A Real National Treasure: Rediscovering the Roanoke Colony

Heather Cox Richardson

Ok, I confess to loving the National Treasure movies. I know, I know, they’re stupid, and they completely twist history, and all that, but they are so much fun! Wouldn’t it be great if there really were hidden passages behind Mount Rushmore? Caches of historical treasures buried under modern cities? Old documents that held secret information, revealing the answers to ancient mysteries?

Oh, wait . . .

Perhaps there are, on that last one.

One of America’s great mysteries has been the fate of the Roanoke Colony, England’s first attempt to establish a permanent settlement in the “New World.” In the mid-1580s, Sir Walter Raleigh outfitted a settlement on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina, just inside the Outer Banks (but what was then Virginia, named, of course, for Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen). The first years of the colony under a military governor were disastrous as the governor fought with both local Indians and his own people. The one great success of the venture was its choice of illustrator and mapmaker: John White. His meticulous observations of the coastline and the peoples he encountered are invaluable pictures of the New World as seen by wide-eyed European adventurers.

John White illustration, 1585
The first colony failed, but in 1587, Raleigh tried again to colonize the island, this time putting John White himself in charge of the expedition. (White convinced his daughter Eleanor and her new husband to join the venture. His granddaughter, Virginia Dare, would be the first English child born in America.) White proved a far better illustrator then governor, sparking a battle with the few local Indians who remained friendly. When it appeared the colony could not survive the upcoming winter, White returned to England to plead for supplies.

But bad luck continued to plague the colony. White returned to England just in time for the 1588 attack of the Spanish Armada on England. To defend her country, Queen Elizabeth prohibited any ships from leaving it, especially those whose only goal was to aid a few far-off adventurers.
It was not until 1590 that White could get back to Roanoke. When he arrived, he found the colony long abandoned. The only sign of what had happened to the settlers was the word “CROATOAN” carved on a post.

Or so we have understood. Until now.

From the report: "Examination of patches on a map of
the E coast of America by John White."
In 2007, the North Carolina Museum of History put on an exhibit that explored the fate of the Lost Colony. To that effort, the British Museum lent a number of John White’s illustrations. Crucially, their loan included a map. Members of the First Colony Foundation—a group dedicated to finding traces of the Roanoke colonists—noticed that White’s map had two patches. While patching illustrations was the seventeenth century’s version of Wite-Out, one of the map’s patches appeared to show a faint trace of something beneath it other than an error. The First Colony scholars convinced the British Museum to explore what might lie under the patches on the White map.

In early May, the British Museum announced their findings. And what findings they were! Using modern imaging techniques, they discovered that one of the patches covered a slightly different version of the coastline, and appears simply to have been used to correct an error. Under the second, though, lay a drawing of a dramatically altered ship, as well as the markings of a fort at the confluence of two rivers.

When he was back in England, White had vaguely suggested that the colonists had been intending to move inland when he left in 1587, and Jamestown settlers had heard rumors from Indians that there were Englishmen on upper Albemarle Sound. This new discovery lends heavy weight to those hints.

Is this where the Roanoke settlers ended up? Did White hide their location when he designed the map to protect the colonists from the Spanish?

The map raises new questions, but far more focused ones than the devastatingly broad “What might have happened to the Roanoke setters?” These are questions that, with the help of archaeologists, can be answered. It’s exciting to step this much closer to an answer about one of America’s great mysteries.

Now if only someone would tell us where Jimmy Hoffa is buried . . .