Local News

16th century map offers hidden clues about Lost Colony

Posted May 3, 2012 6:04 p.m. EDT
Updated May 3, 2012 7:30 p.m. EDT

— 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. 

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.