Trowel Blazers: Virginia Dare

Sunday, September 1, 2019
Trowel Blazers: Virginia Dare

In honor of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, the OSA is celebrating exceptional women who have impacted NC archaeology. These four women span time, culture, and space, but have all left their mark on North Carolina and the field of archaeology in unique ways.

One of America’s greatest mysteries is the fate of a little baby, the first European born in the English colonies, and her fellow settlers living on Roanoke Island. Clues about their fate can be found in stories and historical documents, but definitive proof has evaded researchers and explorers for the past 430 years. Here is what we know:

After two unsuccessful English attempts at establishing a town in North America, Sir Walter Raleigh decided to send families instead of soldiers on a third voyage. He named John White governor of the new town to be established in the Chesapeake Bay. White’s pregnant daughter and son-in-law, Eleanor and Ananias Dare, were among the families who set out in 1587. They landed on Roanoke Island, NC on July 22, 1587, where White planned to meet with the 15 men garrisoned at Fort Raleigh on the previous expedition and learn of their experiences on the island.  As the colonists searched the area, there were no signs of the men or what happened to them. This foreshadowed the difficulties and hardships to come for the colonists.

About a month after arriving, Eleanor gave birth to a daughter, Virginia, named for both Queen Elizabeth I and the colony into which she was born. Nine days later, John White left the 116 colonists to gather and bring back supplies and more settlers from England, but his return was delayed by three years. When White returned to the island in 1590, those he’d left behind were no longer on Roanoke Island. White’s journal recounts the letters he observed inscribed upon a tree outside of Fort Raleigh: “….these faire Romane letters CRO: which letters we knew to signify the place, where I should find the planters seated…” Upon entering Fort Raleigh, he saw the full name “Croatoan” on another tree trunk, “without any cross or signe of distress,” which had been the agreed symbol the colonists would use if they were in trouble. The search for the colonists ended when poor weather and dwindling supplies discouraged the crew from continuing. White never again saw his daughter and granddaughter.

Although we only have a brief snapshot of her life, Virginia Dare has come to represent many things to many people in the more than 400 years since her birth. She represents new beginnings, innocent childhood, adventure, and mystery. Virginia and her fellow colonists enter the imaginations of school children in North Carolina history classes and have inspired many to careers in the fields of history and archaeology. The search for Virginia and her colony can be considered one of the first historical archaeological investigations in North Carolina in the late 19th century. Talcott Williams, a journalist and educator, mapped Roanoke Island in 1887 and began excavations in 1895, during a time when archaeology as a scientific field was in its infancy. The search has continued to this day by various federal, state, and private organizations, still with very little concrete evidence. The enduring mystery surrounding Virginia’s fate has become larger than life, and she has become an icon of North Carolina history.

Visit the Roanoke Island Festival Park or Fort Raleigh National Historic Site in Manteo to experience life in the late 16th century and learn more about the Lost Colony! Click here for your own copy of Virginia's 2019 NC Archaeology Month poster!


-Stick, David. Roanoke Island: The Beginnings of English America. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1984.