Do you know Virginia Dare?
Born in August 1587, Virginia was the first English baby born in the Americas (of which we know – more on that in a moment). She was the granddaughter of John White, a founder of the Roanoke Colony in what is now North Carolina, born to John’s 24-year-old daughter, Eleanor, and her husband, Ananias Dare. She was baptized on August 24, 1587, in the second known celebration of a Christian sacrament in the Virginia and Carolina territories. Like the rest of her fellow colonists, Virginia disappeared in the coming weeks, and her fate has been debated ever since.
We know very little of the Roanoke Colony and its infamous infant, Virginia. Yet her story echoes themes in American history – perhaps even the history of European colonization as a whole – that we still debate today. While I recount her story in Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures, there was so much more I wanted to discuss. The self-made man, women’s roles, and non-English colonies are all themes in her story.
That self-made man is her grandfather, John White. Nearly as mysterious as his granddaughter, John’s determination – and inexperience – sealed the fate of Roanoke’s settlers. In 1580, he first appears in historical records, beginning his career as a limner or miniaturist. His artistry led to employment as an expedition artist for a 1577 mission to chart the fabled Northwest Passage, during which his sketches of Indigenous Eskimos are some of the first written records we have of the tribe, and later the first expeditions to what is now Virginia. White’s voyages led him to be chosen as Roanoke’s founder, though no one can seem to figure out why. Disputes with the the ship’s crew and colony settlers led John to be sent back to England for supplies, mere days or weeks before his daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter disappeared. Upon leaving the colony, White recorded his concern for the personal effects he had left, rather than at leaving his family. What does that say about the men who led the colonization attempts?
Another part of Virginia’s story is her mother, Eleanor (spelled “Elenora” in White’s journal). She traveled an ocean at the age of 24, while pregnant, to help establish a colony. Quite simply, colonization wasn’t possible without women. Most who came across the Atlantic were unwed or young mothers, making them likely in their late teens and early twenties. They had years of childbearing ahead of them, which would help populate the colonies. Women also had skills that men typically did not – such as gardening, nursing and folk medicine, spinning, weaving, embroidery, managing servants and finances, tending fowl and sheep, and even skilled craft work. As many female settlers were from the lower and middle classes, their skills – accumulated throughout their lives in training for marriage, motherhood, and helping with the family economy – were essential to ensuring colonists were fed, healthy, and thriving. Were women really so silent as we make them out to be? Or are the records they left behind just not so wordy?
Finally, Virginia’s infamy overshadows so many non-Indigenous settlers – and infants – who saw American shores long before she did. The first non-Indigenous child known to be born in the Americas was Snorri Thorfinnsson, born in the Vinland colony nearly 600 years before Virginia was even a blip! Just twenty years prior to 1587, the first Spanish child was born in the Americas: Martin de Arguelles, born in St. Augustine, Florida. How many more non-Indigenous children do we not know about? What effect does this commemoration have on the Indigenous children who occupied the Americas for centuries?
Yet Virginia’s story also overshadows what happened after the Roanoke colonists’ disappearance. Twenty years later, Jamestown settlers repeated sent expeditions to find the missing colonists. They found clues in the form of abandoned farmland, an Indigenous 10-year-old boy who had “perfect yellow” hair and “reasonable white skinne”, and mentions by Chief Weramocomoco of the Pamunkey about fair-skinned people settled at a place called Ocanahonan (though all attempts to find such a place ended in vain). What do these clues say about the prevalence of white exploration – possibly settlement – before Jamestown? What do they say about how colonists and Indigenous peoples interacted during the early years of settlement?
It also overshadows a media firestorm. Virginia’s presence in pop culture and literature can tell us a lot about how girlhood was perceived through time, though I’ll leave the inferences up to you – bearing in mind that Virginia was barely a month old when she disappeared. Notably, Virginia is often portrayed as the “founder” of white Americans. In 1837, Eliza Lanesford Cushing coined the term “Lost Colony” and published an account of fair-skinned Virginia “dazzling the swarthy Indians with her beauty and skill. But Virginia remained chaste, keeping their ‘uncontrolled passions’ at bay.” Cushing’s tale spawned a genre of literature featuring Virginia as the chaste white American lady, unable to be swayed by outside forces. By 1907, Virginia was hailed as the “‘infant child of pure Caucasian blood’ who launched ‘the birth of the white race in the Western Hemisphere.’” The use of this image transformed the infant Virginia into a symbol of white America. Her image continued to be deployed by white supremacists, from 1920s arguments to continue disenfranchisement of African-American women to the basis for the VDare Foundation, which warns Americans about the dangers posed by African and Asian immigrants. These myths continue today, right through the SciFi Channel movie of 2007, Wraiths of Roanoke, which depicted Virginia as the sole survivor after the colony is wiped out by Old Norse ghosts.
Snorri’s ancestors came back to haunt Virginia and kill her family? Facepalm.
How a one-month-old infant managed to spark all this is something that still baffles me. As a historian, I’m used to seeing a lot of interpretations, crazy theories, and weird retellings. (Seriously, history is full of them.) But Virginia’s story is one that “takes the cake” so to speak, making her one reason we had to include her in Exploring American Girlhood. She assumes a reverent place in American history, commemorated and respected rather than placed within her true context of colonization, danger, and gendered ageism.
-Tiffany R. Isselhardt
Girl Museum Inc.
- Giles Milton, Big Chief Elizabeth: How England’s Adventurers Gambled and Won the New World (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2000)
- Thomas Kidd, American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faiths (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016)
- David Beers Quinn (ed.), The Roanoke Voyages 1584-1590: Documents to Illustrate the English Voyages to North America Under the Patent Granted to Walter Raleigh in 1584, Volume II (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1955)
- David Stick, Roanoke Island: The Beginnings of English America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983)
- Deanna Potts, “I Am But A Woman: Women in the Lost Colony,” last modified July 17, 2006,
- Andrew Lawler, “How a child born more than 400 years ago became a symbol of white nationalism,” The Washington Post, May 24, 2018
- Lee Miller, Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000).