On this day in history : 18th August 1587 – The birth of Virginia Dare, the first English child to be born in the New World; what became of her and the rest of the Roanoke Colony remains a mystery….

Colonists had set sail for Virginia onboard ‘The Lion’ in May 1587 – the Captain of their expedition was Simon Fernandez, the Portuguese navigator…. Their chosen destination was Chesapeake Bay – but on reaching Roanoke in late July, Fernandez stopped to let his passengers disembark and then refused to allow them back onboard again….

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Roanoke Colony – drawn by John White during his first visit to the region in 1585. Roanoke is the pink coloured island, centre, right – John White, public domain

Roanoke, which is now part of North Carolina, had previously been inhabited by 15 men…. The new settlers patched-up the dwellings left behind by their predecessors and attempted to search for the men – but all they found were bones….

The settlers were led by Governor John White; he made enquiries with some friendly natives, the people of Chief Manteo and was told the 15 men had been killed by a hostile tribe…. On the 8th of August White led his men on a dawn raid….but they got it so wrong! Instead of attacking an antagonistic tribe they attacked friendly natives, killing one and wounding many more…. From then on relations with all the tribes declined….

Ten days later White became a grandfather; his daughter, Elenora, who herself had been born in London circa 1563, gave birth to a healthy baby girl…. It was announced : “Elenora, daughter to the governor of the city, and wife to Ananias Dare, one of the assistants, was delivered of a daughter in Roanoke”…. Ananias Dare, a tiler and bricklayer by trade, had also been born in London, circa 1560…. The Dares named their new daughter ‘Virginia’, as she was the first to be born there….and she was christened the following Sunday….

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Baptism of Virginia Dare, lithograph, 1880 – Henry Howe, public domain

Towards the end of 1587 food supplies were rapidly beginning to run out; the supply ships, not knowing Fernandez had stranded the Colonists at Roanoke, did not stop there…. The settlers persuaded White to set off and make his way back to England to organise necessary provisions for them – something he eventually agreed to – but against his will….

These were difficult times; England was at war with Spain – and Queen Elizabeth I had commandeered almost all seaworthy ships with which to fight the Spanish Armada…. This meant White did not return to Roanoke until the 18th of August 1590 – on what would have been little Virginia Dare’s third birthday….

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The return of Governor White to Roanoke – Public domain

Only there was no sign of his grand-daughter, or his daughter – or indeed any of the 80 men, 17 women and 11 children who made up the Colony of Roanoke…. The houses and fortifications were collapsed….not torn down but purposely dismantled….and there was no evidence of a battle or a struggle…. White had told the settlers before he left that if they were forced to leave they should carve a Maltese Cross as a sign…. There was no cross to be seen….just the word ‘Croatoan’ carved onto a post of the fort…. White assumed they had moved on to Croatoan Island (now called Hatteras Island)…. He never did find out what happened to them….their disappearance remains a mystery to this day….

Of course most theories conclude that they were killed by natives; although others say they were given refuge by sympathetic Chesapeake Indians…. There are those who believe they were taken captive by natives and forced into slavery; there were even reported sightings of European women and children among the native people…. We will never know what happened to little Virginia Dare….but featuring prominently in myths and legends, through American folklore she lives on….

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Illustration from Virginia Dare : A Romance of the Sixteenth Century, 19th Century novel by Mrs E.A.B. Shackelford, loosely based on the life of Virginia Dare – Public domain

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