The Roanoke Sagas
and Sixteenth Century Fortifications in North Carolina

Written by Fred Willard and Barbara Midgette
Edited by E. Thomas Shields, Jr and Charles Ewen, East Carolina University, NC
Editing on Satellite Imaging by Dr. Francisco San Juan, Geology Dept., Elizabeth City State University, NC

John White Map, 1585

    The Outer Banks of North Carolina constitute a geographic feature known throughout the world. As one of the first mapped and studied areas in North America, it continues to be researched today. Understanding ocean currents, sand movements and the dynamics relating to this attenuated sand ribbon and its environs, including the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds and relevant portions of the mainland, remains a major challenge at this time.

    The same dynamics of the shifting Outer Banks that challenge geologists also challenge those researching and looking for 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, investigations have been hampered by a great deal of misinterpretation and confusion.

    A study of maps, geography, oceanography and North American weather patterns 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 and to the west on the mainland. Although what John White described as "50 miles into the mayne" (Quinn, Roanoke Voyages: 613), which includes the triangle from Manns Harbor to 15 miles west of Colombia and thence to Lake Mattamuskeet, constitutes the most important area of discovery, it has never been systematically searched (See Figure 1).

    Roanoke Island has attracted the most historic and archaeological study related to the 1580s English expeditions, in particular the Fort Raleigh area. While the town associated with John White's colony has never been found, artifacts do connect the Fort Raleigh Roanoke Island site with the 1585 Roanoke voyages (Stick: 237; Hume: 89).

    Most recently, Ivor NoŽl Hume has proposed that a sixteenth century "science center", a site for doing 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 recently moved to Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks. In 1993, these authors located the Croatan site. The work on the Croatan Project led by Dr. David Phelps, Director of East Carolina University's Coastal Archaeological Office, has inspired new interest in these early expeditions.

    Some of the research to be discussed here is also centered on the Outer Banks, but is farther north near the Bodie Island Lighthouse. Two new sites for possible archaeological explorations are suggested. One involves new hypotheses as to the location of the historically reported Ralph Lane fort of 1585, placing it at Port Ferdinando Inlet, which is believed by these authors to be near the existing lighthouse rather than on Roanoke Island. The other involves a fortification as yet not located or historically verified "50 miles into the mayne".

    Fortifications have been a central feature in research connected with the Roanoke expeditions. Starting with the 1585-86 colonization attempt led by Sir Richard Greenville and Ralph Lane, forts had been built in at least four, and possibly five, locations (Powell 1989: 45; Hulton 1984: 5,15,41,42,173-4): two in Puerto Rico, one possibly at Port Ferdinando, two or more on Roanoke Island and possibly one more inland from the Roanoke Island base. Even so, the forts remain a mystery. [John White indicates that two small "alarm" forts may have been built on Roanoke Island, one on the north end and another at the site where their small boats were kept.] "From thence wee went along by the water side, towards the poynt of the creeke to see if we could find any of their botes or pinnisse, but we could perceiue no sign of them, nor any of the last Falkons and small Ordinance which were left with them" (Quinn 1955: 524, 615).

    The location and size of the fort that J. C. Harrington reconstructed in the early 1950s on Roanoke Island tend to refute the possibility of it being any fort built by Ralph Lane in 1585 (Hume 1994: 88-89; Quinn 1995: 909). However, for years this fort has been attributed to Lane. Ralph Lane did build a small fort on the north end of Roanoke Island, but according to the eminent archaeologist Ivor NoŽl Hume, it is not the one reconstructed by Harrington.

Port Ferdinando

    One of the major issues surrounding the forts is their location. Among the first that may be discovered is at the site of the relic inlet of Port Ferdinando.

    It is Lane who first writes of Port Ferdinando in his letter of August 12, 1585, to "Ye Right honorable Sir Francis Wallsyngham Knight. Thys other [inlet] called ye FerdyNando hathe a barre also but at xij foote vppon the same at hyghe water: and ye barre very short, beyng within iij, iiij, and v, fathom water: Soo as thys Porte at ye poynte of ye lande beyng fortefyed with a skonse, yt ys not to be enterdde by all ye force yt Spayne canne make, wee hauynge ye fauure of God" (Quinn, Roanoke Voyages: 202).

    Slightly modernized, Lane's letter states that "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 [not long] being within 3, 4, and 5 fathom of water. In this port at a point of land we have built a strong fortification [this is very important information], it is not to be entered by all the force that Spain can make [this fortification is very large], we having the favor of God." In other words, Lane says Port Ferdinando is the deepest and best inlet and the safest anchorage found. [David Beers Quinn makes the assumption that the above-mentioned fort was built on Roanoke Island and that the small "reconstructed" fort now known as Fort Raleigh is actually the one referred to in this and other letters signed by Lane as from "the new fort in Virginia"]  (Quinn, Roanoke Voyages: 198,202,210).

    Our present study of maps, geography, weather, oceanography, geology and history of the Roanoke expeditions points to a new venue for research involving the location of a "relic" inlet which may be the one discovered and named by Simon Fernandes in 1584. The physical position of this site and the activities taking place there have attracted little prior interest or research. [See Figure 2: John White's Manuscript Map B (The only map or copies of it showing Port Ferdinando)].

    One direction for a new systematic search would be the use of aerial imaging and the new microwave multispectral imaging. These new technologies could be used to delineate features leading to the possible location of Port Ferdinando and sixteenth century English fortifications that may be there and "50 miles into the mayne" (Dr. Francisco San Juan 1999,2000: Personal communication). Also the important Native American fort-like villages of Pomieooc, Tramaskkeco, Aquasogoc, Panauuaioc, and Dasemunkepeuc, which are all depicted on the John White maps, may be detectable with the newest eye in the sky.


    Maps are important primary research materials because they give us geographical information through time about space, i.e. the locations of old sites and boundaries and claims of ownership people may have made on land and water. Maps drawn by European explorers from 1498 to 1590 have been studied by historians with the hope of understanding how the Outer Banks of North Carolina were first visited and charted. Hatteras (later aptly named Graveyard of the Atlantic) must have presented huge obstacles and major hazards to the early explorers since the area was named and mapped at a very early time.

    But these maps also have misinformation and problems researchers must deal with. For example, in 1524, Giovanni de Verazzano mistook the Carolina sounds for the sea of Cathay [Pacific Ocean] (see map list in addenda; the map was drawn by his brother Gerolamo de Verrazzano in 1529). Many maps, beginning with Verrazzano's, also misnamed or confused the Outer Banks of North Carolina with the Chesapeake Bay. The name Baya de Santa Maria (for the Chesapeake Bay) was used as late as 1585. Simon Fernandes made this error and noted it while anchored off the Outer Banks (see Figure 3 and 1585 sketch map in the addenda. This map may have been drawn by John White himself). Mapmakers frequently copied the mistakes of earlier cartographers. As the early maps of North Carolina demonstrate, many misplaced and nonexistent geographical features are mapped and recopied repeatedly, a good example being Cape Kendricks on the Outer Banks. Although placed on the maps by John White, 1585, and engraved by Theodor de Bry from 1590, Cape Kendricks subsequently disappeared, washed away by storms, yet continued to be put on maps. This caused many historians and mapmakers to misplace the village of Croatan, placing it too far south near the Core Banks where some historians are still looking for it. (Stick: 237; Fisher: 72)

    Just as interesting is that specific maps sometimes contain information not recorded on other maps. This is evident in John White's map of eastern North America, 1585, which De Bry did not publish (Hulton 1984: Plate 59). This map or copies made from it by other cartographers is the only known map naming and showing Port Ferdinando and the small island north of it. This island may be the site of the missing Ralph Lane fort.

    Even though White alone records Port Ferdinando cartographically, the inlet is documented by many people involved in the Roanoke expeditions. On July 13, 1584, at this inlet, Captain 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 (Sams, The Contest of Virginia the First Attempt: 60-62; Quinn, Roanoke Voyages: 81-97). One result of this ceremony was the continuation of England's exploration and colonizing beginning with John and Sebastian Cabot's voyage in 1498 and concluding with John Smith's ceremony in 1608 at the fall line of the James River. Barlow entered an inlet (later named Port Ferdinando), "he rowed ashore and cast anker about three harquebushot (three times the distance of a small arms gun shot) within the hauens mouth, on the left hande of the sameÖ.We manned our boates, and went to view the lande next adioyning, and took possession of the land in the name of Queenes most excellent MaiestieÖand after deliuered the same ouer to your vse, according to her Maiesties grant, and letters patents, vnder her Highnes great Seal. Which being preformed, according to the ceremonies vsed in such enterprises, wee viewed the lande about vsÖ" (Quinn 1955: 94).

    To locate Port Ferdinando, the geology and oceanography of the region as well as the historical record on maps and documents needed to be studied. The inlets of the Outer Banks are composites of geomorphic landforms that remain discernable features for hundreds of years or longer. The three principal depositional sand units used in this study and affiliated with Outer Banks inlets are: first, the recurved spit inlet sediments associated with south migrating inlets. This is caused by a littoral south sand transport along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. As the sand spit moves south it first forms a lagoon and later a pond, then may finally close the inlet. Second, tidal delta formation on the sound side of an inlet. Third, the deposition of sand on the upside of a migrating inlet which accumulates at right angles to the shore forming a high ridge. These features make an old or relic inlet very pronounced (Gares 1997, Riggs 1998: Personal correspondence; Fisher 1962: 15).

    The south transport of moving sand deposits may force an inlet to close on the ocean side. This closing process can be seen today at Oregon Inlet in spite of human attempts to keep it open. As of early 2001, the sand spit at Oregon Inlet has 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. Of the twelve inlets open in 1584, only Ocracoke Inlet remains open today (Fisher 1962). When a south moving spit closes, it forms a lagoon which eventually seals on the sound side as well (Gares 1997: Notes). This ponding landform may endure for hundreds of years (Fisher 1962: 32,33,34).

    Tidal flow at an inlet produces an ebb and flood tide delta, forming shallow water sediment deposits. On the sound side a flood tide delta makes a marsh island after the inlet closes. This island then becomes attached to the original land as the lagoon forms and then closes to become a pond (Fisher 1962: 14). The flood tide delta forms a bulge or node on the sound side. This is the most important and discernable geomorphic marker readily seen on the old as well as the modern maps of the Outer Banks (see Figure 4; Fisher 1962: 15). The energy of large waves causes a diminished ocean side delta; it gets flattened and dispersed by wave energy. There are no ocean deltas on the Outer Banks (Coates, Donald 1972: 154; Riggs and Gares 1998, 1999: Personal communication). All three inlet depositional sand deposit markers in conjunction with John White's original map and other historic maps can help identify the location of relic inlets dating 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 (Figure 5: Hand drawn map by Zander Brody).


    Our working hypothesis is that Port Ferdinando, which we have called Ferdinando Inlet after the pilot Simon Fernandes who discovered it in 1584, became the first and primary entrance for the Roanoke expeditions to the sounds behind the Outer Banks, where anchorage in a safe harbor was found.

    This hypothesis also includes the proposal that the Ralph Lane fort mentioned in most of the historic records, relating to the 1585 Colony, is actually on the Outer Banks near the existing Bodie Island Lighthouse (Sams 1924: 26; Quinn 1955; Stick 1983). There the construction of a large defensive fortification took place with a ship repair facility, and wells were dug. It was here that the Spanish reported finding in 1588, while searching for the English colonists, 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 this location (Quinn, Set Fair For Roanoke: 307-309). This area was also used as both an observation post and a campsite. [We have a siting of sloops one year later than any account of the Lost Colony, sited by Gonzalez in 1588.]

    According to a Spanish manuscript published in ca.1617, taken from a deposition made in 1589, Pedro Diaz Franco, a skilled Spanish pilot, was kidnapped from the Spanish ship Santa Maria by Richard Grenville in 1585. Diaz Franco was taken first to England and then used as the pilot for Grenville's relief expedition to Port Ferdinando in 1586. He was kept on board the anchored ship for the entire fourteen days they spent there. Diaz's deposition is probably the only firsthand account of the location at Port Ferdinando of Ralph Lane's "A New Fort In Virginia". To the question as to why Diaz had not seen the settlement from the ship, even though they had reached the place where the wells were, he answered "It was not possible to see it since it was ten leagues (30 miles) away on the arm of the sea bearing away from the northern opening into the harbor." "...On the Island (between Port Ferdinando and Fort Lane) they have a wooden fort of little strength and it is on the inside by the water." In the said fort he (Grenville) left eighteen men, (the English accounts all indicate fifteen), and did not allow the said Pedro Diaz to go on shore or to enter the fort. "...And left in the said fort four pieces of artillery of cast iron" (Quinn 1955: 786-796,812). (Here Quinn is citing the 1617 manuscript of Luis Jeronimo de Ore.] The above appears to represent a 1586 primary source and a first hand eye-witness account, with a secondary corroboration of Ralph Lane's "The new fort in Virginia".

    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 other inlets to reach Roanoke Island rather than Ferdinando Inlet. Some historians chronicle Trinity Inlet rather then Ferdinando Inlet as the inlet 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, Arthur Barlow and 1586 and 1588 Spanish depositions all indicate that Ferdinando Inlet was the primary entrance to Roanoke Island in all the Roanoke voyages. It provided both passage and anchorage (Quinn, Roanoke Voyages: 94-95,106-8,107,191-2,198,202-204).

    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 (Sams, The Conquest of Virginia the First Attempt: 60-62; Quinn, Roanoke Voyages: 81-97) would be both historically and archaeologically significant. A year earlier in 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert had preformed a similar ceremony in Newfoundland where a lead seal engraved with the Queen's Arms was either erected or buried (Quinn, Roanoke Voyages: 94; Sams, The Conquest Of Virginia the First Attempt: 62).

    When John Smith documented the same ceremony on May 25, 1607, at the fall line of the James River, 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 or kyng and our own prosperous success in the actyon, and proclamyed him Kyng [James], With a great showt" (Smith XLVI).

Summary and Conclusions

    If the above hypothesis is correct, corroboration of the existence of Port Ferdinando could be expected from at least three sources. First: remote aerial imaging or photography. The use of computerized interpolators for feature enhancement is a new and emerging discipline. Multispectral imaging is the latest and most promising technology for finding large buried fortification (San Juan and Chambers 1999, 2000: Personal correspondence). Second, the finding of significant features and artifacts in the form of wells, a ships' repair facility, campsite(s) and a fort used during the time of the Roanoke expeditions. Confirmation of any of the above using archaeology's scientific method should be undertaken if a promising prospect (i.e. a feature at this location) is found. Third, datable core samplings indicating an historic inlet near the location of our proposed site.

Problem Areas

    The Ferdinando Inlet area has endured as many as six inlet openings and a significant loss of ocean beach since it closed in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century (Fisher 1962: 83-85l; Riggs 1998: Personal communication).

    In spite of resulting erosion, if Ferdinando Inlet can be scientifically found and confirmed, it will rival Plymouth Rock and Jamestown in historical importance as one of the earliest explorations in colonization of the New World. This early outpost was involved in at least six ocean crossings: The 1584, 1585, 1587, and 1590 "Roanoke Voyages", as well as the ones by Drake and Grenville bearing relief supplies in 1586. There were hundreds of people on some of these ships with as many as twenty-five ships and two thousand five hundred people in Drake's fleet alone (Hume: 45,50,53).

    With so many people on shore, relevant artifacts should be abundant if any undisturbed areas remain. And there is always the remote possibility of recovering an artifact from July 13, 1584, placed there by Arthur Barlow, with a seal or crest of Queen Elizabeth of England proclaiming possession of North America.

    NOTE: The NC Department of Cultural Resources is publishing this paper. In February of 2001, the department placed a historic marker at our proposed relic inlet location on Route 12 at the Bodie Island Lighthouse location, identifying it as the Port Ferdinado.

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


Map Lists Study Tracing the Geomorphic Features, Sand Sediment and Markers for Relic Inlets

  1. 1498, A map of the voyages of John and Sebastion Cabot.
  2. 1526, Juan Vespucci.
  3. 1529, Diego Ribero.
  4. 1529, Hieronimo de Verrazzano.
  5. 1540, Sebastian Munster.
  6. 1542, John Rotz.
  7. 1545, Alonso de Santa Cruz.
  8. 1545, Anonymous, Atlas of The Hague.
  9. 1547, Anonymous, London.
  10. 1550, Piere Desceliers.
  11. 1558, Diogo Homem.
  12. 1562, Diego Gutierrez.
  13. 1567, Alonso de Santa Cruz.
  14. 1569, Gerhardus Mercator.
  15. 1580, John Dee.
  16. 1580, Simon Fernandes - John Dee.
  17. 1582, Humphrey Gilbert - John Dee.
  18. 1582, Michal Lok.
  19. 1585, The 1585 sketch Map (Anonymous, but may have been drawn by John White).
  20. 1585, John White Manuscript Map A, Map of Raleigh's Virginia.
  21. 1585, John White Manuscript Map B, Map of Eastern North America. The only map or copies of it that name and locate Port Ferdinando. This map was not published until 1909.
  22. 1589/1631, Theodore de Bry print of John White's Manuscript Map A, Map of Raleigh's Virginia.
  23. 1599/1631, Theodore de Bry print of "The Englishmen's Arrival", Mercator/ Hondis.
  24. 1609, Zuniga #1, John Smith may have had something to do with this map. (See edited Zuniga map by Sams. This is the most important map about the "Lost Colony" that has been found to date. Very little research has been done with this primary source.).
  25. 1609, Zuniga map, Transliterated by Sams.
  26. 1609, Ould [sic] Virginia #2, John Smith.
  27. 1611, Velasco Map.
  28. 1672, Ogilby.
  29. 1657, Comberford.
  30. 1682, Joel Gascoyne, Carolina.
  31. 1701/1709, John Lawson, (Surveyed in 1701?).
  32. 1729/1723, Mosley (Surveyed 1729?).
  33. 1770, Collet.
  34. 1775, Mouzon.
  35. 1801, Price Strother.
  36. 1861, Bachman.
  37. 1861, Colyton.
  38. 1879, U.S.C. and G.S., Oregon Inlet Chart #138.
  39. 1883, Macray Brazer.
  40. 1861, Bachman.
  41. 1861, Colyton.
  42. 1896, Mail Route Map.
  43. 1958, Dunbar, Map of Historic Inlets of the Outer Banks.
  44. 1983, (1849/1980) Shore Line Movement (North Carolina Outer Banks, published 1983).
  45. 1992, Soil Survey of Dare County, North Carolina issued by U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service.

Works Cited

  1. Chambers, Samuel: Personal Communication, 1999/2000. Geology Department (Satellite Imaging), Elizabeth City State University, Elizabeth City, NC.
  2. Coates, Donald R.: Coastal Geomorphology. 1972, State University of New York, Binghamton, NY.
  3. Cummings, William P.: The Southeast in Early Maps. 1955/1998, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, and London.
  4. Everts, Craig, Jeter, Battley, Jr., and Gibson, Peter N.: Shoreline Movements. 1983, National Technical Information Service, Spingfield, VA.
  5. Fisher, John: Geomorphic Expressions of Former Inlets along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. 1962, Unpublished Masters Thesis, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.
  6. Gares, Dr. Paul: Snapshots of the Carolinas Landscapes and Cultures. 1988/1989, Shoreline changes along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Personal communication and Lecture Notes, Geography Department, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC.
  7. Hume, Ivor NoŽl: The Virginia Adventure: Roanoke to Jamestown: An Archaeological and Historical Odyssey. 1994, Knopf, New York.
  8. Hulton, Paul: America 1585. 1984, The University of North Carolina Press, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC.
  9. De Ore, Luis Jeronimo: Relations of the Martyrs of Florida, "donde se an fortificado los Ingleses". Circa 1617, Madrid [?], Reprinted in 1931/3, Edited by P. Atanasio Lopez, XVII, 2 vols., Translation by Dr. Maynard Geiger (Franciscan Studies, no.18), New York, Joseph F. Wagner, 1936.
  10. Powell, William: North Carolina Through Four Centuries. 1998, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.
  11. Riggs, Stanley: Personal communication and lecture notes. 1998, Geology Department, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC.
  12. San Juan, Francisco: Personal communication. 1999/ 2000, Geology Department (Satellite Imaging), Elizabeth City State University, Elizabeth City, NC.
  13. Quinn, David Beers: The Roanoke Voyages. 2 vols., 1955, The Hakluyt Society Second Series 104-05, London, The Hakluyt Society.
  14. Quinn, David Beers: Set Fair to Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1600. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 1985,
  15. Sams, Conway: The Conquest of Virginia the First Attempt. 1924, Reprint Co., Spartanburg, SC.
  16. Smith, John: Travel and Works of Captain John Smith, President of Virginia and Admiral of New England, 1580-1631. Ed. Arber. 2 vols., Edinburgh, John Grant, 1910.
  17. Stick, David: Roanoke Island: The Beginnings of English America. 1983, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.

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