Virginia Dare and Less Obvious Stories
On the lost colony of Roanoke, its fate, and an intriguing what-if
One of the more evocative stories of early American history is that of the lost colony of Roanoke, which was founded in 1587 on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, with Sir Walter Raleigh a key champion of the endeavor. Roanoke’s governor, John White, reluctantly returned to England the next year to campaign for a resupply mission for his struggling colony, but the Spanish Armada kept White from returning until 1590. When he did get back to Roanoke Island, the colony was gone — with no signs of violence and the word CROATOAN carved on a palisade of fence posts. No trace of the lost colonists was ever found.
What might have happened to the colonists has inspired amateur historians, conspiracy theorists and speculative storytellers ever since — and no colonist has attracted more attention than the rather wonderfully named Virginia Dare.
Virginia was White’s granddaughter, born on Roanoke in 1587 to Ananias and Eleanor Dare. That makes her the first English child born in a New World English colony, and she’s been claimed as an icon by all manner of people — including, inevitably and regrettably, white nationalists. While her fate is unknown, she’s lived on in fiction, often as the future leader of the not-so-lost colonists. Storytellers have revealed that she was snatched away to Faerie, became a witch in the North Carolina forests, or was teleported to another planet.
I never cared particularly about Virginia Dare, but I was fascinated by what might have become of the Roanoke colony. There’s something haunting about the story — a band of English settlers encamped on the edge of a gigantic, unknown wilderness into which they vanish, leaving only that strange word as … as what, exactly? An accusation of treachery? A plea for rescue? A cry to be remembered? It’s one of those stories that fills you with both wonder and dread, giving you a glimpse of the abyss that’s never as far away as we’d like to think.
Over Thanksgiving I curled up with James Horn’s A Kingdom Strange, a history of the colony that tries to reconstruct what happened. The temptation is to skip ahead to the seven pages that cover Horn’s theory about the colony’s disappearance, but the real value of A Kingdom Strange lies in the context it offers before then. Roanoke’s brief existence was a very small part of the struggle between England and Spain, and most everything that happened to it was shaped by privateering. The dream of getting rich by privateering played an outsized role in Roanoke’s creation; that same dream also proved a dangerous distraction when the colonists needed help the most.
But you want to know about Horn’s theory. Fair enough — so did I.
What interested me is how heavily Horn’s scenario depends on contemporary accounts — and that the revelation is that there’s really no revelation at all. The English of the time, whether speculators in London or colonists in Jamestown, thought they knew what had happened to the Roanoke colonists, and in likelihood they were correct. The mystery was an invention of much later generations, who found the possibilities too romantic to be ignored.
The first thing: That word CROATOAN wasn’t mysterious at all. It was a reference to Croatoan Island, today known as Hatteras Island and home in the 1580s to the Croatoans, an Algonquin tribe with which the colonists had generally good relations. Before White left, he and key colonists agreed that if Roanoke had to be completely abandoned, the last colonists to depart would carve their destination on key trees, with a cross over the letters if they’d been attacked. When White did return in 1590, he found the message left for him and understood it perfectly.
He also probably knew that not everyone had gone to Croatoan. Roanoke was dangerously exposed to both hostile tribes and the prowling Spanish, so in 1587 White and the colonists had also discussed relocating to the mainland at the head of Albemarle Sound, which was home to the friendly Chowanocs. When White departed, a pinnace was left on Roanoke for the colonists’ use.
Sailing north along the Outer Banks in 1590, White twice saw “a great smoke” rising in the sky inland. Horn concludes, logically, that what he saw were signal fires set by the colonists who’d gone to Croatoan. And, indeed, that’s what White thought once he found the carving on Roanoke. So why didn’t he return to Croatoan? Well, he tried. The ship carrying him was caught in a storm and its captain decided to winter in the West Indies and bring White back to Croatoan the next summer — only to spend the spring privateering, which went poorly, which led to the ship returning to England. White found Walter Raleigh had moved on to other schemes, and the chance to reunite with the colonists was lost.
The story picks up again with the Jamestown settlers who arrived in 1607. That December Wahunsonacock, the leader of the powerful Powhatan tribe (and father of Pocahontas), told John Smith of Indian towns to the south whose people had brass and houses built in the English style.
Smith knew perfectly well what that implied, and searched for the colonists with Indian guides. He didn’t find them, but he drew a map which noted where the colonists had supposedly settled: Ocanahonan, Panawicke and Pakerakanick. Then, in 1609, a Powhatan named Machumps who’d gone to London with some Jamestown colonists told his hosts a similar story about Indian towns with English houses. Except Machumps claimed the lost colonists had lived peacefully with the Indians for “20 and odd” years before being attacked without warning by Wahunsonacock’s warriors in 1607.
What was behind the attack? If Horn is correct, it was ruthless politics. The Powhatans were struggling for dominance with the Tuscaroras and the Chowanocs. Roanoke colonists lived among the latter two nations, and Wahunsonacock feared that contact between the Roanoke survivors and the Jamestown colonists could lead to an alliance between the English and his enemies. So he sent warriors to find the colonists before the English did — and to kill them.
It’s likely a few colonists survived by fleeing into the North Carolina interior. Within a couple of generations there would have been little to distinguish their descendants from other Tuscaroras or Chowanocs, except perhaps for a steel sword or some old coins passed down as heirlooms.
And then there was the story told by John Lawson, a surveyor who explored the Outer Banks in 1700 and 1701. Lawson said some of the Hatteras Indians had gray eyes, and were proud to tell him of their white ancestors who could read. If that was true — and I see no reason to doubt that it is — a few Roanoke colonists escaped the Powhatan extermination on Croatoan Island, contributing their genes and stories to the people who had taken them in.
Could Virginia Dare have been one of them? Since she was a child in a struggling colony in the 1580s, the most likely answer is she died young and was buried on Roanoke or Croatoan.
But maybe not.
Maybe, just maybe, there’s a stranger story to be told about her — one that may not involve spaceships or spells, but is pretty amazing nonetheless. And it’s a story that suggests an alternate way history might have gone.
In this unlikely but not impossible story, Virginia Dare grew to adulthood in one of the Indian towns where the Roanoke colonists settled. In 1607 she would have been 20 — a young woman who was an intriguing mix of English and Native American, and a member of an equally interesting social experiment that never came to fruition.
Yet if Horn is right, that was a near-miss. What if White’s ship had managed to return to Croatoan in 1590? What if the Jamestown searchers had beaten the Powhatans to those three towns a generation later? Might the alliance feared by Wahunsonacock have come into being? And if it had, could the Roanoke colonists and their descendants have been in the right place to steer American history onto a different course? Is there any chance that course might have been more inclusive and just?
The white nationalists who exalt Virginia Dare probably wouldn’t want to read that story. But I sure would.