"... in fair capital letters was graven CROATOAN..." the Fate of Elizabeth Virginia Dare

18 August 1590, three years after the first English child, his granddaughter Elizabeth Virginia Dare, was born in North America, Governor John White returned to the first English colony, the settlement Roanoke on an island off North Carolina, only to find it completely abandoned and the 118 settlers gone without a trace.

“I willed them, that if they should happen to be distressed in any of those places, that then they should carve over the letters or name, a Cross in this form, but we found no such sign of distress. And having well considered of this, we passed toward the place where they were left in sundry houses, but we found the houses taken down, and the place very strongly enclosed with a high pallisade of great trees, with cortynes [curtains] and flankers very fortlike, and one of the chief trees or posts at the right side of the entrance had the bark taken off, and 5 feet from the ground in fair capital letters was graven CROATOAN without any cross or sign of distress;” (John White, “The Fifth Voyage of M. John White into the West Indies and Parts of America called Virginia, in the year 1590”)

A19th century imagination of White and his people discovering the “Croatoan” inscription.

The greatest colonial empire the world had ever seen somehow got out the wrong side of bed with its first colony in North America. In 1584, an island just off the coast of North Carolina was discovered by explorers who sailed at the behest of Sir Walter Raleigh to find land that might be used to establish a permanent settlement. Unfortunately, the lush island, named Roanoke, was already settled by the Croatan, probably a branch of the larger Roanoke tribe. Their chief accompanied the explorers back home to England and initially, peaceful relations were established between the indigenous people and the 100 settlers that arrived in 1585. The latters’ food situation became tense, though, since they arrived far too late in the year to cultivate crops and decided to forage on the grounds of their other neighbours, the Aquascogoc, burned down their village and, fearing retribution, left Roanoke for good. A second attempt was made to settle Roanoke a year later in 1587 under the command of John White, who was one of the first settlers, together with 150 men, women and children, including his pregnant daughter Eleanor Dare. His granddaughter Virginia Dare was born on 18 August 1587 as the first English child in North America. In autumn, White decided to sail back to England to gather more provisions for the colony and promised to return immediately. Alas, England’s war with Spain dragged on, the Great Armada sailed in the following year and White didn’t - until he finally managed to cross the Atlantic again in 1590.

John White's eyewitness account of an Algonkin ritual from 1585

Arriving on the third birthday of Virginia he found the colony completely deserted. Even though the colonists had obviously fortified the place, there were no signs of obvious violence and the only clue of the colonists’ whereabouts was the word “Croatoan” carved in a tree, indicating a nearby island, today called Hatteras Island. A hurricane was approaching, White decided to abandon the search and returned back home. Roanoke acquired the nickname “Lost Colony” and neither the Spanish nor the English would discover the fate of the colonists. While White left the world his watercolours of late 16th century life of the Algonkin people and allegedly never gave up hope that his family was still alive somewhere until his death in 1593, speculations were made about what really had become of the colonists. The 18th and 19th century saw records of English and Welsh-speaking tribes up to the fraudulent “Dare Stones” of the 1930s with alleged inscriptions of Eleanor Dare telling of the death of the colonists, but the most probable answer is that the colonists either packed their things and tried to sail back to England and were lost en route or abandoned the place and indeed merged with the surrounding tribes. Virginia Dare though holds a special place in American myth and folklore, becoming subject of various tales and novels, an icon for diverse ideas from white supremacy to women’s rights and, of course, an advertising character for tobacco and tourism. Fantastic literature of the 2nd half of the 20th century dealt with her and her fate as well as that of the “Lost Colony”, since it constitutes a wonderful ground for speculation and story-telling.

"Virginia Dare" Tobacco, circa 1871