Of all the people associated with the Lost Colony of Roanoke, Sir Walter Raleigh: adviser to Queen Elizabeth and sponsor of the colony, John White: governor of Roanoke colony and artist whose paintings were reproduced, published and circulated throughout Europe, shaping early attitudes toward the New World; Thomas Harriot: Oxford trained naturalist, mathematician and astronomer, who learned Algonquin to communicate with native Americans, invented navigation methods used into the twentieth century, plotted the most accurate maps of the North American coast made for two centuries, and cataloged the flora and fauna of the new world; none have inspired more interest and imagination than Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the new world.
Virginia, daughter of Eleanor and Ananias Dare and granddaughter of John White, was born on August 18th, 1587, on Roanoke Island off the east coast of what would later be North Carolina. She was baptized the next week, and shortly afterwards her grandfather left for England, never to see her again. All we know of her is the fact of her birth, recorded briefly in White’s journal.
The birth of little Virginia remained an obscure historical footnote until 1834, when George Bancroft, a Harvard historian, wrote a book about the lost colony, highlighting Virginia Dare as the first English child born in the new world. The book was a best seller, unusual for a history, but the country was going through some changes at the time that created a fertile environment for her story. Land hungry pioneers had successfully pressured Congress into passing legislation to remove Indian Tribes from the southeast, freeing up the fertile Mississippi valley for settlement. After the slave revolt led by Nat Turner in 1831, oppressive laws were being passed to keep down blacks, both enslaved and free. Americans of English and Scottish descent were searching for ways to justify their oppression of people of color.
About that time several books and magazine articles were written portraying Virginia Dare as a symbol of the purity and virtue of the white race. In an article in the Women’s Home Companion published in 1837, Eliza Cushing described the massacre of the Roanoke Colony by bloodthirsty savages, and the rescue of the infant Virginia by the loyal Manteo*, who protects her through her childhood. As an adult she is rescued from marrying a vicious savage with “uncontrolled passions” by a Spaniard who happens by. They then return to Spain with the Spaniard, where they raise Manteo’s son and cause him to forget his savage past. The story not only supports the superiority of the white race over the Indian "savages," it also supports the practice pursued into the twentieth century of separating Indian children from their parents and from their cultures, in order to “civilize” them.
Over the next almost two centuries many variations of the racist fantasy have been told.
Another story by Mary Mason in 1862 describes the virtuous Virginia Dare being transformed into a white doe by an evil Indian shaman. When she is later killed by a white hunter, she thanks him for freeing her from her curse and for supplanting the evil red man on the continent, supporting the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.
The Civil War only reinforced the Popularity of the Virginia Dare legend, as southern whites struggled to maintain political control of the South.
Around the turn of the 19th century, Sallie Southall Cotton wrote an epic poem about the Virginia Dare legend in which she transforms Dare into a Jesus like figure, comparing Roanoke to Bethlehem and even having Dare transform water into wine in her death scene. Cotton traveled around the country reciting her poem, and in 1896 formed the Roanoke Colony Memorial Association which raised money and bought Fort Raleigh, the site of the Roanoke Colony, where Virginia Dare's birthday has been celebrated ever since. Cotton also advocated scientific motherhood, advocating laws banning the mixing of the races in order to maintain the purity of the white race, an idea which was also popular in Nazi Germany.
Over the 400 years since the disappearance of the Roanoke settlers, Virginia Dare has been used as justification for segregation, lynchings, disenfranchisement of black Americans, limitation of immigration, and other manefestations of prejudice against people of color, in a disgraceful perversion of history. Even now there is a web site vdare.com which advocates limiting the immigration of non-europeans.
Information for this article was taken from "The Secret Token," by Andrew Lawler.
* Manteo was a Croatoan Indian who was taken to England by the first English exploration party, and became an ally of the colonists. Another indian, Wantese, also went to England, but returned to America to lead the resistance against the settlers.