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The Dare Stone – Hoax Or Message From The "Lost" Roanoke Colony?

The "mystery" of the Dare Stone is effectively a mystery in a mystery, or is it?

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Dr. Russell Moul

Russell is a Science Writer with IFLScience and has a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology.

Science Writer

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An artist's reconstruction of the Dare Stone showing the words carved into its surface in white.

The Dare Stone has been controversial ever since it was discovered in the 1930s, but does it really solve the mystery of Roanoke?

Image Credit: Nesnad via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

The Lost Colony of Roanoke remains an enduring mystery in the minds of many Americans, and it is easy to see why. An entire community of settlers allegedly disappeared, leaving confusing and tantalizing clues as to what may have happened to them. One such example is the so-called Dare Stone which was once thought to hold the answer to the baffling tale, but is this stone really a message from the vanished settlers or is it an elaborate hoax?

Roanoke and the Dare Stone

In 1587, a group of about 115 English settlers led by John White landed on Roanoke Island, just off the eastern coast of what is now North Carolina. The settlers were the second team to try to colonize the island, as an earlier attempt made a few years previously had failed. But, as the story goes, their efforts were in vain. 

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Soon after arriving, White returned to England to gather supplies. He left his wife, daughter Eleanor Dare and her husband Ananias Dare, and his infant granddaughter called Virginia – who was the first English child born in America – along with the other settlers to carry on developing the colony. 

Unfortunately, White’s return to the colony was delayed as his arrival in England coincided with the Spanish Armada’s planned invasion of the country. By the time he made it back to Roanoke in 1590, the rest of the settlers, including his family, were missing. The only significant clue as to what happened to them was a single word carved into a tree – “Croatoan”. 

Fast forward nearly three and a half centuries to 1937, a man called Louis Hammond appears at Atlanta’s Emory University with a strange rock that he apparently found while collecting nuts near Edenton, North Carolina. The rock – basically a slab – was covered in faded words that had been etched into its surface, which Hammond had hoped the university could help decipher. What the experts found was astonishing. 

On one side of the slab was a sentence written by an EWD – presumably Eleanor – saying “Ananias Dare & Virginia went hence Unto Heaven 1591”, along with the instruction to show the rock to John White if it was found. On its reverse was the explanation that soon after White left for England, the settlers had relocated to the mainland but were plagued by disease and attacked by hostile Native Americans, which together killed “al save seaven”. The deceased, including White’s relatives, were buried 6 kilometers (4 miles) to the east of the river, their gravesite marked by stones engraved with their names. 

A mystery solved?

The message on the slab had finally settled the mystery of the missing colonists. There was only one more thing to find out – was it real? The professor who took the most interest in the stone, Haywood J. Pearce Jr, was able to determine that it was made of quartz, which was indeed common to the area Hammond had allegedly discovered it in. However, quartz is also common everywhere else too. So, this was not much help. 

Then there were issues with the language used in the engravings, especially related to the spelling. Although Pearce Jr found contemporary examples of many words, there were nevertheless five that were unique. This alone was not enough to rule out its authenticity, but it was not enough to verify it either. The other scholars at Emory were skeptical about the case, so they avoided engaging with it. 

In the end, Pearce and his father put up a $500 reward for anyone who possessed other Dare stones. This, as you can imagine, led to a proliferation of examples – 48 in total, 42 of which came from the same man who just happened to be a stonemason – which have now been dismissed as fake.  

Then, on May 15, 1941, the Hollywood Citizen-News published a story titled “Dare Stones’ Found Fakes”, which included an image of the eponymous rock. The article claimed that the language on the rock was not authentic, that the spelling was too consistent at a time when there was no standard spelling for English words. They also argued that the script used – Roman letters – were only deployed by well-educated contemporaries, and that most people, even those with standard levels of education, used Gothic script to write. This, coupled with the collection of other hoax stones more or less spelled the end for the Dare Stone.

So it’s a hoax, right?

Despite the dubious history of the Dare Stones, there are some who still hope that the original specimen, the one discovered by Hammond, may be genuine. Over the last 80 years since its discovery, various people have come out in support of its authenticity. 

The latest example was in 2016, when geologist and president of Brenau University, Ed Schrader, took a closer look at the stone carrying the message. Schrader broke off part of the stone and found that the interior was lighter than the exterior, which means the original inscription would have been more obvious when it was first made. However, the text is darker than the interior, suggesting it was made a long time ago and has since weathered. Although similar darkening can be achieved using chemicals, the methods for doing so are complicated and would require certain expertise. 

This, Schrader argues, adds weight to the inscription's supposed age, but he admits that issues with the language used, especially the initials EWD continue to pose a problem – the use of initials was extremely rare in the late 16th century. 

We still do not know if the Dare Stone is real or not, but the supposed “mystery” of the Lost Roanoke Colony has likely been solved for some time. Or, to put it another way, there likely never was a mystery – the lost settlers likely just took refuge with local native tribes in the area.    


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