The story of Virginia dare is among the most enduring and fascinating mysteries of American history. It has held historians and the general public alike enthralled for more than four centuries. Virginia Dare is well-known to have been the first-ever person of English parents to be born in the New World, and is sometimes regarded as the first American baby.
But this remarkable distinction is only the beginning of what makes her story one of the most intriguing cases in all of history – that’s because Virginia Dare and the entire colony she belonged to vanished from where they had settled in what is now North Carolina. The mystery of what happened to this early colony has never been solved.
All historians agree that Virginia Dare was born on August 18, 1587. She was part of the ill-fated Roanoke Colony, which was established by an expedition to the New World under the auspices of the famous Sir Walter Raleigh, who was granted a charter to develop a New World colony from Queen Elizabeth I in 1584. That year a number of ships sailed for America, and they arrived at Roanoke Island on July 4. As the early colonists struggled to gain a foothold and establish relationships with the local Indians, other ships arrived over the next two years, among them the ship carrying Ananias and Eleanor Dare, the parents of Virginia Dare.
This firstborn child to English parents in the new world was named Virginia, in honor of what the early explorers had christened this new foothold in the New World. Shortly after Virginia Dare’s birth, her grandfather, John White, set sail for a return to England on a mission to bring back supplies to the colonists. Unfortunately, war with Spain made it impossible for any ships to return to the Roanoake settlement until more than two years later. But when a ship finally did return in 1590 – the people of the Roanoke Colony seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth.
Whatever happened to the baby Virginia Dare, her parents, and the 107 people of her group, has never been solved. No one truly knows if Virginia Dare lived beyond her first months, or if she lived out her entire life somewhere in the American wilderness, perhaps taken in by the Native Americans.
Making the strange story of the Roanoke Colony all the more mysterious were the eerie circumstances surrounding its disappearance. The baffling circumstances were compounded more by what was not found than any evidence left behind. The agonizing fact was, there was almost no indication at all of how or why these 107 people vanished. There was no sign of war with hostile natives, no burned houses left behind, and no bodies – just a crude abandoned fort. There was no evidence of struggle, warfare or battle. In fact, it seemed that what homes and buildings that had been built were methodically dismantled, indicating the colonists had moved on purpose, and not in a situation of duress.
A single mysterious clue was left behind: The word “Croatoan” carved into one of the posts of the fort. Also, the letters “Cro” had been carved into a nearby tree. What did it mean? The only possible meaning was that the colony has, for some reason, decided to move to Croatoan Island. The only problem: They were not there.
Before John White sailed for England he told the colonists to carve a Maltese Cross into a tree or on the fort to indicate they had left do to hostilities or danger. No such marking was ever found. With that, little Virginia Dare and all 107 people of the Roanoke Colony were erased from history.
Solving the Mystery
There is something about a mystery that excites the human imagination, and also creates an urge in the human psyche to solve that mystery. The subsequent waves of colonists who arrived on the eastern coast of America naturally were eager to find out what had happened to their countrymen, and some attempts were made to discover the fate of their lost people.
In 1607, nearly 20 years after the Roanoke people vanished, John Smith of the successful Jamestown Colony made inquiries among the local Indians to find out what he could about Roanoke. In general, Smith was told varying accounts. Some of the Indians indicated that they attacked and wiped out the Roanoke people, but these accounts were denied and contradicted by others.
One report suggested the colonists had been granted refuge with a local friendly tribe of Chesapeake Indians, but the chief of another tribe, Powhatan, said that his people attacked and killed them. Some historical records indicate that Powhatan showed John Smith a few relics of the Lost People, some tools and pieces of an old musket, but few historians consider this information credible.
And so the mystery of what happened to the first-born child in an American colony has captured the imagination of people ever since. Over the past 400-plus years, dozens of theories have been put forward to explain what happened. Among the most intriguing and controversial evidence claimed to have been uncovered are the “Dare Stones.” These were a series of 48 stones purportedly to have been found in northern Georgia and the Carolinas in the 1930s. They have messages carved into them, each making various claims about what happened to Virginia Dare and her people. Some claim she was killed in 1591, and others say she married an “Indian King” – while still others say she lived out her life and gave birth to a daughter named Agnes.
Of course, the Dare Stones are extremely controversial, and few scholars today consider them credible. Most consider the Dare Stones to be a hoax. But they demonstrate how Virginia Dare continues to grip the imagination of Americans, especially the people of North Carolina, where the original colony eked out its short existence.
Today the image and lore of Virginia Dare represents a rich body of folklore and modern myth. Sculptures and portraits of the girl are plentiful, although obviously based on pure imagination because no true images of Virginia were ever produced. The great science fiction writer Philip José Farmer even wrote a novel about the vanished Roanoke Colony, positing that they had been abducted by aliens and taken away for adventures on another planet.
No one will ever know what truly happened to the first English child born on American soil, but her story will always be a significant element of American history and folklore.