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16th century map offers hidden clues about Lost Colony

Posted May 3, 2012

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— British researchers say they've made a startling discovery in the centuries-old mystery surrounding the Lost Colony – a solid clue about the fate of more than 100 English settlers that might have been hiding in plain sight for more than 400 years.

In 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh sent a group of pioneers to establish what was supposed to be a permanent English colony on Roanoke Island in Dare County. Among them was John White, the grandfather of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas.

White returned to England, where war with Spain was raging, in 1587. It took him three years to return to the Roanoke Colony with supplies. When he arrived, in August 1590, he found the colony deserted.

There was no sign of a struggle or battle, and what happened to the settlement and its inhabitants has never been discovered. 

Perhaps, until now.

Historians at the University of North Carolina participated in a webcast with scientists from the British Museum in London who detailed what they found on White's map of the North Carolina coast.

"What is curious about this map is that, while it is highly accurate and very detailed, it contained two patches," said Brent Lane, director of the UNC Center for Competitive Economies. 

Invisible ink could uncover clues about Lost Colony Invisible ink could uncover clues about Lost Colony

Under one of those patches, researchers found a large symbol – written in what appears to be invisible ink – marking the location of what scientists believe was a second English colony near the head of the Albemarle Sound in Bertie County.

"I think this new discovery has now confirmed that (the Roanoke Colony settlers) went, or intended to go, to this location here," said James Horn, vice president of research and historical interpretation at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Though the map doesn't provide definite answers about what happened to the Lost Colony, it does give researchers a new place to look for clues. 

"There is very good evidence now to suggest that this area deserves a good deal of attention," Lane said. "This is the first solid clue that searchers for the colonists of the Roanoke Colony have had in 400 years."

He said the patches on the map had never really been examined before, but that about two months ago, researchers began wondering why they were there and what they might be covering. 

The map, which was acquired by the British Museum in 1866, had to be removed from its mounting and placed on a light table to reveal the hidden image.

Researchers said invisible ink – usually made from lemon juice, milk or urine – was commonly used at the time. 

English pioneers in the New World had good reasons to conceal their plans for future colonies, Lane said. 

"The Spanish were actively seeking to find the location of the English colony," he said. 

The story of the Lost Colony is ingrained in the folklore of North Carolina. A play on the Outer Banks that was first staged in 1937 is the longest-running drama in the nation. 

For Lane, that means finding answers to the Lost Colony's mysteries helps tell the state's story.

"As North Carolinians, I think we've all felt the obligation to find the Lost Colony," he said.

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  • 23tony May 4, 2012

    "Yeah! Let's rewrite history. Seems to be the trend lately. Balogna!"

    You object to updating our knowledge when more information about history becomes available? No need to bother with the facts, I suppose.

  • puzzled May 4, 2012

    Yeah! Let's rewrite history. Seems to be the trend lately. Balogna!

  • marek335 May 4, 2012

    The suspected new site would now be underwater and buried by many years of runoff if at the head of the sound. I hope they can find away to research further.

  • thefiredog May 4, 2012

    Second thoughts,
    If you've ever read John White's account of his return searching for the Lost Colony and tried to match up the narrative with Roanoke Island they don't seem to fit. I even asked an archaeologist who spent some time there on a dig and she couldn't do it and stated that archaeologist disagree on where he went that day. Would love to see if either of the two patch sites would be a better match.

    Has anyone else ever heard of an old legend regarding a ghost ship headed up that away to restock the colony? I read about it once but have forgotten the source.

  • thefiredog May 4, 2012

    Interesting story, they didn't mention if anything was found under the second patch on the map. It also makes on wonder if the ships on the map were there for more than just decoration? Sometime I'll need to up a copy of the map in question and a current one to see what is located now at both locales.

    Did anyone else notice how the last shot in the video clip looked like a footprint?

  • Dixiecrat May 4, 2012

    It appears to be under what is now a high-end golf community. Oh well...

  • tomfoolery May 4, 2012

    oops! looks like they should've got there before the country club did...

  • Rebelyell55 May 4, 2012

    Ah, but the mystery continues....

  • quaten May 3, 2012

    "...the patches on the map had never really been examined before, but that about two months ago, researchers began wondering why they were there and what they might be covering.

    The map, which was acquired by the British Museum in 1866, had to be removed from its mounting and placed on a light table to reveal the hidden image...."

    A patchy history? Great find.