Bideford Mayor's DNA plan to prove Founding Fathers' theory

WERE Bidefordians among the founding fathers of America, more than 30 years before the Pilgrim Fathers set sail from Plymouth? That is a possibility which Mayor of Bideford Cllr Andy Powell is hoping to prove – and put the town on the American tourist ma

WERE Bidefordians among the founding fathers of America, more than 30 years before the Pilgrim Fathers set sail from Plymouth?

That is a possibility which Mayor of Bideford Cllr Andy Powell is hoping to prove - "and put the town on the American tourist map of Britain alongside London, York and Stratford-on-Avon."

He is asking members of Torridgeside's oldest families to put themselves forward for DNA testing to help prove the case.

It is well documented how ships from Bideford under the captaincy of Sir Richard Grenville were involved with Sir Walter Raleigh's attempts to settle America between 1584 and 1590, initially on Roanoke Island in North Carolina.

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In 1587 problems forced the leader John White to return to England to get help.

But plans for a relief fleet were delayed, not least by the coming of the Spanish Armada, which meant all of England's ships being commandeered for battle.

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It was three years before he was able to return, by which time there was no sign of the 117 men, women and children or their settlement and they are listed in history as "the lost colony."

But were they lost or did they join with the native Americans and become the first permanent English settlers in the Americas? And were at least some of them from Bideford?

During his research Mr. Powell has unearthed what he believes are "tantalising glimpses" that this was the case.

He has a list of the 117 names of the "lost colonists." While they are not thought to have all originated from Bideford, some of the names are still familiar in the town today.

Included among them are Archard (Orchard), Bennett, Berry, Bridger, Bright, Colman, Harris, Harvie, Hynde, Lasie (Lacey), Mylton (Milton), Payne, Pierce, Sampson, Stevens, Warren, White and Willis.

A book detailing family names of Bideford shipbuilders in the 1800s included seven surnames which were on the "lost colonists" list, he said. Such skills would have been vital to people setting up a settlement on a small island.

Since Grenville sailed out of Bideford during this era, it was logical that at least some of his crew members would have come from the town. And with the need for Raleigh and Grenville's colonists to have key skills and to be people they could trust, there were some indications that they may have been friends or employees of the two men, who also had estates in East Devon and Ireland.

"There is also the question, why would a small town like Bideford with a population of around 1,000 at that time, have five ships ready to sail against the Armada?" said Mr Powell. "The reality has recently been uncovered by the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum that Grenville had the ships ready to return to Roanoke to re-supply the colonists, before they were commandeered to guard the Western Approaches."

Recently small finds during explorations off Roanoke included what appeared to be Elizabethan bricks.

There is currently a major study in the US based around DNA, said Mr Powell.

"There are people in the US who claim ancestry back to the lost colonists and it has been revealed that there are native Americans with a large percentage of European DNA. It is hoped to trace the ancestry and give accurate evidence as to when this occurred."

His search, said Mr Powell, was to find someone from England and possibly the Bideford area, who could trace their ancestry back at least 300 years and had a surname which could be linked with the colonists, so genealogists could trace their history back further and their DNA could be tested. This could show if they were related and at what point in history this took place. Anyone wishing to know more can contact Mr Powell on

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