Researchers believe they may be able to use DNA to help uncover the fate of the Lost Colony, which vanished a few years after more than 100 people settled on Roanoke Island in 1587.
"The Lost Colony story is the biggest unsolved mystery in the history of America," said Roberta Estes, owner of DNA Explain , a private DNA analysis company based in Brighton, Mich.
The company is working with the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research, an independent group based in Washington, N.C., that is trying to figure out what happened to the colony. It was established 20 years before Jamestown, America's first permanent English settlement.
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"I don't know what we'll find in the end," Estes told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. "Part of the big question for me is, did the Lost Colony survive? Who is their family today? And where did they go?"
Fred Willard, director of the Lost Colony center, said some colonists may have moved inland to what are now East Lake, Chocowinity and Gum Neck.
The researchers have used genealogy, deeds and historical narratives to compile 168 surnames that could be connected to settlers.
Researchers plan to use cheek swabs taken from possible ancestors to test the paternal and maternal DNA lines.
"In our case, with the Lost Colony, the only way we're going to trace who was who and if they survived is to use DNA," Estes said.
While DNA will not make any immediate connections beyond living relatives, the samples can provide clues to an individual's country of origin and other shared family traits, Estes said. Genealogy will have to fill in the blanks.
Researchers may also try to test American Indian remains or known relatives of the colonists in England.
More than 100 people settled on Roanoke Island in 1587, but the colonists vanished sometime between August of that year and 1590, when their governor returned to the island from a trip to England.