Much debate has surrounded John White's 16th century maps of the North Carolina coast and the questionable accuracy of Theodore DeBry's engraving of White's watercolor. Any comparison between White's depictions of the natives of the Carolina coast and DeBry's engravings of those depictions and you can easily question the veracity of the map. The faces of most of the natives look much more European in DeBry's engravings and several bits of minor details were left out.
That engraved DeBry/White map is important to us as to the accuracy of the locations of the Indian villages indicated on Hatteras Island, or "Croatoan." The "extra cape" on White's original and on the engraving caused me more than a little concern. Fear not, however, for White/DeBry's "questionable" detail of the "extra cape," indicated in all these versions for it actually exists... or did exist. There's proof. That "extra cape" turns out to be a "false cape" that is still preserved under the surface as the coastal hazard that we now know as "Wimble shoals."
Ever since our project's helpful contribution from Andy Powell, an email about that “false cape” in the area of Rodanthe on the Outer Banks, it has been bugging me about the current water levels as compared with the water levels suspected in 1585 when John White made his map. It had to be much lower in 1585. By how much was the next question. What did the Outer Banks look like at the time that John White watercolored them? Why in the world did he paint such a prominent cape that is not visible today?
Here are the two versions of White’s map, compared in DeBry’s chosen orientation of West on top:
On both maps, “Croatoan” is colored completely red, indicating that the English had spent considerable time there. Note though that on one map the mainland next to Roanoke Island is all red, while the other map has specific towns colored in. There are two dots where “Dasmemonquepeuc” is supposed to be. The supposition is that these two maps might have been done at different stages of the colonization period 1585-1588. For instance, the area of the first “false cape” area (as per Andy Powell) has no red on one map, but some indications of exploration on the other.
The point that I want to make here is that John White, without the benefit of a surveyor’s eye, drew a damned fine map! The extra cape (what I indignantly and once loudly called it) was not a figment of White’s imagination. It’s real. Andy Powell told us where to find it. So, I looked. In 2000, geologists did a survey of the Outer Banks in order to determine sand resources. They mapped the area presently under the sea (see below). On this map, the yellow areas indicate the present Outer Banks but with the water level artificially dropped to five meters, we wind up with a shoreline where the orange/red area is. Go a little further, to about seven meters (specifically for the “false cape” area at the present site of Rodanthe, and you have a shoreline in the area that I have colored purple for illustration purposes. If you go all the way down to 10 meters, you even get the little “claw hook” that White painted and DeBry engraved in the sixteenth century (shown in faint pink below the purple).
Background: Theodore DeBry map engaving of 1590; Inset: Stephen K. Boss and Charles W. Hoffman. “Final Report: Sand Resources of the North Carolina Outer Banks,” Prepared for the Outer Banks Task Force and the North Carolina Department of Transportation, April 2000.
Now, we have to temper this with the fact that this is the famed Outer Banks, site of sand-churning, killer shoals. The sands did not remain consistent over 300 years. Still, the hardened, or partially “cemented” areas of sandstone deep under the banks, are more resistant and are still there for all intents and purposes. So, the basic shape still remains of that “false cape” and we now call that area “Wimble Shoals.” By the way, the inlets that I have placed in there by erasing the landforms I did NOT do so because that’s where White put them but rather because that’s where the geologists indicated in 2000 were areas of possible inlets, or “instability.” Again, confirmation of White’s observations.
What does this have to do with our mapping of Hatteras? I’m glad you asked. John White was fairly accurate. He’s also our eye-witness and his testimony has to be the primary evidence that we use to determine the evolution of Hatteras Island, the past “Croatoan.” This analysis only vindicates John White’s observations and his recording of those observations on his maps. As to Theodore DeBry’s version (as you can see on the map comparison figure), his interpretation of White’s painting was accurate in many details. The locations of the Indian villages are easily identifiable as Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras village at Durant’s point (comparing the exaggerated “bumps” on DeBry’s map). These locations we generally agree are high ground areas where Indians would likely settle (assuming that they didn’t like having their towns flooded on occasion). Indians had centuries of experience with the Outer Banks and would have known about the feasibility of these areas, a subtlety not immediately recognizable to White or DeBry or any other European. So, why did DeBry put the towns where he did? Because that’s where White told him they were! It has to be. These town sites can be roughly defined as “Frisco,” [unnamed], and “Buxton” today.
Archaeology has confirmed the site of Buxton and deed records are confirming the temporally extensive (until 1788) Indian occupation at Frisco. We have yet to examine deed records for the Buxton area to determine who exactly owned the area of that town, but we’ll get there. Progress, folks! Definite progress through archaeology and team work.
[update: our study produced records to indicate that the site excavated recently by our colleagues from the University of Bristol in the past two years are probably the original home of James Wahab, possibly the home of Henry Gibbs before him. This area was definitely on the Wahab "old tract " sold to him by Gibbs in 1738. There's more to come on that study.]
Let’s all give ourselves, but especially, John White a hand… and, from me, an apology. I was really harsh on the guy. I was saying things like, “was this dude on drugs, or what?” Right now, he’d be giving me “the eye.” What can I say? Academics are typically hot-headed and spoiled, right? That’s my excuse.