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Could a mysterious stone found near Roanoke's 'Lost Colony' be real?

This stone, purportedly found in a North Carolina swamp in 1937, could be a message from Roanoke colonist Eleanor White Dare, researchers say. Courtesy Brenau University1 / 2
Manteo on Roanoke Island is shown in this aerial view of the Outer Banks in North Carolina, on June 12, 2014. (Washington Post photo by Nikki Kahn)2 / 2

Americans celebrated the nation's birth this week, and one of the mysteries of its founding may soon be illuminated. This fall new research may confirm the authenticity of an engraved stone found near the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke - a stone dismissed for decades as a forgery.

"If this stone is real, it's the most significant artifact in American history of early European settlement," said Ed Schrader, a geologist and president Brenau University in Georgia, where the stone is kept. "And if it's not, it's one of the most magnificent forgeries of all time."

On July 4, 1584, English explorers sent by Sir Walter Raleigh first landed on Roanoke Island, in what is now North Carolina. After a botched attempt to establish a settlement, Raleigh sent a second group of colonists in 1587, led by John White and comprising more families. With him he brought his adult daughter, Eleanor White Dare, and his son-in-law Ananias, a stonemason. Soon after they arrived, Dare gave birth to a daughter named Virginia.

The 117 colonists arrived too late to plant crops, and their situation quickly grew desperate. They convinced White to return to England to plead for help. It didn't work. White arrived amid the Anglo-Spanish War, meaning every ship was commandeered to fight the Spanish Armada. He wouldn't return to Roanoke for nearly four years.

When he finally did, he found the colony deserted. There were no skeletal remains indicating they'd been attacked. The fort was dismantled, showing they hadn't left in a hurry. And on a fence post was carved the word "CROATOAN" - the name of a friendly Native American group nearby.

White wanted to launch a search, but the sailors he was traveling with refused. They'd only agreed to stop by Roanoke on their way back to Europe from the Caribbean, and there was a storm coming. White left with them the next day, and no one has heard from the Roanoke Colony since.

Except, maybe we have, and just didn't realize it.

In 1937, a California tourist walked into the history department of Emory University in Atlanta with a 21-pound engraved rock he said he'd found in a swamp while traveling through North Carolina. It immediately caught the eye of Haywood Pearce Jr. - an Emory professor who also served as vice-president of Brenau, a small women's college in Gainesville, Georgia.

On one side, the engraving appeared to be a grave marker, reading, "Ananias Dare & Virginia Went Hence Unto Heaven 1591 Anye Englishman Shew John White Govr Via." On the other side, the inscription was much longer, and appeared to address White as "Father": "Soone After You Goe for England Wee Cam Hither Onlie Misarie & Warre Tow Yeere . . . Ye Salvages Faine Spirits Angrie Suddaine Murther Al Save Seaven Mine Childe Ananais to Slaine wth Much Misarie."

It was signed "EWD" - the initials of Eleanor White Dare.

The inscription also hinted there were other stones to be found. According to the Brenau Window, Pearce transferred the stone from Emory to Brenau soon after, and then offered the public a bounty for the discovery of any other stones.

"And so, amazingly, all these additional stones that had been sitting around in the woods of North Carolina for 500 years just started showing up," Schrader told The Washington Post. "You know, for 500 bucks a pop. So that's just what happens, history of mankind, or at least, the free market."

Within four years, nearly 50 more engraved stones surfaced, from all over Georgia and North Carolina, and mostly by a Georgia stonecutter. A team from the Smithsonian Institution visited and made a preliminary determination that the stones appeared authentic. Pearce published papers, made speeches, another professor wrote a play, and there was even talk of a Hollywood movie directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

And then came an 11,000-word exposé in the Saturday Evening Post, unmasking the Georgia stonecutter as a forger, and hinting that Pearce, in a bid to make his college famous, might be in on the hoax.

"Isn't it extraordinary to find [the words] 'primeval' and 'reconnoitre' when they do not appear in Shakespeare?" the article indicted.

Overnight, the magnificent find was a worthless pile of rocks.

As the decades past, interest in the stones would occasionally rekindle. In 1977, Leonard Nimoy's paranormal show "In Search Of. . ." found the stones abandoned, literally in a pile, underneath the university amphitheater.

The TV segment is goofy, but it brought up a valid and lingering question: Was it unfair to lump the first stone in with all the fakes? Could it perhaps be real?

In the past few years, researchers have been taking another look. For one, the letters etched on the first stone look very different from the others. It doesn't contain any suspiciously modern words, like the others do. Plus, Dare was "moderately educated," says Schrader, and her husband was a stonemason. It's reasonable to think she may have learned the skill from him.

In 2016, Schrader had a sample of the stone analyzed by University of North Carolina at Asheville, exposing the quartz's bright white interior.

"The original inscription would have been a stark contrast to the weathered exterior," science writer Andrew Lawler wrote for National Geographic. "A good choice for a Roanoke colonist but a poor one for a modern forger."

Schrader said he'd like to marshal the funds for an "exhaustive, geochemical investigation," but first, this fall, a Brenau professor will assemble a team of outside experts to analyze the language more thoroughly.

"The type of English that's on the stone was really only used for about a hundred years, so it's a nice time marker to be able to study," Schrader said.

Lawler has a new book delving into the mystery. And, in a Washington Post column, he noted another group fascinated by the Roanoke story: white supremacists.

Starting in the 19th century, Dare's daughter Virginia, the first English child born on this continent, became a symbol for white purity, Lawler writes. Tales told of her chasteness living among "wild" Native Americans; at the height of Jim Crow, a popular poem called her the "heir of civilization." Even white suffragists, positioning themselves as more entitled to the vote than black men, invoked her name.

Nowadays, Peter Brimelow, a friend of White House adviser Stephen Miller, runs an anti-immigration website called VDARE. Current popular tags on the site include "Anti-White Hate Crimes" and "Minority Occupation."

If the first Dare stone turns out to be real, that would mean Virginia Dare died when she was three or four years old at the hands of Native Americans. But Schrader isn't concerned about what white supremacists will think of that.

"They're not going to convince anyone but themselves with Virginia Dare. So I just don't think there's anything that they will gain," he said.

"But I would like to gain something through this study. I would surely like to know whether Eleanor Whyte Dare had her hands on this stone about 500 years ago and left us a message."

Author Information: Gillian Brockell is a video editor in The Washington Post Opinions section. She has been at The Post since 2013 and previously worked in national.

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