The mystery of Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony

John White returns to Roanoke to find the colony missing
John White returns to Roanoke to find the colony missing

Born August 18th 1587, Virginia Dare was the first English child born in America. However, she was also part of the ill-fated Roanoke Colony, which mysteriously disappeared around the time of the Spanish Armada and thereafter became known as the “Lost Colony”…

In 1584, Queen Elizabeth I instructed Sir Walter Raleigh to establish an English colony in an area of North America to “discover, search, find out, and view such remote heathen and barbarous Lands, Countries, and territories… to have, hold, occupy, and enjoy.”

Raleigh’s initial voyages discovered Roanoke Island on the eastern coast of North America. His first attempt to establish a colony failed, but in 1587, he dispatched a second group of colonists led by John White. They arrived on Roanoke Island on July 22nd 1587. A few weeks later, Virginia Dare — John White’s granddaughter — was born to White’s daughter Eleanor and her husband, London tiler and bricklayer Ananias Dare.

Tensions were high between the colonists and several Native American Indian tribes. One colonist, George Howe, was murdered by Indians while fishing. John White ordered a retaliatory attack, but ended up killing or wounding a bunch of friendly Croatoan Indians by mistake.

As a result, the Croatoan Indians refused to supply the colonists with food when theirs began to run out. In late August, the colonists urged John White to return to England for food and supplies. Although reluctant to leave Eleanor and Virginia, White was eventually persuaded to sail for England.

White intended to get supplies and go straight back to Roanoke. But when he arrived back on English shores, he learned that Queen Elizabeth had issued a “stay of shipping”, stopping any ships from leaving England. She did this because of a looming threat — the Spanish Armada was coming.

Because of the Armada and England’s continued war with Spain, White wasn’t able to return to America for two years. White eventually landed on Roanoke Island on August 18th 1590 — his granddaughter’s third birthday — to find the settlement deserted. There was no trace of the 90 men, 17 women and 11 children White left behind two years ago. There was also no sign of a struggle or battle. The houses and fortifications had been dismantled, so the colonists’ departure had not been hurried. And White had told them to carve a Maltese cross onto a tree if they were attacked and forced to abandon the settlement. There was no cross.

The only clue to the Roanoke Colony’s disappearance was the word “CROATOAN”, carved into the fence surrounding the village. This was ambiguous. It could’ve meant the Croatoan Indians or Croatoan Island (now called Hatteras Island). White believed that the colonists had relocated to Croatoan Island, but because of an immense storm, he couldn’t conduct a search and was forced by his men to return home to England.

White never returned to the New World, nor did he ever recover from the loss of his daughter and granddaughter.

Were the Roanoke colonists assimilated by the Indians?

Nobody knows for certain what happened to Virginia Dare, her parents and her fellow colonists. The most widely accepted theory is that they sought shelter with local Indian tribes and either integrated with them through intermarriage or were killed. There was a report that Chief Powhatan, father of Pocahontas, attacked and killed most of the colonists. But in 1612, William Strachey of the Jamestown Colony wrote that he had found English-style two-storey houses with stone walls in two Indian settlements, reporting that the Indians learned how to build such houses from the Roanoke colonists. There were also reports of sightings of European captives at various Indian settlements around the same time.

The “Dare Stones”

Between 1937 and 1941, a series of stones were discovered, with inscriptions reportedly written by Virginia Dare’s mother, Eleanor. The first stone was discovered by tourist L.E. Hammond in some woods in North Carolina. One side stated that Eleanor’s husband and daughter were dead, that they “Went Hence Unto Heaven 1591” and asked the finder of the stone to communicate this to Virginia’s grandfather, John White. The other side stated that all but seven of the Roanoke colonists had been killed by savages, and was signed “EWD”.

Further stones were discovered by a local farmer, saying that the survivors reached a sanctuary in the Nacoochee Valley and Eleanor married the “king” of the tribe and had another daughter. However, these stones were subsequently exposed as hoaxes. Their inscriptions were recent; the style of the lettering was shown to be non-Elizabethan; and two words had been used — “primeval” and “reconnoitre” — that didn’t actually exist in the language until 50-100 years after the stones were supposed to have been inscribed.

However, a team of archaeologists re-examined the Dare Stones in 2015 and determined that the first stone was distinct from the others — and was authentic.

The Virginea Pars Map and Site X

In 2011, a member of The First Colony Foundation was studying the Virginea Pars Map made by John White in 1585, and noticed two patches where the map had been altered. The Foundation asked the British Museum, where the map is held, to take a closer look at it using modern technology. Beneath the patches the museum found “a large, square-shaped symbol with oddly shaped corners”, presumed to represent a fort. The symbol was 60 miles west of Roanoke.

Interestingly, John White in his own writings described a plan to move the colony “50 miles into the maine” after he returned to America. So did the colonists move while he was away? That doesn’t explain the mysterious “CROATOAN” inscription on the fence post, unless the colonists split up, some heading to Croatoan Island, others to what the Foundation branded “Site X”.

Digging at Site X
Digging at Site X

The First Colony Foundation began excavating Site X, discovering a number of ceramic shards and other artefacts that “suggest the likelihood that a small number of Roanoke colonists were present at Site X for an undetermined length of time”.

However, archaeological discoveries have so far yielded only clues and titbits about the fate of the Lost Colony. The full story of what happened to them remains a hole in our history.

Alien abduction? Paranormal activity?

The fate of Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony has been debated by paranormal researchers and provided the basis for numerous sci-fi, fantasy and ghost stories. Were they sucked into another dimension? Did they slip forwards or backwards in time? In the 1965 novel Dare by Philip Jose Farmer, Virginia and the Lost Colonists are abducted by aliens and taken to a planet called Dare. In the 2007 movie Lost Colony: The Legend of Roanoke, the colonists are attacked and killed by the tortured souls of Vikings who came to Roanoke Island centuries before. Virginia Dare is the only survivor, taken in and raised by Indians. Other stories reveal Virginia Dare to be a demon or monster who either deliberately or inadvertently causes the disappearance or deaths of the Lost Colonists.

And while we may never know her fate, Virginia Dare remains a popular figure in American myth and folklore and a symbol of hope, new beginnings, bravery and adventure. Sadly she’s also been used by racists in North Carolina who want to keep the state white, as well as controversial groups like VDARE, who want to stop immigration into the United States.

How hilariously ironic, since Virginia Dare was an immigrant herself!

Next week: what really happened to England’s very own “Mad King”?

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