Can Lost Colony ‘mystery’ be solved through DNA testing?

By Sara Whitford

I have been asked this, and similar questions, multiple times over the years because of my connection with Coastal Carolina Indian Center, as well as my role as the Group Administrator for the East Carolina Roots DNA Project. I figured it was finally time to write a post about it for anyone who is interested.

It is a question I always have to answer with a question:

“How can one match DNA to the Lost Colonists, or even the Indians of Croatoan, definitively, considering there are no genetic samples from which a contemporary subject’s results could be compared?”

Let me explain the simplest reasons first, and then we’ll get into the more complex reasons later.

  • As of this writing in January of 2012, the Lost Colonists have never been found (hence the term “Lost”). They also never left genealogical records of their descendants.
  • The probability of finding the remains any of the Lost Colonists seems slim (not to mention grim), and the likelihood of finding them all buried together is even less likely.
  • Even if their graves ever were found, the surnames associated with the colonists are almost all very common 16th century English surnames, so the legal hurdles to allow DNA testing against the remains would be exceedingly high. (And that’s to say nothing of the likelihood of any of them being buried amongst the Indians with whom they almost certainly intermarried and settled, and the protections that NAGPRA would offer to such remains.)
  • Because there are no identifiable descendants (via a genealogical paper trail) of the Lost Colonists, or the Indians of Roanoke, Croatoan, or the surrounding areas from the 16th century, how could one prove descent from them to give the probable cause necessary for a DNA test? [That's not to say that both the colonists and the Indians don't have plenty of descendants who are alive and well and living in eastern North Carolina, and even around the country, to this day, but there is no way to establish a definitive genetic line of descent from Indians or Lost Colonists who left no paper trail of specific genealogies, and whose remains have never been found for testing.]

On one of the FAQ pages of the website for the Lost Colony Research Group, it says:

Many people are interested in joining the project to compare their DNA to that of the colonists.  Plain and simple, we don’t have the DNA of the colonists yet, or if we do, we don’t yet have the documentation to prove it.

We have established three different projects, each with its own special focus, to help us in our quest to find the colonists. 

First of all, I’m just not sure what they mean when they say, “or if we do, we don’t yet have the documentation to prove it.”

And what about that second line? “We have established three different projects… in our quest to find the colonists.”

How will they find the colonists with DNA testing via the projects they identify on their site?:

  1. The Y-line DNA project, for males who have a colonist surname or a surname of interest and whose families come from either Eastern North Carolina or England or have Native heritage.  
  2. The mitochondrial DNA project, for males or females whose maternal line carries the Lost Colony surnames or surnames of interest and who are from Eastern North Carolina or have Native heritage.
  3. The Family Finder project who is for anyone who believes they are descended from the Lost Colonists.  This project was created specifically for those who have taken the Family Finder test.

Short of digging up graves and performing DNA testing on countless remains throughout coastal North Carolina, I’m not really sure how definitive connections to the colonists could ever be established.

Is that the aim of such research groups? To locate the graves of the colonists and dig them up so that Lost Colony DNA project members can find out if they might match because their surname is Brown, Johnson or Jones or other surnames common to the ‘Lost Colony’ roster, or because they have heard, or even received DNA results indicating they have some level of Indian heritage?

As it is right now, no ‘Lost Colony’ remains have been identified, so that leaves us with the information we presently have about the colonists, which is simply that they most likely did what they left a note saying they would do. They went to Croatoan (present-day Hatteras) — not under duress — and John Lawson’s interviews with Hatteras Indians about 120 years later, easily support that very theory.

That being the case, it seems the most anyone could hope to achieve from ‘Lost Colony’-themed DNA testing would be to prove they are a lineal descendant of one of the same ancestors of one of the Lost Colonists (provided they are able to find a verifiable direct lineal descendant of a documented ancestor of one of the colonists), but not to the colonists themselves (barring their graves being found, exhumed, and then subjected to scientific testing). And considering many of the same families represented at the 1587 Roanoke colony also had family members settle at Jamestown and in the Carolinas within decades of the colonists move to Croatoan, a DNA match to common ancestors might only indicate descent from a distant cousin of one of the ‘Lost Colonists.’

For the benefit of anyone who isn’t familiar with the different types of DNA testing, here are summaries of what each type of test was designed to do and what it is capable (or not capable) of achieving:

Y-chromosome DNA (Y-DNA) is passed from a father to his sons along an all-male line (highlighted in blue). Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is passed from mother to her sons and daughters along an all-female line (highlighted in pink). (From eupedia.com.)

Y-DNA Testing – Only tests your direct paternal line. That means, your father’s father’s father’s father’s father, and so on. (Can be taken only by sons.) This does not look at any of your other ancestors (grandparents) who are NOT in the direct paternal line. Only paternal grandfathers going straight back.

mt-DNA Testing – Only tests your direct maternal line. Similar to the Y-DNA test, but only tests your mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s line, and so on. (Can be taken by sons or daughters.) This does not look at any of your other ancestors (grandparents) who are NOT in the direct maternal line. Only maternal grandmothers going straight back.

Autosomal Testing – Tests both mother’s and father’s side. Looks for specific markers to try to indicate estimated percentages of various ethnicities. (Lots of potential problems with this type of test because of available modern gene pools, or lack thereof.) [Update: Autosomal tests, such as the FamilyFinder test at FamilyTreeDNA are now being used to show relationships with likely cousins within five generations, and in some cases, further back.]

Please click here to read more detailed descriptions in a new window.

So should I join the Lost Colony DNA project, or any DNA project for that matter?

That’s entirely up to you, but just make sure you know what the limitations are. If you think you’re going to prove that you’re a descendant of Virginia Dare, or any of the 1587 Roanoke colonists, you probably need to do some more research on how DNA tests work. If you think your DNA is going to help historians finally find the ‘Lost Colony,’ you might suffer some disappointment when your test results don’t shed much light on map coordinates for where the colonists were buried.

Regardless of what project you join, however, just be sure you’re comfortable with whoever has access to your DNA results and what their purposes are for tracking them. (Note: FTDNA gives project administrators for DNA projects access to DNA testing profile information for the individuals in their DNA project. That may include other test results that are NOT part of the project, as well as any other projects to which their project members belong.)

There are countless DNA projects out there. If I were to recommend DNA projects for people to join, I’d probably point them first to surname projects (for Y-DNA tests), and then to regional projects for individuals whose ancestors came from specific areas. If you really have a good grasp of how DNA testing works and what the results can and cannot tell us, then you might have fun browsing around various history-themed DNA projects, but to join a DNA project with the primary goal of linking yourself to some significant event in history is probably not going to yield the kind of results you’re looking for.

What’s the best way to find out more about my own family history and uncover the facts about the Lost Colony?

I’m all for people digging into their genealogy, but I’m always disheartened to see people doing it with an agenda. When you try to dig into a family tree with the hope that you’ll be able to match yourself to certain desired ancestors — and we at CCIC see this all the time with Indian heritage quests — you will more often than not overlook the best clues for unlocking your own rich family history. While trying to match yourself to a particular surname connection, or a particular tribal roll, you might inadvertently overlook other genealogical evidence that may be more readily available because it doesn’t fit into the mold you’re trying to fill.

When I first began researching my family history as a teenager and in my early 20s, I was obsessed with uncovering my Indian ancestors. I started searching in the wrong direction, though. Rather than following as many lines of my family tree as I could backwards, I tried to find known members of various local tribes who had similar surnames and tried to work my way forward, hoping that I’d find those elusive paper trails. It wasn’t until I started growing frustrated with that method of searching and decided to just let the tree branches lead me wherever they would go that I began to uncover tons of useful information.

The most interesting part was, I didn’t even realize the connections I was uncovering at the time because I had not yet become familiar enough with the local historical record to realize the significance of many of the names I was finding in my family tree.

So what should you do? Learn all you can about your ancestors. Where did they live? Where did their parents live? Research the genealogical records there. Also research the historical records there. Sometimes you’ll find overlaps that you never would have expected. If your particular interest is researching your Indian ancestry, here is an article that may be helpful.

If you really want to learn more about the ‘Lost Colony,’ in general, familiarize yourself with the original source materials written by parties involved in the events when they happened and close to that time frame. Also, find out what you can through archaeological reports. There has been some great data published. Encourage more archaeological interest in indigenous sites. Artifacts such as the tools of day-to-day life and the buildings where people lived their lives can provide us with a most fascinating glimpse into the past.

For example, 16th century English artifacts have been found at Buxton (Croatoan). At some point, archaeologists may uncover enough artifacts in that area to really find the ‘Lost Colony.’ The actual place of residence — not just a graveyard.

Some final food for thought…

It’s sad that it takes the supposed disappearance of a bunch of English colonists for most people to take an interest in excavating coastal North Carolina indigenous sites.

Furthermore, what reveals more about a people and the way they live — archaeological excavation of their homes, churches, and businesses, or excavations of the places where the dead were put to rest?

Ultimately, archaeological excavation of a village site could provide a treasure trove of answers about what actually became of the colonists (besides the obvious, which is that they all died at some point.) DNA projects on contemporary subjects, on the other hand, does nothing to locate such sites, nor does it reveal information about how people lived. Archaeology unearths historical data and gives us a glimpse of life that would otherwise be lost to the sands of time.

Just remember, 425 years ago, the colonists of Roanoke were living and breathing like you and me. So were the Indians of Hatteras island. As graves are dug up in these modern times to satisfy folks’ curiosity, so might our graves be one day be dug up to satisfy some future generations’ curiosity. Would you like for your remains to end up in a box in an archaeology lab? Would you like some unknown scientist 200 years from now breaking jaw teeth out of your mom’s or dad’s mouth , or your child’s mouth, to try to extract DNA for testing?

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