© L. Todd Spencer | The Virginian-Pilot
Hatteras Island native Scott Dawson stands in his Hatteras Histories and Mysteries Museum, which he opened in Buxton after the April dig.
It's a typical day at the Hatteras Histories and Mysteries Museum in Buxton, N.C., and Scott Dawson is buzzing around glass cases full of centuries-old arrowheads and broken pottery. Puzzled visitors listen as he explains for the gazillionth time the difference between fact and speculation. - He speaks with certainty in a voice tinged with more than a hint of frustration. - "Anybody who researches it knows that the colony came down here," he says, confidently dismissing competing theories on America's oldest unsolved mystery. - The artifacts, many unearthed during archaeological digs in the past year, may hold the clues that finally answer the question: What happened to the Lost Colony, a group of 117 Englishmen who settled on a tiny island off the North Carolina coast and then vanished with barely a trace?

The 32-year-old Dawson has a personal stake in what happened to the early settlers. The son of a family whose roots can be traced back to the Croatoan Indians, he thinks his ancestors have been falsely maligned by the legends that have grown up around the case of the missing Englishmen.

"The two drops of Croatoan blood that I have have boiled over," he said. "I want the history of this tribe and this island to stop being ignored."

He's counting on science to help him set the record straight.

It was 1587 when the group now known as the Lost Colony sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World on an adventure that ultimately fell far short of its intended purpose.

European explorers had been making the journey for years, and the first English contact with Native Americans on the Outer Banks is credited to a military expedition in 1584. Similar expeditions followed in 1585 and 1586.

The next year - 20 years before Jamestown was founded and 33 before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock - Sir Walter Raleigh dispatched the group of men, women and children in his bid to establish the first permanent English stronghold in America.

The colonists intended to settle near the Chesapeake Bay, but when their captain refused to sail farther north, they were forced to make a temporary home on Roanoke Island, where they'd planned to pick up 15 men left there the year before.

All they found were bones.

Less than a week after arriv ing, one colonist was killed, presumably by Indians.

In a desperate attempt to save the struggling colony, which included his newborn granddaughter Virginia Dare, Gov. John White and some colonists sailed back to England for help. White's begging would go unheeded for three years.

With their leader gone and surrounded by strangers, the colonists lived out their final days. Nothing is known about what happened to them after White left.

Today, their legend lives on at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island, where they were last seen by a white man. There, at Waterside Theater, an outdoor symphonic drama mixes fact with romantic speculation about the colony's fate.

White returned in 1590, only to find the entire group gone. But they'd left behind one clue that continues to haunt modern-day historians and amateur sleuths: the word "Croatoan" carved into a tree.

Dawson, like generations of his family before him, grew up on Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks. He spent his childhood finding arrowheads in the woods and much of his adulthood researching the role the Croatoan may have played in the Lost Colony story.

Legend has it that the English settlers were killed by Indians, but Dawson has his own theory.

He had studied old maps and read the first-person accounts of men like White, whose post-1590 writings indicate a sense of relief that the colony was safe in the company of Native American friends.

"Croatoan is not some mysterious word on a tree," Dawson says, pointing to his own hand-drawn representation of the colony's single clue. "Croatoan is a known place."

Today, that place is called Buxton and the villages that border it to the south on Hatteras. Home to the Croatoan tribe for more than a thousand years, it's a place Dawson knows well.

Dawson's research has revealed an important fact that he thinks other historians have overlooked or dismissed as insignificant: Two tribes inhabited the land near the Lost Colony's settlement - two distinct tribes with their own dialects, cultures and social hierarchies. Two rival tribes with polarized opinions of white settlers.

His research, combined with his intimate knowledge of Hatteras Island, has led Dawson to conclude that the Lost Colony must have abandoned its settlement on Roanoke Island, traveled south and eventually assimilated into the Croatoan tribe - all in an effort to escape the threat of the Secotan.

As history has given way to legend, Dawson believes the Croatoan have been denied their rightful place in American history as people who welcomed foreigners into their home.

"When you know the real history ... it is not a question of whether the colony came to this island or not," Dawson said. "They did."

Dawson's theory, says the park historian at Fort Raleigh historic site, has merit.

The details - such as how many colonists survived and how long they stayed - might vary, but most academics now agree that the colony traveled to Hatteras, Doug Stover said.

It's the physical evidence - the proof - that's lacking, he added.

Even those theorists who have proposed that some colonists traveled north toward the Chesapeake Bay, where they'd originally intended to settle, often concede that others may have gone south.

For example, in his 1984 pamphlet, "The Lost Colonists: Their Fortune and Probable Fate," author and historian David Beers Quinn hypothesized that the colony split into two factions after White left.

In his book, Croatoan: Birthplace of America, Dawson humanizes the Native Americans who greeted England's first settlers and establishes his theory that the Lost Colony would have sought refuge among them.

"We're trying to find the colony, sure," he said. "But why not, while you're there, try to learn as much as you can about the tribe? Why not tell their story?"

To do that, Dawson knew he'd need the expertise of professional archaeologists. For two years, he solicited help from the University of Bristol in England. His persistence paid off last November when the school sent a team to conduct test digs in the areas Dawson thought were most likely the sites of former Indian villages.

Intrigued by the mix of English and Native American artifacts uncovered, the team returned in April to conduct the first major archaeological exploration of the area in more than a decade.

The artifacts they found could solve the mystery.

Much more than digging, archaeology is the science of meticulously analyzing layers of ground and the treasures hidden within to reveal their secrets, such as how long an item might have been covered by earth. In this case, that work is taking months of analysis.

"It's like a giant puzzle," said Louisa Pittman, an American studying archaeology abroad who co-directed the Bristol team. She worked with noted archaeologist Mark Horton, who is considered a specialist in historical archaeology and who has led excavations in Africa, Central America and Europe.

For those working to solve the Lost Colony puzzle, the answer could lie with the discovery of a preponderance of pre-1600 English artifacts that otherwise would have no business being on American soil.

Or the proof could come in the form of a single item as simple as a woman's brooch or a child's toy.

"That would be the perfect evidence of the Lost Colony," Pittman said.

Here's why: While members of the Lost Colony were not the first English travelers to set foot on American soil, they were the first to include women and children. The military expeditions of 1584-86 had brought dozens to the area, but they were all men.

So masculine items dating to before 1600 could just as easily have belonged to an English sailor as a male member of the Lost Colony. An item used only by women or children, however, would tell a different story.

Pittman said she is not prepared to precisely date any of the hundreds of items uncovered in April or claim that any belonged to the lost colonists.

"That being said, we've only looked at one isolated site," she said.

The venture, kept secret until recently, took place on private property on the sound side of Buxton. The location remains undisclosed to protect it from looting.

Among the team's interesting finds are part of a horse bridle, a scabbard tip and a shoe buckle that bears most of the word "Chatham," which, Dawson said, is the name of an old naval yard in London.

Also interesting is the fact that the English items were not isolated but found among hundreds of Native American artifacts, including arrowheads, pipes and tools. But, Pittman said, it's too early to say what that means.

The English artifacts simply could have been traded to the natives - or they could be evidence of English people living among Native Americans for many years.

The recent finds build on evidence uncovered by another famed archaeologist. David S. Phelps of East Carolina University led numerous excavations near Buxton in the 1990s.

In 1998, Phelps unearthed a 16th century gold signet ring that later was traced to the Kendall family. Two men with that name had participated in the 1584-87 expeditions. The find ultimately defined Phelps' career, but he died last year at age 79 before publishing his field notes. While considered a fascinating discovery, the significance of the ring and other artifacts may never be truly known.

The Bristol team now is analyzing its finds from the April dig, which was financed privately by mostly American investors. Plans for future digs are in the works.

The progress excites Dawson, who thinks it goes far to accomplish what he's been hoping to do much of his life: clear the name of the Croatoan.

"We haven't found the smoking gun yet," he said. "But at least we've got people looking in the right spot."

Common Lost Colony Misconception No. 1: Famous Native American Manteo hailed from a tribe on Roanoke Island, where the modern-day town bears his name.

In fact, Manteo was Croatoan and lived near Hatteras. He twice had traveled to England and back by the time the Lost Colony arrived. As an interpreter and a guide, he was an invaluable resource to the English expeditions and to White's group.

In contrast, relations with the other tribe, the Secotan, were downright hostile - largely due to the actions of Sir Richard Grenville, who on the 1585 expedition ordered the burning of a Secotan town. Grenville believed the tribe had stolen a silver cup, and he retaliated.

Believing in 1586 that Secotan King Wingina was planning to attack the English, Captain Ralph Lane ordered the Indian leader's assassination.

By the time the Lost Colony arrived the next year, its fate already may have been set in motion by events of the past.

"Most people have no idea what happened in 1584, 1585 or 1587," Dawson said. "They have no idea what that colony was walking into."

It wasn't long before colonists learned the reality of their situation. A week after arriving, George Howe was found shot with 16 arrows after wandering off alone.

The alleged culprits? The Secotan.

Fast forward to 1701, when John Lawson reported to have encountered Indians with "gray eyes" who could "talk in a book" on Hatteras Island. Blue-eyed natives who could read would have had to have European ancestors. Whether they were the descendants of the Lost Colony, of course, is a question lost to history.

That history, coupled with Dawson's firsthand knowledge of the island and the archaeologists' recent findings, suffices as reason to expect that the mystery one day will be solved on Hatteras Island, Pittman said.

"I don't think there's a question of them ending up there," she said.

Today, Dawson is practically bursting at the seams to share the news of the dig and findings.

He's especially eager to have some traffic at the Hatteras Histories and Mysteries Museum, which he opened immediately after the April dig. Besides artifacts from the excavation, the museum also displays Civil War relics from the 1861 battles in Hatteras Village and Rodanthe.

Pittman said items that her team is working on eventually will be returned to Buxton.

"This is their history," she said.

The archaeology team is interested in continuing its work at sites in Buxton and the nearest village to the south, Frisco. Test digs tentatively are scheduled for this winter.

"We've only just dug a tiny, tiny bit of the island," she said. "I can't in all conscience just leave it. I can't just stop."

For Dawson, continuing the search for the Lost wColony is imperative to broadening his own understanding of the Croatoan, his ancestors.

"We are now studying the very first Native American tribe that the English ever met ...," Dawson said before trailing off. "That's awesome. It's just awesome."