After hearing Brent Lane’s recent lecture on the Lost Colony at Wayne Community College, I went back to Marjorie Hudson’s book “Searching for Virginia Dare,” first published in 2002 and updated in 2013. Lane, a professor of heritage economics at UNC-Chapel Hill, approached the topic from an entrepreneurial and scientific standpoint, while Hudson explores the human drama, mystery and myths, weaving in her personal story of being lost and found.
Hudson, a transplant to North Carolina, became fascinated wtih the story of Virginia Dare and set out on “a fool’s errand” to learn what happened to her. The author combed through historical collections, “cracking bindings on books that had not been opened in 50 years.” From her home on a farm in Chatham County, she traveled the highways and byways of eastern North Carolina, exploring the length of the Outer Banks, Roanoke Island, and the Great Dismal Swamp. She later went south to Robeson County, home of the Lumbee Indians, some of whom claim ancestors among the colonists. She interviewed scores of people, experts and ordinary citizens alike.
Starting with the known facts about the colony and the major theories of what happened to it, Hudson brings a poet’s sensibility to the project. Here is her fanciful description of the Outer Banks: “The coastal islands of North Carolina sweep up the mainland shore like a string of long beads, hugging the scalloped neckline of a dress. ... North of Cape Lookout, the Outer Banks scatter toward the Gulf Stream, as if stretching to hold the vast waters of Pamlico Sound.” Those of us who love North Carolina revel in such poetry.
The book, part memoir, part journal and travelogue, contains passages of fiction where the author captures the colonists’ state of mind. Here is Eleanor Dare in childbirth: “Manteo’s daughter has been nothing but kind, but in Eleanor’s fever this face seems to watch her too closely.” Here is John White baptizing his granddaughter: “Virginia [he] names her. He forces a smile, terrified to see how tiny she is. ... How can something so small survive this place?” (The rush to baptism shows how fearful the English were that their infants would not live long.)
The white doe
Hudson cannot tell us whether Virginia survived or for how long. But she does tell us the myths and legends that grew up around “the first English child born in America.” In one of the strangest tales, Virginia, raised by Manteo, becomes the love interest of a young Indian brave (Okisio) and also of an old witch doctor (Chico). When she rejects him, the doctor turns her into a white doe. Then, just as the brave shoots a special arrow to break the spell, the witch doctor shoots a second arrow, which kills her. Legend has it that the white doe haunts Roanoke Island to this day. Hudson first got this story from F. Roy Johnson’s “The Lost Colony in Fact and Legend.”
Sallie Southall Cotten
She goes on to tell the story of Sallie Southall Cotten, who used this legend in her epic poem “The White Doe.” Cotten lived with her husband and several children on a plantation near Greenville in the years after the Civil War. Active in organizing women for good causes, she became obsessed with Virginia Dare and used her to represent the “ideal woman.” Cotten gave readings of her poem, which Hudson calls “sentimental,” to raise money for its publication (1901). The poet never reveals the source of the “Indian legend”; Hudson could not find it in folklore studies; and its origin remains a mystery.
Sallie Cotten was also instrumental in bringing a sculpture of Virginia Dare to North Carolina. The “Dare Venus” was carved in Carrara marble by Maria Louisa Lander, a native of Boston who worked in Rome. The statue “stands naked to the waist and draped in fishnet, with a companion heron at her feet and Native ornaments detailing her arms and throat.” The sculpture went through shipwreck and fire but somehow survived. Lander offered to sell it to the N.C. Commission for the Chicago World’s Fair (1893), of which Sallie Cotten was a member. The sale did not go through, but Cotten later persuaded Lander to donate the work to the state of North Carolina at her death. The statue now stands in the Elizabethan Gardens at Manteo.
The Dare Stones
Hudson tells many more good stories, including the history of the Dare Stones, now housed at Brenau University in Georgia. There are 48 of these stones, some very large, found in remote places, from the banks of the Chowan River in North Carolina all the way to Georgia. The first one found seems to be a message from Eleanor Dare recording her travels and the deaths of some colonists, including Ananias and Virginia. This stone, according to Brent Lane of the First Colony Foundation, may be authentic, but he thinks the others are part of an elaborate hoax (Q&A at WCC).
At the end of her 2013 edition, Hudson credits Lane with an important discovery. In 2012 he had the idea of looking underneath the patches on a John White map in the British Museum. When one patch was examined, the outline of an unknown English fort appeared on the banks of the Chowan River. The location aligns with White’s plan to move the colony some “50 miles into the maine.” Once targeted for development, the site is being studied by the Foundation.
Hudson has said of the Lost Ones: “Their story haunts because it lives in silence.” Now she may ask, “Will the silence be broken?”