Map offers intriguing new clue to the Lost Colony

By on May 3, 2012

A 425-year-old map painted by Gov. John White included a patch at the confluence of the Chowan and Roanoke rivers that might cover up a secret. (British Museum)

Significant new information may finally lead to solving the mystery of the Lost Colony.

Before Elizabethan artist and mapmaker John White sailed from Roanoke Island in 1587, he understood that the colony he left behind would go “50 miles into the maine” if they had to flee.

On Thursday, researchers with the First Colony Foundation and the British Museum announced they have discovered previously unseen evidence on White’s maps that may have revealed where the colony went — and it is indeed about 50 miles inland.

“This is really the best new clue in 150 years,” said foundation member Brent Lane, adjunct Professor of Heritage Education at University of North Carolina Kenan Institute.
“This is really a good solid lead. But it’s not conclusive, and it won’t be until we find something.”

Re-examination of a previously hidden area on White’s map of the New World may reveal that the Lost Colony did establish a fort 50 miles from “Roanoak” at the confluence of the Chowan and Roanoke rivers in Bertie County, according to a news release from the foundation.

When White, unexpectedly delayed by war, returned to Roanoke Island in 1590, the colony was gone. White, the colony’s governor, sailed back to England without knowing what happened to the first English settlement in the New World. No trace of it has ever been found, and the colony’s fate has remained the oldest unsolved mystery of Colonial America.

The British Museum has the original art and maps drawn by White, an artist in the first of Raleigh’s 1584-1587 Roanoke Voyages. The maps were recently re-examined by museum curators at the prompting of Lane, who had become intrigued by the patches while studying White’s drawing of an Indian village.

Lane said he contacted the museum on Feb. 23, and had his answer on Feb. 24.

The 425-year-old “La Virginea Pars” map painted by White shows the North Carolina coast between 1585 and 1586 from the Chesapeake Bay to Cape Lookout, and west to the mouths of the Roanoke, Chowan and Neuse Rivers. The locations of numerous Native-American villages were noted by White, but until now it revealed nothing about the location of English settlements.

But hidden under a patch on the map in the area of modern Bertie County, across the Albemarle Sound from Edenton, there appears to be a large bright red and blue fort symbol, which could indicate an area that represents Sir Walter Raleigh’s planned “Cittie of Ralegh,” and perhaps the eventual site of the Lost Colony.

Lane said that the fort symbol, typical of that period, may have been patched to keep the site secret from Spain, which was at war with England. It’s also possible that the fort was planned, but the plans changed. Adding to the intrigue, the patch — which was not hiding a tear, as was probably assumed for four centuries — was covered with another version of a fort, except it was an elaboration drawn in invisible ink. That could mean that who drew the second image was aware of what was underneath the patch.

But until more research is done, Lane said, it’s all just speculation, except that it’s likely that all the changes happened during the life of the colony.

“It’s certainly possible that Raleigh and his team covered it up,” Lane said. “Whether they changed their mind or just concealed it has yet to be determined.”

The 117 men, women and children in the Lost Colony, the last of the Roanoke Voyages, settled on Roanoke Island, but it has never been discovered precisely where. And no one knows their whereabouts after August 1587, when White — the grandfather of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World — left for England for supplies.

Even if It’s proven that the colonists traveled to Bertie County and built a fort, Lane said, it would be expected that some colonists also would have gone to Croatoan to watch for any English ship along the coast.

The foundation, a nonprofit group of professional archaeologists researching the Roanoke Voyages, has conducted numerous excavations at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island since it was established in 2004 to renew long-stalled exploration of the area where the colonists were purported to have settled.

Despite dozens of excavations at the park over decades, no evidence of the Lost Colony or a fort has ever been discovered at the park. The foundation plans to explore additional areas this summer, and is working to get approval to excavate private land closer to Manteo.

In the 1990s, East Carolina University archaeologist David Phelps led several excavations in Buxton Woods at the site of Croatoan, the ancient capital of the Native-American chiefdom that was friendly to the English. During one dig, a 16th-century gold signet ring was unearthed and later traced to a one of two Kendalls who participated in the Roanoke Voyages.

British archaeologist Mark Horton also recently conducted digs with a team of island volunteers in nearby areas on Hatteras Island that could indicate more co-mingling between the English explorers and Native Americans than previously known.

The First Colony Foundation plans further research of the Bertie County site, which encompasses up to several thousand acres. Located near Windsor, it includes farms, an industrial plant, a golf course community and a planned marina.

Lane said that English artifacts were recently found during an archaeological investigation required prior to construction of the marina.

Before any further excavation is planned, he said, researchers will study other artifacts that have been found in the region to narrow down a target excavation area. Then starts the complicated job of getting permission and money to dig.

Image credits

• Detail of “La Virginea Pars” by John White showing the area of one of two paper patches (the northern patch) stuck to the map (P&D 1906,0509.1.3 (detail), © Trustees of the British Museum

• A transmitted light image of the symbol underlying the northern patch on “La Virginea Pars” by John White, produced by lighting it from below. (P&D 1906,0509.1.3 (detail), © Trustees of the British Museum

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Deborah Powell

August 16, 2013 2:16 am

I don’t know yet where my Powell ancestors came from because the records for my paternal 3rd-g-grandfather Powell were destroyed in a courthouse fire, but the Powell surname is among the list of Lost Colonists. Alone that isn’t significant except that many of my other ancestors (on my paternal 3rd g-grandmother’s side) with Lost Colonist surnames came from counties in the Croatan Forest area of Eastern NC — Carteret, Craven and Jones (which is the surname of one of my g-greatmothers). I also have ancestors from Onslow County, which borders Carteret, as well as from Sampson County and former Bertie County — two other counties known to have Croatan Indians. Surnames of my ancestors from NC that match Lost Colonists include: Allen, Bailey, Butler, Chapman, Colman, Jones, King, Kirk, Martin, Newton, Nichols, Simmons, Smith, Wells, Wills, Williams, Wood and Young. Their friends and neighbors in Eastern NC had Lost Colonist surnames too. I also happened to find a 1916 petition signed by Croatan Indians to Sampson County officials. One of the Croatan Indians that signed the petition had the name Strickland, another surname of my ancestors (though, not a Lost Colonist surname). I also have some other non-colonist Croatan/Lumbee surnames among my ancestors. — Baxter, Carter, Cole, Green. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but it’s exciting to think that I might be descended from the Lost Colonists and Lumbee/Croatan Indians.

Angela McPherson

August 9, 2012 7:16 pm

There are so many names that make this a possibility. Anywhere within a fifty mile radius means contact with Indians would have been relatively easy. I hope they fund relics, burials, and especially Indian bones because when DNA reaches its heights, we will know the Indians and know which colonists survived. Maybe we will even find some correspondence that will say everything that they endured. Good luck!

William B. McLaurin

May 15, 2012 6:08 pm

I was born in Fayetteville, NC. Not far from Lumberton. My Great grandmother lived near Lumberton. The Indians there have English names, some have blue eyes, and some have light complextion. Many years ago, I worked with a man named “Carter” from Lumberton. Sounds English to me. Has DNA testing been done on the Indians of Lumberton?


May 12, 2012 11:28 am

Deacon Girl – thanks for the insight. I just find it all pretty funny, that is the concept of “invisible ink”. Maybe they should call it “hard to see ink” ’cause if it were really invisible, ya couldn’t see it, right? Plus, don’t know if the people of that era were familiar with UV as such. Parallel notion – the sign to the lost colony. How do you have a sign telling you where something is that is lost? If you know where it is, it’s not lost!

All joking aside, it is an interesting “discovery”.

Deacon Girl

May 10, 2012 12:49 pm

Allan2 – “In ultraviolet light, other markings appeared on top of the patch – markings made with some type of organic invisible ink, possibly lemon juice or urine, which was also a common practice at the time.” Outer Banks This Week, May 9, offers this as an explanation for the “invisible ink”.


May 7, 2012 7:22 am

Native Son, i always heard the very samething.Nell Wise Wechter mentions this in her book( Some Whisper of Our Name).


May 6, 2012 10:13 pm

This revealation could have been made public, several years ago, during the latter stages of the Eden House bridge construction BUT the importance of progress outweighed the importance of history at that point in time. Discovery will be most interesting but credit for discovery can be argued. Not necessarily that it is all that important but there has been a big secret kept for a long time for some reason.


May 6, 2012 4:19 pm

I am interested in these sites and findings. Anything dealing with our past is very rewarding to me.


May 6, 2012 9:52 am

I think it’s ironic that the man who discovered this shares the same last name as the colonist who first led expeditions into this very area before 1587.


May 6, 2012 7:58 am

The real questions here is, what’s the deal with “invisible ink” in 1587? Think about that one will ya! Sort of like the signs along 158 which say “Lost Colony”. How do you have a sign like that?


May 3, 2012 10:25 pm

Also it’s not western nc, it’s near Lumberton NC. Robeson Co.


May 3, 2012 10:23 pm

I agree with Mary, I believe the modern day Lumbee are the ancestors of the lost colony. It is reported when they were discovered, they spoke the Kings English, and some had fair skin, with light colored eyes. Since I grew up on Roanoke island, if true it makes me feel a greater connection to it, since I am part Lumbee as well.

Native son

May 3, 2012 9:46 pm

There is DNA research going on still in eastern NC to see if the colonists went up the Alligator River to its head/waters.Also, Beechlands on the Dare County mainland has been discussed for decades.

KDH Rezident Evil

May 3, 2012 8:22 pm

Well, that’s exciting. Maybe the search can be refocused and narrowed a bit for more answers.

Mary Reaser

May 3, 2012 7:35 pm

Isn’t there evidence that some of the ancestors are in the Lumbee Indian territory in
Western North Carolina?

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