Saturday, May 5, 2012

Was James Horn Prescient About the “Lost Colonists”?


We may have a new clue to what there was before there was a Jamestown.

"Virginia Pars" map of Virginia and North Carolina
 by John White, ca. 1585 
(© The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved)
The discovery of a hitherto unknown map image that may offer a clue to the fate of the “lost” colony of Roanoke has attracted the attention of major national and international media. It also may help determine whether Jamestown was not the first English attempt to settle the Chesapeake.

Backed by Sir Walter Ralegh, 116 colonists came to Roanoke Island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1587 to establish the first English colony in the New World. They had disappeared when a long-delayed relief fleet sought to find them in 1590. That expedition’s return was hindered by the war between England and Spain and led by explorer and artist John White, who also had led the 1587 voyage. White’s daughter and granddaughter (Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America) were among the “lost colonists,” a mystery that remains today.

Dr. James Horn recounted the saga in his well-received 2010 book, A Kingdom Strange – the Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. He theorized that about the time White left for England to seek more supplies and other relief, about 90 of the surviving settlers had decided to decamp from Roanoke Island for mainland North Carolina. He further explored the probability that the 1587 colonists’ original ultimate destination was the Chesapeake, where, a generation later, other settlers landed and established Jamestown.

Dr. Horn’s book takes on new meaning with May 3rd announcements by the First Colony Foundation and British Museum that a new examination of one of two corrective patches on White's "Virginea Pars" map may indicate where the “lost” colonists planned to settle on the mainland. 

The map has been owned by the British Museum since 1866, but only recently did Brent Lane, an amateur archaeologist and member of the board of the First Colony Foundation, suggest that one of the patches should be examined for other information about the area. Lane was helping research the site of an American Indian village.  

Lane’s suggestion was taken up by the British Museum, which used new technologies to find images on the map not seen for over 425 years. The images (according to the New York Times) “…stunned Mr. Lane. The patch hid a four-pointed star outlined in blue and filled in red, according to the British Museum’s report. The patch also covered a smaller, enigmatic marking, possibly a second settlement.  To historians, the star where two rivers emptied into Albemarle Sound probably represented a fort or the intended location of one, and its discovery greatly increases the likelihood that the colonists retreated to the spot.” 

Uncannily, that spot, about fifty miles from Roanoke, is where Horn (in A Kingdom Strange) also posited that a major element of the colonists would have settled – the same place at the mouth of a river where at where the star was found on the map under the patch. Horn also concludes that the remainder element would have gone to Croatoan Island near Roanoke, as was agreed with White before he left. It was there that the 1590 relief expedition saw something resembling smoke signals, but was unable to get there, as Horn relates.  

Steve Vaughan of The Virginia Gazette quotes Horn: “I couldn’t have scripted it better. I was stunned when I heard the news. That’s exactly where I wrote they had gone.”

This development brings to mind Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s 2009 keynote paper for the British Museum on the importance of the Roanoke expeditions to the undertaking of what became Jamestown.

It also complements our post of October 12, 2011 (scroll down,) where we considered that Jamestown had its antecedents in the 16th century explorations and expeditions to North Carolina’s Outer Banks ­– the Roanoke or “lost” colonies. This may help reinforce that supposition.

To learn the details about the British Museum's findings, go to the links at the British Museum Release in First Colony Foundation's announcement or in the New York Times' article. 

For another take on this and a slightly divergent view, see the post on Encyclopedia Virginia.

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