Hidden map markings offer new clues to a 400-year-old mystery
Brent Lane sits on the Board of Directors of the Lost Colony Foundation as a layperson among eminent historians and archaeological experts. In such company, he said, often his greatest contribution is “to ask the obvious question everybody else is too smart to ask.”
One such question has led to the discovery of markings that lay hidden on a 16th-century coastal map for more than 400 years and that have yielded a clue to one of North Carolina’s oldest mysteries: the fate of the Lost Colony.
On May 3, Lane joined experts from the foundation and London’s British Museum, which has owned the map since 1866, to discuss the importance of the discovery and how it has raised a new set of questions even as it promises to help provide answers.
Lane, director of the Carolina Center for Competitive Economies and an adjunct professor of heritage economics at Kenan-Flagler Business School, came upon his discovery last year while analyzing the “Virginea Pars” map of Virginia and North Carolina for research on the site of an Indian village.
A former geologist, Lane had done field research in the area and was impressed by the map’s accuracy. He reasoned that even small details might have significance overlooked by historians.
Lane focused his attention on two patches on the watercolor map. Mapmakers of the era used to overlay new paper – a patch – over areas they wished to change or redraw. The practice of patching was so common that no one had sought to find out what secrets these two patches could be hiding.
No one, that is, until Lane.
A map ahead of its time
Created by explorer John White, the map portrays several hundred miles of coastal North Carolina in more detail and with greater accuracy than any other part of the New World was shown for many years to come.
White was a gentleman artist from England who sailed to America with Richard Grenville in 1585 as the mapmaker and artist of the expedition. White returned in 1587 as governor of Sir Walter Raleigh’s attempt at a permanent settlement on Roanoke Island, the site of present-day Manteo in what now is called the Outer Banks.
White persuaded more than 100 men, women and children to join him on the expedition, including his daughter, Eleanor, and his son-in-law, Ananias Dare.
A month after their arrival, the colonists faced diminishing supplies and a fierce native population, and they urged White to sail back to England to persuade Raleigh, the expedition’s sponsor, to come to their aid.
Delayed by an attack from the Spanish Armada, White was unable to return to the island for three years. By then, no one was left and the only clue to the colonists’ whereabouts was the word “Croatoan” carved into a post at the abandoned fort.
Among the missing was Virginia Dare, White’s 3-year-old granddaughter. Born weeks after the colonists’ arrival in 1587, she is known to history as the first English child born in the New World and the face of the Lost Colony.
While not a historian or archaeologist, Lane is an entrepreneur who understands the role that science and innovation can play in shaping a society and an economy.
“To me, the story of the First Colony and the story of Sir Walter Raleigh is a story of innovative and entrepreneurial ambition,” Lane said. “Raleigh had so many of the characteristics of a communicator and a persuader, and a little bit of the flamboyance a good entrepreneur has to have to get people marshaled behind ventures such as this.”
White’s map served as a kind of Elizabethan prospectus that Raleigh used to lure investors with the promise of the untold bounty that awaited them in the blank-slate wilderness of the New World.
It was also a triumph, not only of topography, but also of early geology, botany and zoology, completed during the concept of science’s infancy, Lane said.
The map also was a tool for survival, documenting meticulously the miles of shoreline that colonists would navigate in small boats.
Lifting the shroud
With so much riding on this map, and given White’s exacting attention to every detail, the patches seemed out of place, Lane said.
“If this was such an accurate map and it was so critical to their mission, why in the world did it have patches on it?” Lane wondered. “This important document was being shown to investors and royalty to document the success of this mission. And it had patches on it like a hand-me-down.”
So Lane contacted the British Museum to find out if anyone had ever explored what was under the patches.
No one had, Kim Sloan, a curator in the museum’s department of prints and drawings, replied.
Was it possible to look?
Yes, she said. Even though the patches could not be removed, light could be shined behind the map to show what might be beneath them.
Lane received an email with an image attached from Sloan with the message, “There is something interesting under this patch.”
What Sloan found was a large square image with oddly shaped corners, outlined in blue and filled in with red.
Eric Klingelhofer, a history professor at Mercer University, said the shape was the symbol for forts of the era and an almost exact replica of a fort designed for New Netherland, the Dutch settlement that became New York City.
Using ultraviolet light, further analysis revealed a faint circle on top of the patch next to the fort symbol. A dot was the standard symbol used to depict an Indian settlement.
Although the fort symbol is not in scale, it appears to be located around Salmon Creek in Bertie County. The area encompasses farm and forestland, an industrial facility and Scotch Hall Preserve, a golf course designed by Arnold Palmer just across the Albemarle Sound from Edenton.
A gateway to El Dorado?
Could these symbols, at the confluence of the Roanoke and Chowan rivers, mark the spot where settlers from the Lost Colony headed?
James Horn, vice president of research and historical interpretation at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, believes the fort symbol represents a tantalizing clue of intention.
Before White left for England in 1587, he knew that the majority of colonists planned to move “50 miles into the maine” (the mainland). Whether the colonists ever reached the destination or survived long enough to establish a settlement there remains an open question, Horn said.
More certain, he said, is why they wanted to move there. The two rivers point to the answers.
The Chowan River was a pathway to the Chesapeake Bay, the region the colonists had originally intended to reach in 1587. The Roanoke River was the gateway to the silver and gold mines that were rumored to exist in the interior mountains.
Viewed in this light, Horn said, the fort symbol is “kind of like a treasure map pointing the way to the El Dorado that Raleigh hoped to find in America.” In that sense, the coastal settlements “were only first base.”
Savoring the moment
On May 3, Lane joined a panel of historians and archaeologists in Wilson Library, along with two scholars from the British Museum who appeared via webcast, to discuss the discovery.
“This clue is certainly the most significant in pointing where a search should continue,” Lane said.
“The search for the colonists didn’t start this decade or this century. It started as soon as they were found to be absent from Roanoke Island … I would say every generation in the last
400 years has taken this search on.”
Last November, he began asking himself what is now considered the obvious question, and in February he received an answer from his colleagues at the British Museum.
“When I opened the attached image, I was awed by the fort symbol it revealed,” Lane said. “It felt as if Sir Walter himself had sent me the plan for his New World capital – his “Cittie of Raleigh.”
With it, he knew, came an obligation to finish the centuries-long search for the lost colonists.
“I savored it for about 20 minutes before I let the rest of the world know,” Lane said. “I realized that, while discovering the image was a breakthrough, the challenge of completing that search was just beginning.”