The Baptism of Virginia Dare imagined long after the fact. No clergy accompanied the settlers and whatever dwelling they may have been able to erect in the scant time since landing in July, 1587, it was surely not so solid an edifice as this.
On August 18, 1587 Virginia Dare was born on Roanoke Island, one of the Outer Bank Islands off the coast of what is now North Carolina in a fledgling colony underwritten by adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh.
Her mother Eleanor was one of 17 women who had made the hazardous Atlantic crossing and was the daughter of the man assigned by Raleigh to establish the colony, John White. And that is all we really know about her.
When her grandfather made his long delayed return to the settlement exactly three years later on August 18, 1590, he discovered the settlement abandoned with no sign of a struggle. In fact the palisade and buildings had been carefully dismantled, indicating a planned move. A Maltese cross that was supposed to be carved on a designated tree in as a distress signal in case the colonists had to flee hostile natives was not in evidence.
The only other clue to the fate of the inhabitants was the word Croatoan carved into a post of the fort and “Cro” carved into a nearby tree. Croatoan was the name of a local tribe of southern Algonquin speakers with whom friendly relations had been established in earlier attempts to found the colony. Their main village known to the English was on another barrier island, but the crew of the privateer on which White had hitched a ride refused to continue the search for them.
White had to return to England with no knowledge of the fate of his colony, daughter and grand daughter. Subsequent attempts to locate the survivors—if there were any—or to find any evidence of their fate turned up only rumor and speculation.
The fate of the Lost Colony of Roanoke and of young Virginia Dare became one of the great mysteries of American history and the basis of countless myths, tall tales, and what we today would call conspiracy theories.
The short lived colony had its origins in a favor granted by Queen Elizabeth I to a court favorite, the dashing and handsome Raleigh, just the type to catch the Virgin Queen’s eye. She granted him a Charter to establish a colony in the lands north of Spanish Florida which had been designated as Virginia. The Charter required that Raleigh establish a permanent colony within ten years or lose his rights.
Raleigh intended his proposed colony to trade with the natives and hopefully find gold or silver, but primarily to establish a base from which privateers could prey upon rich Spanish shipping. In other words it was to become a base for gentlemen pirates willing to cut the Queen in on their loot.
Although he never personally went to Virginia, Raleigh wasted no time in establishing his claim. In 1584 he dispatched Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to explore the east coast for likely locations. They returned with a recommendation for the Outer Banks islands, whose sheltered waters would be ideal for launching adventures against the Spanish. They had also established relations with the Croatoan who they described as friendly.
The following year Raleigh sent Sir Richard Grenville with a party of all male colonizers made up mainly of soldiers who had recently campaigned in Ireland. The martial make-up of this group betrayed its intentions. Unfortunately, most of the colony’s provisions were ruined when the main ship ran into a reef and sprang a leak. Worse, while exploring the mainland shore they encountered non-Croatoan natives who they accused of steeling a sliver goblet. In retaliation the men sacked and burned the village and executed the local chief by burning him. This earned the natural enmity of many natives.
Despite these problems Grenville decided to leave a skeleton colony of 75 men under Ralph Lane on the north end of Roanoke Island to enforce Raleigh’s claim. He set sail with bulk of his men for England with a promise to return with reinforcements and provisions. The promise relief date of April 1586 came and went without a sign of Grenville.
When Sir Francis Drake, on his way back to England after successfully plundering the Caribbean happened upon them in June, they eagerly accepted his offer a ride back to England. Grenville’s re-supply expedition arrived soon after to find the little colony abandoned. Frustrated Grenville left a handful of men and returned to report the failure.
Next time Raleigh sent 117 settlers, including women and children under the command of his good friend White, an artist who had been on both of the earlier voyages and knew the area. White got his colony off to a good start. He re-established relations with the friendly Croatoan, but was rebuffed by the mainland tribes still angry over Lane’s depredations. They killed one settler as he was crabbing alone in Albemarle Sound. Fearing for their safety should the mainland tribes attack, the colonists persuaded White to return with the ship that brought them to beg for reinforcements and protection.
The series of unforeseen circumstances that would so long delay White’s return began with the late season crossing which was beset by gales. The ship’s pilot declared that it had barely survived to reach port. After White hastily gathered supplies and men, the Captain refused to make an even more dangerous winter crossing back. Come spring the threat of the Spanish Armada caused every sea-worthy ship in England to be impressed into service. White found two small coastal ships considered unfit for naval use. But their captains decided to try their hand a privateering along the way and got captured by the Spanish, who confiscated their supplies but allowed them to return empty to England. The war with Spain kept White from mounting another expedition.
In desperation in the spring of 1590 he signed on a privateer planning to raid in the Caribbean whose captain promised to stop by Roanoke on the trip back to England. White would come nearly empty handed, but he would come. And be bitterly disappointed.
Theories about the fate of the vanished colonists have led to wild speculation over the years. At one point it was suggested that the Mandan, a tribe on the upper Missouri with whom Lewis and Clark over-wintered in 1803, were the decedents of the Roanoke people based on their pale complexions in comparison to other natives and the presence of some people among them with blue eyes. Other lost “white” tribes were reported, or rumored across the east from as far north as Maine to the swamps of Florida.
And there were occasional possible sightings of survivors or descendents. In 1609 settlers from Jamestown relayed reports at that “four men and a maid” were living among the Iroquoian speaking Tuscarora, likely the hostile mainland tribe that Lane encountered. But Chief Wahunsunacock, known to history as Powhatan allegedly told Jamestown’s Captain John Smith that he had wiped out the survivors shortly before near modern day Hampton Roads because they were living with a people who refused to join his growing confederacy. He allegedly showed Smith English made iron trinkets to prove his story.
Yet another story tells of early settlers in Person County, North Carolina years later encountering fair skinned natives who spoke some English and had knowledge of “our Lord, Jesus Christ.” Most scholars, however believe this group was an offshoot of the Saponi people who may have encountered—and slept with—English privateers or other visiting seamen.
Other theories, not widely credenced, are that the settlers used wood from their dismantled village to build boats for an ill-advised and doomed attempt to reach England on their own or that they were found and massacred by the Spanish. Most scholars today believe that they were either absorbed by the friendly Croatoan or captured and enslaved by the Tuscarora.
In 1998 some confirmation of the theory that they lived among the Croatoan was uncovered by archeologists from East Carolina University who uncovered a gold 16th century English signet ring, gun flints, and two 16th century copper farthings at the site of the ancient Croatoan capital, 50 miles from the colony. The ring has been identified with Master Kendall who is recorded as having lived in the Ralph Lane colony on Roanoke Island from 1585 to 1586. But they don’t provide a link to the later colony and could have been acquired by trade.
Some believe that the ongoing Lost Colony DNA Project founded by a group led by Roberta Estes in 2005, will solve the mystery by doing DNA testing of long residents of the area who claim Native American ancestry and whose families have long lived near Croatoan or other known sites. They also plan to trace family names in the area, some of which correspond to names found among the Roanoke settlers. They are attempting to re-construct possible family lines. The work is not yet conclusive and is ongoing. Maybe, just maybe they will find a descendent of Virginia Dare.