One of America’s greatest mysteries is that of The Lost Colony. Most people know the story of how, in 1587, a group of 117 English settlers landed on Roanoke Island … and were never seen again.
I wonder who they were, why they were there, what did they hope to find in America? I am especially fascinated by Eleanor White Dare, Governor John White’s daugther. Why would a young woman leave the comfort and safety of her European home for the wilds of the New World, especially knowing she is pregnant?! More importantly, what happened to her?
If the name Eleanor Dare doesn’t ring a bell, then surely you know her daughter: Virginia Dare—the first English child born in America. We don’t know much about the baby, but tantalizing clues hint at what may have happened to her mother.
First, a few pieces of history regarding the colony that you might not know. For one thing, this group of settlers was supposed to land at Chesapeake Bay. The colonists stopped at Roanoke Island in August of 1587 to check on a group of soldiers who had been left a year earlier. Ominously, only the bleached bones of one soldier, and an overgrown, abandoned fort were all they discovered.
Due to mishaps (or sabotage) on the journey from England to America, the colonists were desperately undersupplied by the time they landed at Roanoke. Perhaps another harbinger of disaster, Colonist George Howe went crabbing and Indians murdered him. Governor White had made the trip to Roanoke a year earlier and knew full well some of the natives were not friendly. He was present in 1586 when English soldiers killed the Secotan chief, thereby seriously damaging relations with the tribe. Howe’s death was testimony to the fact the Secotan had neither forgiven nor forgotten.
But it gets worse. Simon Fernandez, the ship’s pilot, forced the colonists off his ship, and planned to head back to England without them! After frantic talks and persistent begging, he acquiesced and allowed Governor White to return with him. The governor promised to gather supplies and sail back within the year.
In the meantime, the colonists knew they couldn’t stay on the little island. If they were to survive, they absolutely had to get off Roanoke. They were down to practically zero provisions and it was past planting season; not to mention, farming the soil on Roanoke isn’t for amateurs. The colonists told Governor White they were going “to remove 50 miles further up into the main.” They also promised him they would carve the name of their destination on trees or doorposts. If they were in distress, they would carve crosses as well.
Heartsick, John White kissed his daughter and new born granddaughter goodbye, entreated his son-in-law Ananias to take care of them, and sailed for England.
He never saw his family again.
I cannot stop wondering what happened to Eleanor, Virginia, and Ananias. Finally, over 400 years later, there are tantalizing clues coming to light that may solve the mystery! Let’s play detective and fit the pieces together.
Here is what we know: for whatever reasons (ostensibly, the war with Spain), John White did not return to Roanoke for three years. When he finally did make it back, the colonists were gone, their buildings had been removed (not razed), and the word “Croatoan” had been carved into two different locations at the fort, but no crosses were found. The colonists had in their company an Indian named Manteo, of the Croatoan tribe, who had in the past acted as an emissary and translator for the English.
Now, for the clues.
A hapless tourist on vacation in 1937 discovered a stone alongside newly opened Highway 17, just outside Edenton, NC, yards from the Chowan River. Upon this stone was carved the date of Ananias (Eleanor’s husband) and Virginia Dares’ deaths: 1591. On the back, addressed to “Father,” the stone is covered with the sorrowful tale of how the English settlers endured two years of war, followed by two years of sickness, only to be nearly annihilated in a savage Indian attack. Only seven of the colonists survived. This rock is signed with the initials “EWD.” Eleanor White Dare. Ananias Dare was a stone carver. It would not be unusual for a wife to pick up some of the husband’s skills in a family-owned business.
Suddenly, though, a slew of carved stones was found in a trail from North Carolina to Georgia. Each rock gave further fascinating details on the fate of Eleanor and her Lost Colony. While the drama surrounding the find is a fascinating tale in and of itself, due to various issues, the stones were eventually condemned as fakes.
Methinks that was a rush to judgment.
Fast forward to 2012. Intriguing information is discovered on a map drawn by John White in 1585. On this map, a patch hides a drawing of a fort on a piece of land where the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers meet. The drawing though, done in a type of invisible ink, seems to show something larger and more significant than a fort. Perhaps a settlement?
The site (hidden by the patch) is approximately 50 miles west of Roanoke Island.
The stone discovered in 1937 was found across the river from the location hidden by this patch.
The First Colony Foundation began excavations in this area a few years ago and has recovered items consistent with what the Lost Colonists would have had on hand. This dig, referred to as Site X, is near the site of a small Native American village.
Let’s postulate a theory. White’s patch may have hidden the location of where Sir Walter Raleigh wanted to found the settlement of Raleigh. The patch was perhaps a ruse to hide such details if the map was captured by the Spanish. When the colonists discovered that their pilot would not take them on to Chesapeake Bay, the secret location was a likely and logical Plan B.
The Chowan River Stone discovered in 1937 was carved by Eleanor. I can see a grieving wife and mother, who had hung on through unimaginable degradations and hardships, sitting down, gritting her teeth against her hopelessness, and carving. Carving a grave stone for her husband and daughter, and some final words for her father.
According to Eleanor’s note, the group had established a settlement, but they were beset by war for two years. Over half the group died, and then sickness struck. The party reduced to twenty-four souls. Her note seems to imply that for a brief time, they were left unmolested, but then suddenly Indians attacked again, killing all but seven.
William Stratchey, the first secretary of the Jamestown colony, curious about the Lost Colony, asked the natives for details. He recounts in his book History of Travaile into Virginia Britania, (1612) that Chief Powhatan had attacked the English and their allies the Chesepian … According the tale, Seven English settlers survived the savage assault.
The number can’t be a coincidence. The date of the attack differs in Stratchey’s account from the date on the Chowan River Stone, occurring years later. I think, however, it is a safe bet he’s wrong on that. Stratchey collected his information secondhand, from various Native Americans of differing tribes, working through the translations of their stories. Certainly tiny details could have become indistinct, such as exactly what year a particular attack happened.
What became of these last survivors (four men, two boys, and one young maid)? Were they taken captive? Was that why Eleanor carved this rock when she did? Four years after landing in the New World. Was it her last chance to leave a message for her father? Especially if she knew she would be leaving the area? I think so.
Stratchey recorded that the seven English were saved by Chief Eyanoco and moved to villages near present day Clarksville, VA, specifically to work copper for him. That is where, I believe, Eleanor’s story ends, though legends abound. She married a chief. Was merely a slave. Had other children. Was seen in the mountains of North Carolina. However she spent her final days, I’m at least satisfied to know she survived Roanoke Island and wound up in Virginia. With a certain degree of confidence, I can say Eleanor is not lost anymore. Though, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I guess she never really was.
If you’d like to see Eleanor’s stone for yourself, visit the page at Brenau University: https://www.brenau.edu/darestones/
Photo courtesy of https://www.pinterest.com/pin/509821620288040512/
Heather Blanton’s original article was published in Book Fun Magazine April 2016.