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Roanoke Colonies Research Newsletter
Volume 6.2 (May 1999)

Family Crest on Sixteenth-Century Gold Ring Tentatively Identified

Researchers John Brooke-Little of the College of Arms in London and American independent scholars Barbara Hird and lebame houston have tentatively identified the family whose crest appears on a European sixteenth-century gold ring found at the Croatan Native American site in Buxton, North Carolina, last October.

The signet ring, used for placing a family crest into wax seals, has a cut out picture of a lion passant (walking lion). It is the first item of specifically sixteenth-century European origin found at the Croatan village site. With the lion’s plume-like raised tail and seemingly prancing step, the crest is distinctive enough for possible identification through armorial records in the College of Arms. The only family in the College of Arms records with that crest is the Kendall family.

Two men with the surname Kendall were part of the Roanoke colonization efforts, both during the 1585 to 1586 expedition. One, named in extant records simply as Master Kendall, was listed as a colonist with Ralph Lane. Lane’s colonists settled on Roanoke Island and explored the region around the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds from July 1585 to June 1586. The other Kendall was Abraham Kendall, who was with Sir Francis Drake when his ships came to check in on Lane’s colony in June of 1586 and ended up taking Lane and his men back to England.

There are several times when either Kendall could have had contact with the Croatans. During the spring of 1586, Lane sent Edward Stafford and twenty men to Cape Hatteras, the location of Croatan, during a period of hardship for the colonists. Master Kendall could have been a member of this party or he could have traded the ring with Croatans who visited Lane’s settlement on Roanoke Island. It was Stafford’s group of men who, on June 9, 1586, spotted Drake’s fleet, lit signal fires, and met the boats from Drake’s ships that came ashore. It is possible that one of the ships’ boats carried Abraham Kendall to Hatteras Island. The ring could have been traded or lost by either Kendall during this time.

Adding to the confusion is the possibility that Lane’s Master Kendall and Drake’s Abraham Kendall were the same person. After sailing his fleet of twenty-seven ships north from Cape Hatteras and meeting Lane, Drake offered Lane several sailing vessels and the service of two of his captains, including Abraham Kendall. Soon afterwards, a storm sank some of the vessels, and Lane ended up returning to England with Drake rather than staying on Roanoke Island. Because a master in sixteenth-century nautical terms is a person who commands a vessel, Lane’s Master Kendall could be Drake’s Abraham Kendall. However, the title master had non-nautical uses as well, and Lane’s Master Kendall is mentioned only on a list of men who spent the year on Roanoke Island. Still, the list could have been inaccurately labeled and the two Kendalls could be one and the same.

Hird and houston’s research plan is to do a genealogical investigation of Abraham Kendall to see if the lion passant crest belongs to his family line. If not, they will try to research the various Kendall family lines in hopes of identifying Lane’s Master Kendall.

While the connection of the crest to the Kendall family is strong, it is not certain. Though the Kendall family has a recorded use of the lion passant in the College of Arms registry, not every family that used a crest did so with official sanction. As Brooke-Little is quoted in the Manteo, North Carolina, Coastland Times, “Elizabethan Kings of Arms were not all that fussy about authorizing crests. It was not all that unusual for an armigerous family to adopt a crest of their own design” (“Researchers Link Ring From Dig at Cape Hatteras to Kendall Family,” 21 March 1999: A15). Such crest designs were not recorded along with the coat of arms. In addition, as houston is quoted in the same article, “In Tudor England, Officers of Arms owned the records of grants they made to individuals and they did not always will their papers and records to the College [of Arms]” (A15). Even so, the record is strong enough that Brooke-Little, Hird, and houston feel that the crest does belong to one of the Kendalls connected to the 1585-1586 colonization attempt.

If the ring’s original owner can be identified, the next step will be to determine the significance of finding the ring at the Croatan site. The ring’s band is cut and curled in such a manner that it appears to have been worn by a Native American on a cord around his or her neck. The question will be whether identifying the ring’s owner will give insight on how the ring passed from European to Native American hands. The value of identifying the ring’s original owner was put into perspective by Ivor Noël-Hume, who is quoted by the Virginian-Pilot as saying, “Instead of being a piece of pottery, you can say, ‘This belonged to that man.’ That’s more interesting. . . . But there’s a difference between being interesting and being significant” (“1580s Ring Has no Lost Colony Link,” 11 March 1999: B3).

Whether just interesting or significant in interpreting the colonization attempts of the English in the 1580s, the ring is the first material connection between the English colonists and the Native Americans on Hatteras Island who played an important role in the late sixteenth-century story of cultural engagement.

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