The mysterious Lost Colony of Roanoke is the cornerstone of North Carolina’s Colonial history. The 115 early settlers of the New World vanished in 1590 without a trace except for the word “CROATOAN” carved into a village post. But a new narrative is beginning to gain local interest. It’s a story not about loss but gain. The same Carolina coast is the site of the New World’s first science center, which predated the Roanoke colony.
“Everybody has in their mind this very simple story” about vanished colonists and Virginia Dare—the first child born to English parents in the New World, says Phil Evans. He is president of the First Colony Foundation. “But it’s a much more textured, layered story.”
A few years before the Roanoke disappearance, a metallurgist named Joachim Gans arrived on the Carolina shore. He was part of a 1585 expedition. Explorer Sir Walter Raleigh had requested Gans’ presence on the trip. Gans was born in Prague, now the Czech Republic, but came to England in 1851 where he became known for finding new and better ways to extract copper from ore reserves.
Despite widespread anti-Semitism in England at the time, Gans’ Jewish ancestry didn’t interfere with his success. As the mineral expert, Gans proved an invaluable member of the 108-person exploration team.
Leonard Rogoff authored a book entitled Jews in North Carolina. He notes that Gans’ inclusion “marks the line where England was more interested in what he could contribute to the economy than holding onto religious prejudices.” Gans gave nervous investors confidence that mineral mining in North America was worth funding. In this way, Gans was not unlike the biblical Joseph. He won Pharaoh’s favor and became an unlikely man of high-ranking importance in managing Egypt’s economy.
Gans’ work in copper excavation was just the beginning. He launched a broad program of study at the tiny 10-by-10 foot science center they built. It included metallurgy, chemistry, and cartography. He and Thomas Harriot, also part of Raleigh’s scientific team, identified sassafras as a medicine. The herb became a lucrative export to England. Gans returned to England in 1586. His work in the New World helped convince the Roanoke colonists to settle there in 1587.
Brent Lane is a former venture capitalist and economic strategist. He argues that Gans’ story is even more important than the Lost Colony. “Globalization, scientific revolution, and the rise of modern capitalism are all in his science lab on Roanoke Island,” Lane says. “That’s a whole lot different than Virginia Dare lost in the woods.”