CHAPEL HILL - Researchers now have their first good clue in more than 400 years to find the Lost Colony.
Organized by Sir Walter Raleigh, it was the first English settlement in North America, right along the North Carolina coast.
However, the colony of nearly 117 people seemingly disappeared in the three years it took leaders to make a supply run back to England in the late 1500s.
“Well let me tell you, it was thrilling,” said UNC Adjunct Professor of Heritage Economics Brent Lane, who also serves as a board member of the First Colony Foundation. “I was the first person in the New World to see this in almost 425 years.”
Most people don't get that excited when looking at old maps, but Lane proved you never know what you'll find, even when looking at a map that's been studied for centuries.
“Why did this map, that was so meticulously accurate, why does it have patches on it,” he said.
That simple question led to a major discovery. Researchers with The British Museum found the map had a patch of paper purposely covering up what appears to be a symbol of a fort.
“It was there all along, but hidden,” he said, with a smile.
Experts believe the settlers covered up the fort symbol on the map to hide their location from the Spanish, who were also trying to lay claim to the new world.
The story has captivated historians and North Carolinians for centuries. The Lost Colony in Manteo is the longest-running outdoor historical play in the country, now entering its 75th season.
“Why do we look for it,” Lane said, of people's fascination with the Lost Colony. “Because it's lost!”
Lane and other Lost Colony experts believe the hidden fort symbol on the map shows where Sir Walter Raleigh and the English settlers were planning to build a capital “Cittie of Raleigh.”
They now believe the Lost Colony is in Bertie County, likely somewhere along the Salmon Creek. It could even be on the site of a new, Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, Scotch Hall Preserve.
“If the colony did locate there, you would also expect to find some remnants of their presence; household items, personal items, broken pottery, general litter of 16th Century life that accumulates,” Lane said.
Researchers hope by studying the map, they'll be able to narrow down a search area and begin excavation work within the next six months.
Despite this promising discovery, Lane says the Lost Colony isn't found yet.
“This colony is lost,” he said. “It's still lost. But I think we're closer to finding it today.”