GREAT DISMAL SWAMP, N.C. — George Ray trudged for two hours through thick vegetation to a blurry mark found on Google Earth.
Mr. Ray is one of the many amateur archaeologists entranced by the Lost Colony — the 117 English settlers who disappeared from North Carolina’s Outer Banks in the late 1500s, having left behind only a single clue to their fate. In all the years since, no one has found much of anything else.
But there have long been stories told about a rotting boat in the Great Dismal Swamp, a national wildlife refuge that straddles North Carolina’s border with Virginia. Mr. Ray’s colleagues think the colonists may have passed through the swamp after leaving Roanoke Island. They studied satellite images until they found something that looked like a boat, then set out to find it.
“We’re not looking for gold,” Mr. Ray said. “We’re looking for history.”
But the search for the Lost Colony has confounded researchers and enthusiasts alike.
Eric Klingelhofer, a Mercer University professor, is an archaeologist with a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. He helped uncover the English colony at Jamestown, Va., and is working with the National Park Service to conduct digs on Roanoke Island.
“This is one of the hardest archaeological puzzles imaginable,” said Mr. Klingelhofer, who serves as vice president of the First Colony Foundation, a research team of archaeologists and historians founded three years ago to dig at Fort Raleigh on Roanoke Island.
Mr. Ray is a retired home builder from Durham who got his start as a member of the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research, a group composed mostly of amateurs pursuing a variety of theories: that the colony left Roanoke Island for the southern Outer Banks, or North Carolina’s interior, or Virginia via the swamp.
Though the Lost Colony Center has consulted with academics and researchers, other observers dismiss their work, which is published primarily on a blog instead of a peer-reviewed academic journal.
“I fear that they are only out looking for publicity,” said Charles Ewen, who heads the Department of Anthropology at East Carolina University.
Perhaps, but no one with a degree and university tenure has been able to figure out exactly what happened to the Lost Colony, either.
Here is what is known: In 1585, English explorer Ralph Lane landed on the Outer Banks with a crew of 75 men, writing upon his arrival that they had come upon the “goodliest soyle under the cope of heaven.”
The enchantment didn’t last. The “First Colony” fought with natives, and food supplies quickly dwindled. They sent a party back to England seeking fresh supplies, but didn’t wait for their return. Instead, they hitched a ride back home with Sir Francis Drake, who was passing through after raiding Spanish ports in the Caribbean.
When the men with relief supplies arrived to find the colony abandoned, they left a detachment of about 15 and sailed themselves for England.
Undeterred by the chaos, Sir Walter Raleigh sent John White and a new group of settlers one year later to pick up the so-called “holding colony” and to found a new settlement in what is now Virginia. White was unable to find the men left behind, and Indians reported that other natives had attacked the group and forced them to flee by boat.
Concerned about their own future and plagued by a lack of food, the colonists persuaded White to return to England for help. He agreed, leaving behind 116 colonists and his newborn granddaughter, Virginia Dare — the first English child born in the New World. The colonists promised White they would carve a Maltese cross into a tree if they encountered turmoil and were forced to flee.
White made it back to England, but was delayed for three years by war between Spain and England. When he returned in 1590, he found no trace of the colonists he left behind, aside from the post and the word “Croatoan.”
Some researchers speculate the Lost Colony could have assimilated with the Croatan tribe, which lived to the south near Cape Hatteras and is now considered part of the Lumbee tribe that lives in the sandhills of North Carolina. Others have suggested the colonists moved further inland and joined with other American Indians. Some suspect the natives simply killed the foreigners, or that the colonists died off from illness, malnutrition or in flight back to England.
Fred Willard, the director of the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research, called the colony “the greatest unsolved mystery in the Americas.”
“Every theory is probably partially true. Every theory is, however, significantly wrong,” said Phil Evans, president of the First Colony Foundation. “Everybody wants one answer, but the reality is that you’re looking to determine the fate of 117 different individuals.”