John White Map Chowan Fort Discovery – Analysis

First I’d like to congratulate Brent Lane with the First Colony Foundation for his keen eye in spotting the anomaly on John White’s map drawn of “Virginia” in 1585-1586 and the British Museum for their fine detective work.  The Museum analyzed the map, shown below, and discovered the hidden icon locating a fort at the confluence of the Roanoke and Chowan Rivers under a patch.


An enlargement  of the fort location on the map is provided, below, by the British Museum.  There were actually two fort icons, one on top of the other, and two layers of patches, per  their published technical results.


This new piece of information is both important and enlightening….and like many news items, has been blown a bit out of proportion.  It has been reported that this is the location where the lost colonists relocated, which at this point, is certainly a leap of logic.   Let’s take a look at what was found, what we know, and the possibilities of what it might mean.

John White was an artist.  He accompanied the 1584 and 1585/1586 military expeditions to what was then called “Virginia.”  Those expeditions, headquartered off of Roanoke Island, were specifically to scout a suitable location for establishing a colony, the “Citie of Raleigh.”  The location chosen was in the Chesapeake region, not Roanoke Island, but a snafu in 1587 resulted in the colonists being literally abandoned in August  on Roanoke Island where the following supply ships would never find them.  They sent John White, then the governor of the “Citie of Raleigh” back to England for supplies which they expected to arrive in the spring of 1588.  

The above map is John White’s map drawn during the 1585-1586 military voyage of discovery.  The military men spent quite a bit of time exploring the region, meeting the natives, learning about the region and potential locations for a permanent colony. 

John White, in 1587 was only on Roanoke Island for a few days before departing again for England, so we know this map was not drawn on that trip.  Prevented from returning to Roanoke in 1588 and 1589 by England’s war with Spain, when he was able to return in 1590, he found the colony removed and the message “CRO” and “Croatoan” carved on both a tree and fort post for him.  If they relocated to the Chowan River location, why would they have carved Croatoan and CRO at the fort?

Before White left, the colonists has discussed moving “50 miles into the main.”  White told us this, but he never revealed the location.

However, the message they left for John White to find up on his return was “Croatoan.”  They had done as they had promised they would, letting John White know where they went.  White, in his own words from his journal, was “greatly joyed that I had safely found a certain token of their safe being at Croatoan which is the place where Manteo was born”, “the island our friends.” 

John White could not have drawn this map in 1590, as he was only on Roanoke Island and only for a day or so before a hurricane blew the ship back to England.  Therefore, John White’s original map had to have been drawn no later than 1586.  However, John could have modified this map anytime between then and his death in 1593.  Someone else could have modified the map, then or later.  But, assuming the modifications were made by White, why would John White cover this location?  And what does this fort location mean?

I’ve read in several news sources in the past few days that this is the final destination of the colonists and indeed, where they went.  While this is certainly one of the possibilities, there are also others, and I’d like to briefly touch upon the various possibilities and the logic for each.

1.  Military Fort – It’s certainly possible that at one time the military colonists of 1585/1586 were planning to built a fort further inland.  If so, this initially looks like a great location, at the juncture of two rivers and fairly easy to defend.  However, there is no indication a fort was ever built there….and the resulting “coverup” patch on the map may indeed only reflect that change of plans and the lack of an eraser.  John White worked in paint, and there was no “White Out” or erasure for that.  His only choice if a planned location did not develop would have been to put a patch over the location.  A second patch on this map indeed is only to show changes to the coastline on the map.

2.  “50 Miles Into The Maine” – This fort icon on the map indeed may be the fabled location recorded in John White’s own words, “at my last departure from them…for at my coming away, they were prepared to remove 50 miles into the maine.”  Given that John White returned to England and was not with the colonists, the only piece of information he could convey is the PLANNED location of “50 miles into the maine.” 

When White left, the relations with the Indians were deteriorating rapidly.  The English had just beheaded Wingina and killed many of his villagers.

John White never knew where the colonists actually went, although he believed, based on what he found, that they went to Croatoan and were safe.  He had arranged with the colonists before he left for a secret token, a cross, to be carved if they were in danger or under duress when they left Croatoan Island.  No crosses were found.  But a clear location, carved twice, was found.

If this fort was the “50 miles into the maine” location, why might John White cover it up? 

There are really only two options.  First is that it was no longer valid, meaning that further discussions or investigation caused them to change their mind about that location.  However, it’s worth noting that no other location is marked and that this region does fit the “50 miles” criteria fairly accurately. 

The second possibility is to hide the location, probably from the Spanish.  Espionage was common in England at this time and the Spanish were actively seeking the colony in order to destroy them. 

3.  The only thing shown on the map is a fort symbol.  We don’t know if this was originally meant to be a military outpost, the new “Citie of Raleigh” or something else.  We cannot assume that this fort was ever built.  In fact, there are no oral histories, or local histories or even rumors of a fort in this location.  It would be difficult to built a fort of the size required to house 117 people without some remnant remaining and being recorded in some type of record. 

By 1654, explorers from the Jamestown region were active in this same area and no fort or remnant of a fort was ever reported, less than 65 years later. 

It should be noted that the Tuscarora have an oral tradition of being descended from the Colonists.  The Hatteras Indians are recorded by Lawson in 1701 as both having an oral tradition along with grey eyes and lighter hair, unlike any other Indians.

4.  In terms of relations with the Indians, the military expedition of 1585-1586 was a disaster as what is known of the 1587 settlement before White departed for England. 

The 1585/1586 military colonists burned the village of Aquascogoc, destroying the corn crop, and therefore the food of the people for the upcoming winter.  These actions were the precipitating factor in the murder of George Howe, one of the 1587 colonists upon their arrival.  In retaliation for Howe’s death, 1587 colonists beheaded Wingina, the chief, and massacred the people in his village across the bay from Roanoke island where they had resettled after leaving Roanoke Island where the English fort was located. 

For a refresher of the events leading up to the 1587 colony, please visit our website at this link:

Given these aggressions, would it be logical for the colonists to move to a location where they are surrounded by three tribes of Indians, at least one of them known to be hostile and a second likely to be?

Taken from Andy Powell’s book, “Grenville and the Lost Colony of Roanoke,” the following is excerpted from the transcript of the original Barlowe journal from 1585-1586 which was included in the Hakluyt records compiled in 1589.  Several men, with Manteo, rowed upstream in the Roanoke River to the Chowan and up the Chowan for some distance, a total of about 140 miles hoping to find gold or the location of where gold could be found.  The newly discovered fort icon on the map is at the confluence of those two Rivers.  Here’s what Barlowe had to say about that exploratory trip upriver.

“…on the one side whereof stands a great town, called Chowanoake, and the Lord of that town and country is called Pooneno: this Pooneno is not subject to the King of Wingandancoa, but is a free Lord. Beyond this country, there is another king, whom they call Menatoan, and these three Kings are in league with each other.”

Apparently, word preceded their arrival, because many of the Indian towns were entirely deserted.  When leaving, the Indians took their food supplies with them.  Not only did the Englishmen want to learn where valuable ores might be found (gold and silver), they also wanted food, a commodity in scarce supply.  They had not taken enough food with them and presumed they would be able to obtain food from the Indians en route.  In order to obtain cooperation, they kidnapped Chief Menatonon and his son.  In Barlowe’s words:

“I took a resolution with myself, having dismissed Menatonon upon a ransom agreed for, and sent his son into the Pinnesse to Roanoak, to enter presently so far into that River with two double wherries, and forty persons one or other, as I could have victual to carry us, until we could meet with more either of the Moratiks, or of the Mangoaks which is another kind of Savages, dwelling more to the Westward of the said River: but the hope of recovering more victual from the Savages made me and my company as narrowly to escape starving in that discourse before our return, as ever men did that missed the same.”

Note on White’s map the label, Moratuc, just below and across the river from the fort icon.  These Indians were not friendly to the military colonists.  The Chowanac weren’t terribly happy with them either.  Kidnapping the king and his son did not endear the English to the Native people.  Barlowe again:

“I having been enforced to make him privy to the same, to be served by him [Menatonan] of a guide to the Mangoaks, and yet he did never rest to solicit continually my going upon them, certifying me of a general assembly even at that time made by Menatonon at Choanoak of all his Weroances, and allies to the number of 3,000 bows preparing to come upon us at Roanoak and that the Mangoaks also were joined in the same confederacy, who were able of themselves to bring as many more to the enterprise.”

Nor were these tribes friendly towards each other.  Menatonan’s son had also been a prisoner among the Mangoaks, later known as the Tuscarora.  The English sought to find the Mangoaks as they wanted to take some of the people prisoner, as described by the following passage from Barlowe:

“And that which made me most desirous to have some doings with the Mangoaks either in friendship or otherwise to have had one or two of them prisoners, was, for yet is it a thing most notorious to all ye country, that there is a Province to the which said Mangoaks have recourse and traffic up that River of Morattico [Roanoke], which has a marvellous and most strange Mineral. This mine is so notorious amongst them, as not only to the Savages dwelling up by the said river, and also to the Savages of Choanoke [Chowan], and all them to the westward, but also to all them of the main: the countries name is of same, and is called Chaunis Temoatan.”

The fabled mines of Chaunis Temoatan have never been found.

When they did eventually find the Indians which they sought, this was the results, again told by Barlowe:

“…we heard certain Savages call as we thought, Manteo, who was also at that time with me in boat, whereof we all being very glad, hoping of some friendly conference with them, and making him to answer them: they presently began a song, as we thought in token of our welcome to them: but Manteo presently betook him to his piece [probably a gun], and told me that they meant to fight with us: which word was not so soon spoken by him, and the light horsemen ready to put to shore, but there lighted a volley of their arrows amongst them in the boat.”

The reputation of the English had preceeded them.  The Indians on Roanoke island presumed the English would die of starvation.  They did not, and returned to the island with Menatonan’s son as hostage.

When the English settlers arrive in 1587, hard feelings remained among the various mainland tribes.  George Howe was murdered in retaliation for the burning of the village of Aquascogoc.  The English then escalated the conflict and massacred the inhabitants of Wingina’s village.  This action in 1587 just prior to John White’s departure for England, did nothing to endear the English to the Native people.  By this time, they had alienated nearly all of the neighboring Native tribes by either warfare, kidnapping or burning their villages.  They were sitting on a tenderbox and the only tribe who would provide them with assistance would be Manteo’s people, the Croatoan. 

Given this information, I’ve plotted the locations of the events noted above.

1=kidnapping of Menatonan and his son – both Chowanac

2=location of Moratuc [Tuscarora] who fought with Chowanac and fired upon the English.

3=location where English massacred Wingina and the people of his village

4=location of Aquascogoc, burned by the English

5=Roanoke Island, the site of the 1584 and 1585/86 military forts and where George Howe was murdered by Natives in revenge in 1587.  Subsequently, Wingina was murdered across the bay.

6=Croatoan, the location given by the colonists for John White to find when leaving the fort on Roanoke Island

Given the volatile situation in 1587, would you locate 117 English non-military colonists between locations one and two in a fort, or on Hatteras Island among friendly Indians?


We can discuss logic and pros and cons today about whether the fort on the map was ever built, and for what purpose, but the real truth about the fort, if it ever existed in reality, lies someplace under about 1200 acres, including a golf course, near Salmon Creek in a location known as Avoca in present day Bertie Co., NC.  We are excited about an upcoming archaeological dig being planned by the Lost Colony Foundation and look forward to their findings.

The above map images are copyrighted by the Trustees of the British Museum.


About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
This entry was posted in Chowan, Hatteras, Tuscarora. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to John White Map Chowan Fort Discovery – Analysis

  1. Pingback: Bertie Co., NC – Potential Fort Location | Native Heritage Project

  2. is the long barrier island to the N and E of Roanoke not called Croatamung? Maybe the colonists went there from the northern end of Roanoke.

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