn’t be located. The rocks were transferred to Brenau College near Atlanta and the research continued.

Doubts grow about the authenticity of the stones

In 1940, a research team from Harvard met at Brenau to study all of the rocks and reported “the preponderance of evidence points to the authenticity of the stones.” As you can imagine, the world was fascinated. But one year later, a scathing article in The Saturday Evening Post cast doubt on the entire story. The words fake and fraud were used. All of that bad publicity ruined careers and created plenty of embarrassment for the small college. Brenau College officials promptly locked the stones in the basement.

Fast forward almost 70 years. Brenau College’s new president, Ed Schrader, who is also a geologist and fascinated by the Lost Colony mystery, pulled that first stone out of the basement and had it studied at the University of North Carolina Asheville. Researchers chipped off a piece of the quartzite stone and found the interior to be a bright white, while the exterior and the carvings were a darker color. That seemed to suggest the stones might be authentic, because to a Roanoke colonist, the writing would be bright against the darker stone. It would also be difficult for a forger to duplicate. That caught the media’s and the public’s interest. The June 2018 issue of National Geographic is shedding new light on the stones and the college. The stones were also the subjects of a 2017 History Channel special.

Is a modern study of the rocks needed?

Since then, several other experts, ranging from art conservators to historians, have weighed in on both sides of the debate. Everyone agrees that a modern study of the rocks is needed, utilizing all of the new technology available. That is what the college’s president hopes to bring together soon. President Schrader admits he is skeptical of authenticity of the additional stones that were found, but believes there is a strong possibility that the first stone could be authentic and is worth examining. Others aren’t so sure. Phillip Evans, the president of the First Colony Foundation, expressed his doubts about the rocks to officials at Brenau College in April, 2018. The Durham non-profit which studies the Lost Colony is excavating a site along the Chowan River where it believe some of the colonists settled near a Native American village. UNC-TV Science did a story on the project.

“This isn’t a science story, it’s a history story and people want it to be real because it appeals to their emotions,” Evans emailed UNC-TV. “But a careful reading of the stone and a study of the history of the Roanoke voyages puts their authenticity into question.”

“The first stone is most interesting and it’s a 50-50 chance it’s real so it’s worth studying,” says David La Vere, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who wrote a book about the mysterious stones. The college hasn’t set a timetable for when the study begins.


—Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

Related Resources:

Video: New Clues to Lost Colony.