I Once Was Lost …

Published:May 4, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Experts from the First Colony Foundation (they study the Roanoke colonies) and the British Museum in London (they own John White‘s drawings and maps, like the one above) issued a statement on Thursday. They believe that some hitherto ignored lines on White’s map of the Carolina Sounds actually represent the symbol for a fort and, perhaps, an Indian town. Here’s a detail of that part of the map, alongside an image of the same area lit from below, revealing the fort symbol:

To the left of that ship is a slightly discolored, circular patch. Wielding the gods of modern technology, the Museum folks have looked under the patch and found “a large ‘fort’ symbol in bright red and bright blue.”

Today the papers are reporting “a tantalizing clue about the fate of the Lost Colony.” “The shroud of mystery may finally be lifting,” says the New York Times, with everyone and their brother quoting Jim Horn, of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, who proclaims:

We believe that this evidence provides conclusive proof that they [the Lost Colonists] moved westward up the Albemarle Sound to the confluence of the Chowan and Roanoke rivers. Their intention was to create a settlement. And this is what we believe we are looking at with this symbol—their clear intention, marked on the map …

This is really cool! Except … wait. How do they know that this symbol represented a fort where people intended to go instead of where people actually went? (Don’t most maps focus on the what is, as opposed to the what might be?) If the symbol really does indicate a future fort, how do we know that the Lost Colonists actually went there? They could have been killed or dispersed. And if they did go there, how would John White have known? Or, put another way, how is this “conclusive proof” of anything?

Still, mysteries are good. And historians love to drum up the drama. Check this out, from the Times:

And faint markings atop the patch, which historians had largely overlooked, did not match the [map’s] paint. A museum scientist concluded that a “possible, if rather romantic, explanation is that these lines could reflect the use of an ‘invisible’ ink” like lemon juice or milk, which becomes visible with heat, according to the report.

“We haven’t been able to discover exactly what it is,” Dr. [Kim] Sloan [of the British Museum] said. “We can’t say for certain that it was a deliberate use of something like this, but it’s a possibility.”

Lost Colonists! Invisible ink! It may be far from conclusive, but it sure is interesting. Read our entry on Roanoke for a refresher on the historical background.

IMAGE:  La Virginea Pars by John White, ca. 1585 (© The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved)