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Virginia Dare's Birthday

By Chelsea Weger, Outreach Coordinator for the North Carolina Museum of History

Photo: Baptism of Virginia Dare. Credit: National Geographic.

Today marks the 432nd birthday of Virginia Dare. She was born on August 18, 1587, and was the first English child born in the New World. Dare’s parents were part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition to explore and settle land in North America on behalf of the English crown. Their fate is a mystery that historians and tourists still clamor to know more about.

In today’s blog, we’ll explore what we know about The Lost Colony and Virginia Dare.

First, let’s set the stage: It’s 1584 and Catholic Spain and Protestant England are locked in a global power struggle.

Spain has explored and claimed new lands in North America, gaining clout with each new discovery. However, they do not have the manpower or supplies to maintain the lands they’ve already claimed.

Meanwhile, England’s enjoying a period of stability with Elizabeth I at the helm, following years of civil war, and is ready to explore. Queen Elizabeth believed that if England could get a foothold in America, it would be possible to cut off the flow of gold, silver, and sugar that fueled Spain’s domination and threatened England’s security.

Enter Sir Walter Raleigh.

He was tasked by the Queen “to inhabit and possess” any lands not already claimed by Spain or France. So, when did he visit North Carolina? Ironically, he didn’t. Raleigh actually never set foot in North Carolina, but he did sponsor and organize several expeditions.

Check out the map here for a look at those voyages:

Figure 1: © 2003 University of North Carolina Press, published in association with the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Department of Cultural Resources.

It was Raleigh’s 3rd expedition in 1587, led by John White, that many of us know as “The Lost Colony.” In April 1587, 117 men, women, and children—including John White’s pregnant daughter, Eleanor Dare—set sail from England to establish a permanent colony in the New World. 

The colonists landed off Roanoke Island on July 22, 1587. Roanoke Island was the site of Raleigh’s earlier expeditions and already had the makings of a settlement. The colonists worked to make repairs, build dwellings, and settle into their new lives. For some, their new lives included motherhood. On August 18, colonist Eleanor Dare gave birth to daughter, Virginia Dare, who made history as the first English child born in the New World. 

By the end of August, food had become dangerously low and settlers begged Governor White to return to England to replenish food and supplies. Promising to return by spring, White left the fledging colony.

You know what they say about best laid plans…unfortunately for White and the Roanoke colonists, the aforementioned power struggle between Spain and England came to a head. The Spanish Armada wreaked havoc on English shipping, forcing Queen Elizabeth to stop further expeditions to North America for three years. White was forbidden to leave England. He finally returned to Roanoke Island in 1590—landing on his granddaughter’s third birthday—only to find the fort abandoned and the entire colony gone.

What happened? 

No one really knows. A few clues left behind come from a logbook kept by John White. He found the letters “CRO” carved on a tree by the water’s edge and “CROATOAN” carved on a post “without any cross or signe of distress” near it. Another clue was found in 2012 when historians located a symbol under a paper patch on a map one of White’s drawings, which may indicate a place the colonists may have headed toward when they left Roanoke.

Many experts believe that members of the colony were taken in by Manteo and his Croatoan tribesmen. Manteo had already proven a valuable ally to the English, having traveled in England in 1584 to outline geography and resources in the “New World” to Elizabeth I’s court. It certainly seems like one of the most plausible theories. 

Other theories about the fate of the colonists include a deadly war with neighboring tribes, famine and disease, 

and the possibility that the colonists tried to go back to England and were lost at sea.

In the absence of firm answers, the colony’s disappearance has spurred many legends. The most enduring of which is about Virginia Dare as the white doe.

According to the legend, Virginia Dare was taken in by the Croatoan tribe and grew into a beautiful young woman named Winona-Ska. Okisko, the handsome Indian chieftain, wanted to marry her, but Chico, a powerful medicine man, wanted Winona for his own. When Chico did not win Winona-Ska’s affections, he cast a spell to turn her into a white doe. If she wouldn’t be his, no other man could have her either.

Okisko was determined to undo the evil magic of Chico’s spell and found a magician who helped make him an arrow with a pearl tip. If Okisko shot the white doe through the heart with the pearl-tipped arrow, the spell would be broken, and Winona-Ska would be human again.

Unfortunately for Okisko, word spread to other tribes about the elusive and mysterious white doe. For months, the doe eluded even the best Warriors. Eventually, the chief of another tribe, Wanchese, called for a hunt to kill the creature. Wanchese armed himself with a silver arrow—a gift from Queen Elizabeth—and believed it would do the job.

Spotting the white doe, both Okisko and Wanchese shot their arrows from opposite directions at the exact same time and pierced the white doe’s heart. Okisko’s pearl-tipped arrow transformed the doe back into Winona-Ska, but Wanchese’s arrow pierced her human heart killing her.

In despair, Okisko ran to the magic fountain that had helped create his pearl-tipped arrow and threw both arrows into the water where he begged for Winona-Ska’s life, but it was for naught.

As with many legends and folklore tales, the ending of this story has several variations. Some versions say that her body disappeared, and a white doe was seen hastening away. Others say that Okisko picked up Winona-Ska’s lifeless body, buried her in the fort where she was born, and from her blood, the Scuppernong mother vine grew.

One thing that is consistent is that people continue to report seeing a ghostly white doe near the area where the Lost Colony first settled on Roanoke Island.

What do you think happened to Virginia Dare and her fellow colonists? Was she taken in by the Croatoan people? Is she the white doe you see in the woods? Sound off in the comments!