RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Clues to what became of North Carolina's fabled Lost Colony could lie in a waterfront tract where developers once wanted to build thousands of condos — and now, one of those would-be developers is seeking millions of dollars to preserve the property.
The effort to save the 1,000 acres in rural Bertie County is in an early stage. Even the environmental group that developer Michael Flannelly hopes will help hasn't seen the property yet. But Flannelly said he's optimistic that his vision will eventually become a reality.
"I want to see the site preserved," said Flannelly, who lives on a boat that's usually docked in Norfolk, Virginia, or near his land in Bertie County. "I think it would make a fantastic place for people to come."
The mystery of the Lost Colony — England's first settlement in North America — has intrigued historians and the popular imagination for centuries.
In 1587, 116 English settlers landed on Roanoke Island, led by explorer John White. He left them there when he sailed back to England that same year for more supplies. Delayed by war between England and Spain, he didn't return until 1590 — and when he did, he discovered the entire colony had simply vanished.
White knew the majority had planned to move "50 miles into the maine," as he wrote, referring to the mainland. The only clues he found about the fate of the other two dozen were the word "CROATOAN" carved into a post and "CRO" lettered on a tree trunk, leading historians to believe they moved south to live with American Indians on what's now Hatteras Island.
But some archaeologists now suspect that at least some of the Roanoke colonists found their way to the inland site south of the Chowan River bridge, roughly 50 miles from Roanoke. It first came to light in 2012, when researchers at the British Museum in London announced they had found a drawing of a fort that had been obscured under a patch on a map of Virginia and North Carolina drawn by White in the 1580s.
The drawing placed the fort in an area of Bertie County where archaeologists had found colonial-era English pottery and signs of a Native American village several years earlier during a dig that the state required before Flannelly and his partners could get permits for the subdivision that was never built. Archaeologists have since found further evidence on the tract, dubbed Site X, including bale seals used to verify cloth quality and 16th-century nails.
Before the site can be preserved, Flannelly must buy out his former development partners.
Flannelly estimates it will take $4 million to $5 million, along with a conservation group willing to help raise the money and preserve the land. To any cynics who suspect Flannelly is doing this only for the money, he says he would get 8 percent of any sale, plus a tax credit. And the proposed buyout is far less than the $10 million Flannelly says the developers paid for the property.
A spokesman for the company, Forest City, said in an email that officials know about the archaeological finds but have no other updates about the status of the property. Forest City no longer works in land development, spokesman Jeff Linton said.
Flannelly said that when archaeologists uncovered the property's historical significance, he insisted that those areas be cordoned off as green space and not developed.
Flannelly personally owns 15 acres that include the possible Lost Colony site, but said he didn't know about the artifacts when he chose that land for his own home. "They felt the same I did," he said of the settlers. "That's the best piece of property on the whole tract."
He has turned to North Carolina's Coastal Land Trust, a nonprofit that has preserved more than 65,000 undeveloped acres in 31 counties since 1992. Lee Leidy, attorney and northeast regional director for the trust, said officials there hope to view the property later this month.
"It's fascinating," she said. "It's one that we're very excited to take a look at and learn more about."
But raising funds to preserve the land presents a challenge, since limited conservation dollars must cover many projects, she said.
"If it's done properly, I think it could be tremendous," said Arwin Smallwood, who wrote "Bertie County: An Eastern North Carolina History" and chairs the history department at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro. "Right now in Bertie County, you can have a true sense of history and what the landscape was like."
Tourists travel by the thousands to Dare County, home of the outdoor performance of "The Lost Colony" at an outdoor amphitheater on Roanoke Island. Now Bertie County residents have adopted the settlers as their own as well. More than 300 people attended the town of Windsor's first Lost Colony Festival in April, said Billy Smithwick, the town fire chief and tourism manager. In addition, the county is acquiring 137 acres for a nearby park.
"I think it would be quite a tourist attraction," said Smithwick. "The Lost Colony is the greatest mystery in history that there is."