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Another Fort to Find

August 18, 2012


John White's 1586 Roanoke Map
John White's 1586 Roanoke Map
The Roanoke settlers may have gone inland on a waterway to build a fort with the same goals that led English settlers to do the same thing at Jamestown two decades later.

James Horn, an international authority on the "Lost Colony of Roanoke" and Colonial Williamsburg's vice president of research and historical interpretation, spoke in July about a recent map discovery that may point to where settlers went when they left Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina's Outer Banks.

"We got lucky. We discovered not one fort but two forts," Horn told a large crowd at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum during his program.

Horn suggested in his recent book, "A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke," that most of the 1587 colonists relocated at the head of Albemarle Sound on the Chowan River. In his program he emphasized that Sir Walter Raleigh and other English leaders wanted good river access to mountains they believed to be filled with gold, silver, and other precious metals, and the Roanoke River was thought to be just such a river.

Modern science has recently discovered a fort-like symbol where the Roanoke and Chowan rivers meet on a map made in the summer of 1586. The map is part of a large set of watercolors by John White that gave England and Europe accurate views of the new world of North America. The English had hoped to set up a series of outposts linking the Roanoke territory -- called "Virginia" in honor of Elizabeth I -- northward to the James River, where a later generation established Jamestown, the first English colony to survive.

"There is a strong connection between this effort and Jamestown. To me it's all part of this very early colony," Horn said.

The remarkably accurate map depicts the coastal area from Chesapeake Bay to Cape Lookout, including the location of many Native American villages visited by the colonists. But the map seemed to provide little information about the location of the planned "Cittie of Ralegh."

Using a variety of non-contact scientific methods carefully chosen to be safe to use with early paper, researchers at the British Museum in London peered at and through two small 'patches' of paper applied to the map. One patch appears to have been applied so the artist could alter the coastline. The second patch, at the northern end of the map, offers more exciting finds.

This patch appears to cover a large 'fort' symbol in bright red and bright blue, and it has a faint and much smaller version of a similar shape on top, just barely visible to the natural eye. There is also a red circle under the patch that may represent an Indian town.

White came with the expedition that brought the first colony to the North Carolina area in 1585, and most of his famous depictions of the North Carolina Algonkians and the local flora and fauna are from that voyage. This first, military colony returned to England in 1586. The following year White led another colony of 118 men, women, and children to establish the "Cittie of Raleigh," of which White was to be the governor.

But the colonists were landed on Roanoke Island, and White returned to England for supplies shortly after the birth of his grand-daughter, Virginia Dare (the first English child born in America). Delayed by the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588, White was unable to return to find his colonists until 1590, when he found the site deserted and the word "CROATOAN" carved into a post.

Horn believes most of the "Lost Colony" settlers moved inland to the fort site marked on the White map or to nearby Indian villages. Only a few dozen men would have been left on Roanoke Island to wait for White's return. "CROATOAN" was the name of an island at Cape Hatteras occupied by friendly Native Americans but too small to support all 118 colonists, Horn said.

"The irony is that their goal was to make the Indians into Anglicans and make them English. But they ended up becoming Indians and living with them. That's a great metaphor for the mixing of the peoples," Horn said.

The question remains: is the fort symbol on the White map a report of what had already been built there, or was the symbol an advertisement of what was to come -- a marketing ploy to spark the interest of wealthy Londoners? "We're still trying to figure out the sequence," Horn said.

The map study is connected to the work of the North Carolina-based First Colony Foundation, a non-profit group utilizing archaeology and historical research to identify the location of White's iconic drawing of the Algonkian village of Secotan in the Pamlico region. There has also been some archaeological work that has found a few artifacts dating between 1560 and 1620 on the north side of Salmon Creek near where the fort patch occurs on the map, Horn said.

The archaeological search may continue in that area next year, he said, joking, "There is the inevitable golf course. I think we'll be OK in the sand traps." Horn added, in a reference to the 1990s search for James Fort, "We don't have a landmark like a church to focus our efforts."

Soon after the establishment of James Fort in 1607, the English settlers went in search of survivors from Raleigh's 1587 colony. A sketch map they sent back to England bore a notation at the upper Albemarle Sound where the "king of paspahegh reported our men to be." The Jamestown colonists were never able to confirm the report.

The British Museum reference number for the White map is 1906,0509.1.3 and it can be found in the Museum's online database at http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=753203&partid=1.

Historic Jamestowne is jointly administered by the National Park Service and The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (on behalf of Preservation Virginia) and preserves the original site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World.

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