I applied mine heart to know and to search, and to seek out wisdom, and the reason of things…
- Ecclesiastes 7:25
Let’s say there’s a scuppernong vine, its trunk the size of an elephant’s leg--no, the size of a baobab tree. Its tendrils extend across miles and miles of coastal drift, along sand and even into the water. Bronze globes float in the brine when the tide is gentle, become crushed and pulpy in pounding storms. Let’s say it’s August, and the Gulf Stream is warm, and it is bringing things to shore that the shore has never seen: gold signet rings; Spanish amphoras filled with wine; the bones of Englishmen. Let’s say there’s sex in this story, and beautiful virgins, and the root of the vine goes deep beneath the sand to the river of time. And the river of time connects all things, sifts and dissolves all memories of scented vines, all bones, all intentions into one slow moving tide of myth; we dip our feet in it. Myth is the language in which we live, that soaks and permeates everything we know and most of what we don’t know.
The coastal islands of North Carolina sweep up the mainland shore like a string of long beads hugging the scalloped neckline of a dress, from the South Carolina border to Bald Head at the mouth of the Cape Fear, up past Wrightsville to a stretch of summer resort towns. North of Cape Lookout, the Outer Banks scatter toward the Gulf Stream, as if stretching to hold the vast waters of Pamlico Sound: here are the wilder reaches of the coast, Portsmouth and Ocracoke, Hatteras and Pea Island. Here are more treacherous inlets and shifting sands. Just as the string returns to hug the mainland, there is an anomaly: Roanoke Island, doubled up behind Nags Head, straddling Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds--an extra bead strung between the Banks and the main. The single strand continues, past Albemarle Sound, up Currituck to peter out at Back Bay, beyond the Virginia border.
The sand banks shift and twist with the winds of nor’easters and hurricanes; the sounds behind them swell with fresh water in flood, invade rivers and inlets in high salty tides. Betwixt and between, Roanoke Island bides her time, anchored by bridges, awash and protected in the amniotic fluid of two great estuaries. On this island, among shifting tides and treacherous bars, England made her first American colony. She staked her tenuous claim on the New World with the birth of a girl child, baptized Virginia Dare. What happened to that girl child is one of America’s great mysteries:
|An English baby is born in an island wilderness.
The baby and her family and friends all disappear.
They leave behind two cryptic messages carved in trees: CRO and CROATOAN.
No one knows where they went.
Or whether they survived.
Speculation on the fate of the colony has grown over four centuries like a grapevine planted in fertile soil, sending off tendrils in all directions, having long since wrapped the facts of the story in extravagant ornament.
In 1999 I set out on a fool’s errand, in search of Virginia Dare. Like a toddler wandering off in a snowstorm, Virginia and her Lost Colony have compelled many failed searches. They have inspired books filled with bizarre theories, obscure studies, legends, and even an epic poem whose heroine is blonde with misty blue eyes and a pink-beribboned bonnet. I found myself browsing the back shelves of university historical collections, cracking bindings on books that had not been opened in fifty years.
At first Virginia’s story seemed dusty and unused as some of those books. But as I dug deeper I felt the irresistible pull of some deep new story, fresh territory for someone like me who wasn’t born in North Carolina, someone who came from the north to settle here: You mean there was a colony before Jamestown? Before Plymouth? How come I never heard of it?
The more I found out about Virginia Dare, the more I found myself seduced by her: She seems to captivate those bent on obsession. She brings out the storytellers and mythmakers and charlatans, people who pick a single aspect of her story and let it fester in their minds, for reasons that may have very little to do with the facts. The facts are thin branches on which they hang elaborations. There is a grandfather, a daughter, and a babe. All are lost. Much of the rest is context or conjecture.
I soon learned the meaning behind something people say here in the South: I know what happened to Virginia Dare. They mean they know a story, and you’d better listen, because it’s a good one and it’s been kept secret for a long, long time.
There are times in everyone’s life when a good story is what you need. A story full of hope and tragic endings, speculation and drama, a story that binds you more tightly to your life, your family, your hopes, when it seems these things might spin out of reach. Or a story that spins you into a new world before you have a chance to take a breath and say, Stop. The summer of 1999 was one of those times for me. And the story I found did both – cleaved me more tightly to my life, and opened up a world.
I started out thinking facts would satisfy me. The facts are extraordinary in themselves, making a shape like an Elizabethan drama wrapped in deerskin. Virginia Dare was the first child born of English parents on American soil, on August 18, 1587. She was part of the first English attempt to plant families in the New World, a colony of one hundred-plus sturdy souls. The expedition was governed by her grandfather, John White; organized by Sir Walter Raleigh; and had the blessing of Queen Elizabeth. Virginia survived long enough to be baptized. She was likely still alive when John White shipped back to England for supplies. And, as people around here like to say, she was never seen again by European eyes.
The colonists arrived in the midst of hurricane season. It was also one of the worst drought periods in 800 years. Most of the local tribes--Roanoke and Hattorask on the banks, Chesepiuk and Chowanoc on the mainland--weren’t feeling very friendly, and they were hard up for food.
These were not the first English to make it to Roanoke Island, and they were not the only ones to get lost. In fact, if you count a boatload of slaves, reports of a shipwreck, and several explorers left behind in the woods, the population of lost and abandoned people at Roanoke by the time Virginia Dare showed up may have counted well over four hundred.
This colony brought seventeen women to Roanoke Island; one gave birth shortly after Virginia was born, and one came with a babe in arms. There were eleven boys on the ship’s roster. There were eighty-five men. They had come for the promise of 500 acres each. They were hoping to find silver and gold. They intended to build America’s first English city, the Cittie of Raleigh, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.
In short, they had come with the idea of raising children and improving their fortunes--and they had come to the wrong place.
Speculation about the life of Virginia Dare spins and glimmers at the nucleus of the mystery of the Lost Colony. The life of Eleanor Dare, her mother, spins in close proximity. Politicians and poets once portrayed Eleanor as the “first mother” of America and Virginia as the “first daughter.” Scholars attach the charged particles of Indian politics and Elizabethan economies. Writers engage in personality studies of characters such as Raleigh, who has been called, in my hearing, “the most hated and feared Englishman of his time” and “a clever poet”--among other things. At least one sculptor has portrayed Virginia in the form of a Greek goddess. Folklorists spin out ghosty stories like swamp mist, and archeologists still sift through dirt and midden for physical evidence of her fate.
I saw right away that the story of Virginia Dare is a family story. A child is born; a mother is caught in an Indian war; a father protects them as best he can; and a grandfather--grumpy, desperate, and bumbling--spends years trying to save them, butting his head against obstacles such as hurricanes, Queen Elizabeth, and the Spanish Armada. One family record remains: John White’s journal. While detailing every turn of the 1587 voyage, Governor White says little about his daughter or granddaughter other than recording the birth and baptism of Virginia, and praising God for their safe arrival.
Perhaps he felt it proper to record these things with restraint; perhaps his mind was occupied with the weight of all his troubles. Still, White was a father and grandfather on a dangerous mission, and his journals of 1587 and later years all have a tone of desperation. His sympathies seem to be with women--settler and Native alike. He notes dangers Englishwomen encounter at every turn; he devotes hours to recording the figures of women and children in Native villages.
White had explored and documented Roanoke Island on at least one earlier expedition and had intimate knowledge of the territory. He knew it was not suited for settlement. His accounts of later rescue attempts are full of financial frustrations, bad storms, incompetent captains, and disastrous tangents into piracy. He seems gripped in a species of madness, to continue to dream of the success of the colony while his own kin are in peril for their lives.
As the first official illustrator of the New World, White was and still is known for his depictions of Native people and villages, wilderness plants and animals--an astonishing wealth of images brought back to England in 1586. But he made no drawings of his later voyages; many of his books and papers were lost, so we can’t know all he wrote. Still, White survived for years after his colonists went missing; he could have written accounts from memory or attempted to redraw some of his lost paintings.
If John White ever sketched his granddaughter, no record remains. For a grandfather who was an artist by profession, that’s tantamount to throwing away the camera the day your first grandchild is born.
What was the family story? White’s first child, a son, was dead. His wife may have died bearing Eleanor; she did not accompany him to the New World. White may have brought a brother or other relation to Roanoke in addition to his son-in-law, Ananias, daughter Eleanor, and granddaughter Virginia. After several failed attempts at rescue, White gave up. He kept publishing accounts of his failures, perhaps for posterity, more likely for cash. Can you imagine writing the story of how you lost your family in the wilds of America, and how it was your fault? He posted one last account to his publisher in 1593 and remained silent ever after on the subject of his own griefs and motivations.
There is much more to Virginia’s story than family, of course. There is the complex web of Elizabethan politics, piracy, and warfare; there is the spy network of Spain. There are treasure ships, and slave ships, and warring tribes of Native Americans; there is murder and kidnapping and plague. Bizarre, appealing legends circulate of the colony’s survival among the Indians, in the swamps, and as far away as Florida. The images in these stories are compelling: a baby born; a mother, abandoned in the wilderness; the disappearance, wholly and utterly, of the colonists; the words carved in trees--that partial word, CRO, as if a hand was stopped, mid-stroke. In this story are gold and pearls, Indians canoeing in the Thames, an enormous grapevine that grows where the colonists lived. A white doe haunts the shores of Albemarle Sound, a doe that used to be Virginia Dare.
Virginia is a blank slate people draw upon. We have long since made up for John White’s silence.
Traveling the legendary path of the colonists, and looking into the mystery that is Virginia Dare, set my mind on a parallel journey--an exploration of my own family story and the myths that govern my own life. Why does Virginia’s story haunt me? Perhaps because, like my own, it is marked by loss and blank pages the imagination loves to fill.
My mother and father lived through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the sixties, and my rocky adolescence, in that order. I have imagined my mother, the social worker, sitting in front of a glowing radio in a dusky room, listening to the news of Pearl Harbor. I have imagined my father standing before his draft board, proving he’s a pacifist, in December 1941. I imagined these things because they didn’t talk about them. What they did talk about came out in bits and spurts--one-line assessments that hinted at who they once were. My father tells the story of his youth:
|My father died when I was five.
I got a paper route.
Mother took in boarders.
Bob and I slept on the back porch in winter.
One day we woke up covered in snow.
I love those few bright details to frame the mystery of my father’s life: death; mother; snow. In them is a beginning, a window to the mystery that is my family. In recent years I have been asking my parents for stories of their lives. More and more they have obliged me. I have learned snippets of tales that chill my bones, things that are concealed from children. Again, my father, the preacher:
|There was a lady in the church who had hallucinations.
She thought your mother was controlling her mind.
She came with a gun late one night and shot the church.
Our parsonage was just yards from that church. But all I remember of that time is being whisked away for a stay with Grandmother Swanson, who had a cat named Bootsie, a black cat with little white paws.
Gaps in the stories still dominate my understanding of things; the mind moves like water to fill empty places.
In August of 1999, in the midst of my first months of research on the Lost Colony, I attended a 100th birthday memorial for my grandmother Rapp, born in 1899, dead for seven years. Three months later, my husband Sam’s grandmother Hudson died. She was ninety-nine. Both women lived for most of the twentieth century. What stories they could have told. But they didn’t--not much, anyway, to me. In the aftermath of these deaths, I craved family stories: keys to unlock the mystery of our lives.
Skinner Funeral Home, Dunn, N.C. November 17, 1999. The casket is open, and to my amazement she is beautiful, like Sleeping Beauty banked in summer flowers. She is wearing her customary eyeglasses and aqua velour robe. People stand and stare, then move away to visit with the living. I ask a cousin to tell a family story, preferably one about my husband Sam’s dad, a preacher’s kid. I like P.K. stories, because I’m one myself (those preachers’ kids are wild). Next thing I know, we’re laughing doubled over at the image of young Daddy up on the roof, smoking cigarettes, the Reverend throwing rocks at him to make him come down. We have almost forgotten that death is in the room.
Suddenly it’s just me laughing, my loud Yankee voice reverbing against the walls and windowpanes. I turn around. “It’s time for silent prayer,” someone stage-whispers; just like that, we all bow our heads, close our eyes, and seal our lips.
At graveside, a daughter reads a tribute:
Even at a funeral you can get the story wrong. The image of Daddy smoking on the roof is what I remember--but it’s not what really happened.