The Roanoke Sagas
Lane's Fort and Port Ferdinando

Fred Willard and Barbara Midgette, with E. Thomson Shields, Jr.


The Outer Banks of North Carolina constitute a geographic feature known throughout the world. These islands, among the first mapped and studied areas in North America, continue to be researched at present. Understanding ocean currents, sand movements, and the dynamics related to this attenuated sand ribbon and its environs remain a major challenge at this time. The same dynamics of the shifting Outer Banks that challenge modern geologists also challenge those researching archaeological sites connected with the 1580s English voyages to the area. Although solutions to the mysteries surrounding the Roanoke sagas and the lost 1587 John White colony have been sought for more than four hundred years, a great deal of misinterpretation and confusion has hampered these investigations. A study of maps, geography, and geology reveals that the search for archaeological sites related to these Elizabethan explorers might need to expand a little farther south and east from Roanoke Island to the Outer Banks.

    Roanoke Island, in particular the Fort Raleigh area, has attracted most of the historic and archaeological study related to the 1580s English expeditions. While the town associated with John White’s colony has never been found, artifacts do connect the Fort Raleigh Roanoke Island site with the 1580s Roanoke voyages. Most recently, Ivor Noël Hume proposed that a sixteenth-century “science center,” a site for conducting metallurgical testing, was located in the vicinity of the reconstructed fort at the north end of Roanoke Island. In addition to the work on Roanoke Island, attention has moved to Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks with work on the Croatan Project by Dr. David Phelps, director of East Carolina University’s Office of Coastal Archaeology.

    The research to be discussed here likewise centers on the Outer Banks, but farther north, near the Bodie Island Lighthouse. We suggest a new site for possible archaeological exploration, based upon a new hypothesis that places the historically reported Ralph Lane fort of 1585 at Ferdinando Inlet and places that inlet near Bodie Island Lighthouse rather than on Roanoke Island.

    Forts have long been a central feature in research connected with the 1580s Roanoke expeditions. Starting with the 1585-1586 colonization attempt led by Ralph Lane, these expeditions erected forts on at least four sites: two in Puerto Rico, one at Port Ferdinando, and at least one on Roanoke Island. These forts remain mysterious. For example, the location and size of the fort that archaeologist J. C. Harrington reconstructed in the early 1950s on Roanoke Island tend to refute the possibility of its being the fort Ralph Lane built in 1585.

    One of the major issues concerns the forts’ location. At present, most researchers assume that the still unlocated fort Lane says was at Port Ferdinando—the site for entry from the Atlantic Ocean to the English’s Roanoke Island settlements—was actually built on Roanoke Island, probably in the vicinity of the present-day town of Manteo. A reexamination of the evidence suggests, however, that the fort for Port Ferdinando was located not on Roanoke Island but along the Outer Banks in the vicinity of Bodie Island Lighthouse.

    Lane first mentions Port Ferdinando in his letter of August 12, 1585, “To ye Right honorable Sir Frances Wallsinghoam, Knight”: “Thys other called ye FerdyNando hathe a barre also but at xij foote vppon the same at hyghe water: and ye barre very shorte, beyng within iij, iiij, and v, fathom water: Soo as thys Porte at ye poynte of ye lande beying fortefyed with a skonse, yt ys not to be enterdde by all ye force yt Spayne canne make, wee hauynge ye fauure of God.” Slightly modernized, Lane’s letter states: “This other [inlet] called Ferdinando has a bar also but at 12 foot upon the same at high water [i.e., at high tide]; and the bar [is] very short being within 3, 4, and 5 fathoms of water. So as this port at the point of land is fortified with a sconce [i.e., a fort], it is not to be entered by all the force that Spain can make, we having the favor of God.” In other words, Lane says that Port Ferdinando is the deepest and best inlet and the safest anchorage found. Lane further states that he has built a fortification so well that all of the force of Spain cannot enter. Historian David B. Quinn assumes that this fort was never built on the barrier islands but, rather, that only on Roanoke Island was a fort built and that the restored fort now known as Fort Raleigh is the one (or part of the one) referred to in this and other letters signed by Lane as being from “the new fort in Virginia.”

    Our present study of the Roanoke expedition points to a new venue for research involving the location of a relic inlet that may be the remains of the one discovered and named by Simon Fernandez in 1584. The physical position of this site and the activities that took place there have attracted little prior interest or research.


    Maps are important research materials because they give us geographic information through time about space, i.e., the locations of old sites and boundaries and the claims of ownership people may have made on land and water. Historians have studied maps drawn by European explorers from 1529 to 1775 in the hope of understanding how the Outer Banks of North Carolina were first visited and mapped. Cape Hatteras (later aptly named the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”) must have presented huge obstacles and major hazards to early explorers, since they gave the feature various names and mapped it as early as 1529.

    But these maps also give researchers misinformation. For example, in 1524 Giovanni da Verrazzano mistook the Carolina sounds for the Sea to Cathay, and his brother Gerolamo da Verrazzano repeated the mistake on his map of 1529. The error persisted on several maps over at least the next seventy years, including those by Munster (1540), the anonymous cartographer of the Harleian World Map (ca. 1547), John Dee (ca. 1582), Michael Lok (1582), and John White (1585). Many maps misnamed or confused the Outer Banks of North Carolina with the Chesapeake Bay, called the Bahia de Santa Maria at the time. An anonymously drawn sketch map from the 1585 Lane expedition made this error. Mapmakers frequently copied the mistakes of earlier cartographers, as the early maps of North Carolina demonstrate: many misplaced and even nonexistent geographic features are mapped and recopied repeatedly, a good example being Cape Kendricks on the Outer Banks. Although placed without being named on a 1590 map engraved by Theodore de Bry based on John White’s 1585 watercolor maps, Cape Kendricks subsequently disappeared, washed away by storms. Yet it continued to appear on maps such as that by Nicholas Comberford in 1657, on which it was mistakenly labeled “Cape Hatteras.” The misinformation about Cape Kendricks influenced some historians and mapmakers to incorrectly place the village of Croatan, locating it too far south, near the Core Banks, where some historians are still looking for it.

    Just as interesting is the fact that some maps contain information not recorded on other maps. This is evident in John White’s 1585 chart of eastern North America. This map—or copies of it made by other cartographers—is the only known map that names and shows Port Ferdinando and the small island north of it. Even though White alone records Port Ferdinando cartographically, many of the people involved in the Roanoke expeditions documented the inlet in writing. On July 13, 1584, Capt. Arthur Barlow, Philip Amadas, and their crews performed a ceremony whereby the North American continent was claimed for Sir Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth, and England. Barlow writes that they entered an inlet (named later as Port Ferdinando), rowed ashore, “and cast anker about three harquebushot [three times the distance a small handgun could shoot] within the hauens mouth, on the left hande of the same:…we manned our boates, and went to view the lande next adioyning,” and took possession of the land in the name of Queen Elizabeth.

    To locate Port Ferdinando, one must consider, besides the historical record of maps and documents, the geology of the region. The inlets of the Outer Banks are composites of geomorphic landforms that have remained discernible features for hundred of years or longer. The three principal depositional sand units affiliated with Outer Banks inlets are the recurved spit-inlet sediments associated with south-migrating inlets, tidal deltas formed on the ocean and sound sides of an inlet, and the depositions of sand on the upsides of inlets that accumulate at right angles to the shore and form high ridges. These features identify an old, or relic, inlet.

Map of northern Outer Banks of North Carolina showing suggested location of banks and inlets at the time of the Roanoke voyages.

    Sand deposits moving southward may eventually force an inlet to close on the ocean side. This closing process can presently be seen at Oregon Inlet, in spite of human attempts to keep it open. As of early 1999, the sand spit at Oregon Inlet had encroached all the way to the high span of the bridge across the inlet. When the bridge was first built, this sand spit was at least a mile from the middle of the inlet, where the high span rises. Therefore, it is not surprising that of the twelve inlets open along the Outer Banks in 1584, only Ocracoke Inlet remains open. When a southward-moving spit closes an inlet, a lagoon results that will eventually seal on the sound side as well. This ponding landform may endure for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

    Tidal flow at the inlet produces an ebb-and flood-tide delta made of shallow-water sediment deposits. On the sound side a flood-tide delta creates a marsh island after the inlet closes. Such an island then becomes attached to the original land as the lagoon forms and then closes to become a pond. The flood-tide delta forms a bulge or node on the sound side. This is the most important and discernible geomorphic marker readily seen on modern maps of the Outer Banks. The energy of large waves causes a diminished ocean-side delta, which becomes flattened and dispersed by wave-action energy. No ocean-side deltas can remain on the Outer Banks.

    All three inlet depositional sand deposit markers, when considered in conjunction with John White’s original map and other historic maps, can help identify the location of relic inlets that date back to the time of the Roanoke voyages. Specifically, the bulge or node near Port Ferdinando is traceable on almost all these maps up to the present time. Geomorphic landforms of two relic inlets with an island in between are suggested near Bodie Island Lighthouse.


    Our working hypothesis is that Port Ferdinando and its accompanying inlet (which we have called Ferdinando Inlet, having been found by the pilot Simon Fernandez in 1584), where the Roanoke voyagers found an anchorage in a safe harbor, became for the Roanoke expeditions the first and primary entrance to the sound behind the Outer Banks. This hypothesis also includes the proposition that the Ralph Lane fort location mentioned in most of the historic records is actually on the Outer Banks near the existing Bodie Island Lighthouse. There a defensive fortification and a ship-repair facility were constructed, and wells were dug. There, as well, the Spanish reported finding in 1588 a varadero, or shipyard, and pozos hechos de pipas, English casks or wells, and other debris indicating that a considerable number of people had been at that location. The site was also used both as an observation post and a campsite.

    The evidence for such a site comes in part from a deposition taken from Pedro Díaz Franco in Havana in 1589. Diaz had been captured by Richard Grenville during Grenville’s return to England after leaving the Ralph Lane colony on Roanoke Island in 1585. Diaz then served the English as a pilot on two voyages to Roanoke Island, escaping from them on the second voyage—the 1588 attempt to resupply the “Lost Colony.” More significant, however, is Díaz’s first term as a pilot following his capture: Grenville’s 1586 voyage undertaken to resupply the Ralph Lane colony and the only voyage during wich Díaz actually reached the Outer Banks near Roanoke Island. The 1586 voyage arrived just weeks after Lane had left for England, taken by Francis Drake; finding no one at the colony, Grenville left fifteen (or perhaps eighteen) men there before returning to England himself. Díaz’s deposition was important enough that is was a source for Luís Hierónimo de Oré, who published his Relación de los mártires que ha habido en las Provincias de la Florida sometime between 1614 and 1619.

    From Oré’s work we discover the limitations of Díaz’s observations—the limitations that make his report especially interesting. It seems that Díaz was not allowed to leave the ship. When he was asked why he had not seen the settlement from the ship, “he answered that he was not able to see, since it was ten leagues from the port by the arm above the shore of the northern entrance.” Assuming approximately two miles to a Spanish league, the main settlement was some twenty miles from the inlet in which Díaz sat aboard ship. Yet, in his deposition, Díaz reports, “On the island they have a wooden fort of little strength and it is inside by the water.” The fort referred to may be that at Ferdinando Inlet rather than at the main settlement, because Díaz is giving a firsthand account; it would have been the only one he could have seen from aboard ship. After all, according to Díaz, “In the said fort he [Grenville] left eighteen men and did not allow the said Pero [sic] Díaz to go on shore or enter the fort. The said captain stayed there for fourteen days and left in the said fort four pieces of artillery of cast-iron and supplies for the eighteen men for a year.” Díaz’s deposition may be the only firsthand account of Ralph Lane’s “New Fort in Virginia”—the fort we are suggesting was located at Ferdinando Inlet.

    Applying the scientific methods of archaeology to the Bodie Island location may help solve the problem of primary access—that is, whether over time it would have been most likely that ships would have used avenues other than Ferdinando Inlet to reach Roanoke Island. Some histories chronicle Trinity Inlet rather than Ferdinando Inlet as the entryway of choice among the Roanoke colonists, but the idea of Trinity Inlet as the primary access to Roanoke Island has now fallen out of favor. Narratives, published papers, and letters of Richard Grenville, John White, Sir Francis Drake, and Arthur Barlow, as well as Díaz’s deposition, all indicate that Ferdinando Inlet was the primary entrance to Roanoke Island in all the Roanoke voyages, providing both passage and anchorage.

    Additionally, if remnants of Ferdinando Inlet can be found, some interesting questions may be answered regarding England’s early colonial settlements and outposts in the New World. The ceremony of July 13, 1584, described by Captain Barlow would be both historically and archaeologically significant. A year earlier, Sir Humphrey Gilbert had performed a similar ceremony in Newfoundland, where a lead seal engraved with the queen’s arms was either erected or buried. When John Smith documented a similar ceremony at the fall line of the James River on May 25, 1607, he wrote: ”So vpon one of the Iletts at the mouth of the falls he [Captain Newport] set up a Crosse with this inscription: ‘Jacobus Rex 1607’ and his own name below, at the erecting here of we prayed for our Kyng and our own prosperous success in the actyon, and proclamyed him Kyng with a great showt.”

Summary and Conclusions

    If the foregoing hypothesis is correct, corroboration of the existence of Port Ferdinando could be expected from at least three sources. The first is remote aerial imaging or photography. The use of computerized interpolators for feature enhancement is a new and emerging discipline. The second is datable core samplings indicating an historic inlet near the location of the present Bodie Island Lighthouse. The third is finding significant features and artifacts of the Roanoke expeditions such as wells, a ship-repair facility, campsite(s), or a fort used during the Roanoke expeditions. Follow-up confirmation employing archaeology’s scientific methods could be undertaken if a promising prospect appears.

    Certain problems may make locating an archaeologically significant site at Port Ferdinando difficult, however. Ferdinando Inlet closed sometime between 1775 and 1808 and was sealed by sand-laden storms. Storms have washed away many historical and archaeological sites on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The greatest threats to these sites continue to be hurricanes, Hatteras low-pressure systems, and northeasters. The power of these meteorological events to obliterate both artifacts and features is incalculable. The Ferdinando Inlet area has endured as many as six inlet openings and a significant loss of ocean beach since the inlet closed.

    Still, if Ferdinando Inlet can be scientifically confirmed, it will rival Plymouth Rock and Jamestown in historical importance as the site of one of the earliest English explorations and colonizations in the New World. That early outpost was involved in six ocean crossings: the 1584, 1585, 1587, and 1590 Roanoke expeditions and the two led by Drake and Grenville bearing relief supplies in 1586. Some of the ships involved in those voyages carried hundreds of people, while Drake’s fleet alone comprised as many as twenty-five ships and twenty-five hundred people. With so many people on shore, relevant artifacts should be fairly abundant if any undisturbed areas remain. And there is the remote possibility of recovering an artifact from July 13, 1584, placed there by Capt. Arthur Barlow—ideally with a seal or crest of Queen Elizabeth of England proclaiming possession of most of North America.

    The search for beginnings goes on. More than four hundred years have passed since Amadas and Barlow performed their ceremony at Ferdinando Inlet. Although storms and successive new inlets have destroyed this historic site, it remains an important goal to locate, document, and confirm its location before it is lost forever.

Note: Table of maps and notes follow essay in original volume.

Return to Selected Essays

   Copyright © 2007-1999 ~ All Rights Reserved