The Earliest American Heroine

The baptism of Virginia Dare, the first child born to English parents in the New World and an enduring literary muse. CREDIT BETTMANN / CORBIS

On August 11th, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a team of archeologists announced the results of new excavations in a rural, largely swampy area near the two-mile-wide mouth of the Chowan River, at the western end of the Albemarle Sound. The find included spoiled rivets and nails and fragments of a distinctive style of ceramic that was imported to the region only in the earliest years of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Virginia expeditions. The archeologists believe that the artifacts are remnants of the first English colony in North America, on Roanoke Island, often known as “the lost colony.” In 1590, three years after a hundred and eighteen men, women, and children disembarked there, a mission carrying supplies from England found the place abandoned, with books, armor, and maps buried for safekeeping.

The site gained new attention in 2012, thanks to a map of Albermarle Sound drawn by John White, the colony’s leader, who last saw his fellow colonists when he left in 1587 to procure fresh supplies from England. Researchers affiliated with North Carolina’s First Colony Foundation persuaded the British Museum, which had long held the map, to use ultraviolet imaging to peer beneath an ancient paper patch. The scan disclosed a stubby four-pointed star at what is now the excavation site. Eric Klingelhofer of Georgia’s Mercer University, an expert in colonial fortifications and the principal investigator of the project, reckoned that the star marked a forgotten fort, perhaps a place of refuge for colonists driven from Roanoke by disease, hostile locals, or Spanish marauders. (Klingelhofer also suggested that White or someone else might have used the patch to conceal the fort’s location, probably from Spanish agents.)

White was an accomplished painter, sent to Virginia, in part, to document the new country, and his thick, almost sinuous lines make an aesthetic virtue of geographic imprecision. Although his map lacks almost all detail inland of the coast, and is at best approximate on the details of the shoreline, it is amply illustrated with imagined English vessels plying Albemarle Sound and Native American canoes darting along the water’s edge.

After White’s resupply mission returned and found Roanoke abandoned, it took another twelve years for a search party to arrive in the region. Raleigh’s interest had turned to profitable colonies in Northern Ireland. A 1602 search mission was distracted by a month spent harvesting sassafras root to sell as medicine in England. There was no serious search until the establishment of the Jamestown colony, in 1607. Captain John Smith sent two expeditions in search of the missing colonists and inaugurated a long tradition of reporting rumors of light-skinned tribes who just might be descended from Roanoke.

The American habit of treating early settlement as prophetic gets snagged on this gap in the story, this founding failure-to-found, and in the nineteenth century Roanoke grew into a slow-burning obsession. In 1834, the historian George Bancroft devoted a dozen pages to it in his landmark “History of the United States,” noting that the colony saw the birth of “the first offspring of English parents on the soil of the United States,” White’s granddaughter, Virginia Dare. Dare, born shortly before her grandfather left for England in 1587 and lost to history thereafter, was soon swept up in the literature of American Romanticism. In 1840, Cornelia Tuthill made her a heroine in “Virginia Dare, or the Colony of Roanoke,” which appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger. Her Dare survives among friendly natives to become an American Diana, or a Katniss Everdeen avant la lettre, sprinting through unbroken forests in doeskin, wielding her bow and arrow to deadly effect. More here: The Earliest American Heroine

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