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Eleanor Dare of the Lost Colony — English Grit & American Spirit

One of America’s greatest mysteries is that of The Lost Colony. Most people know the story of how, in 1587, a group of English settlers were abandoned on Roanoke Island and they 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. Why would a woman leave the comfort and safety of her European home for the wilds of the New World, especially knowing she is pregnant! 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 child, but there is much to appreciate about her mother.

If we can’t say anything else about Eleanor, we must attribute to her stunning courage, savage determination, and an audacious belief in the possibilities of a New World. That’s why it is improbable she died on a desolate, 12-mile spit of land covered with windswept pines and sand spurs. Eleanor was a survivor. She would have made the best of her circumstances and worked tirelessly to find some way to let her father know her whereabouts.

In his diaries, John White, governor of the Lost Colony, speaks lovingly and respectfully of his daughter. I believe she was his confidant and that he hid nothing from her. When things went awry and the colonists were marooned on Roanoke, the group made a plan. If they were to survive, they absolutely had to get off Roanoke. They were down to practically zero provisions and it was already August—past planting season; not to mention, farming the soil on Roanoke isn’t for amateurs. Therefore, they were going to move 50 miles inland. Since the pilot would only allow one or two colonists to return to England, the group unanimously agreed that White should make the return trip. If they were in distress or under attack when they left the island, they would carve crosses on the trees.

So, here are the facts: for whatever reasons (ostensibly the war with Spain, but, this certainly debatable), 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 raised—that’s important), and the word “Croatoan” had been carved into two different locations at the settlement, 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.

Also, just within the last month, a map by John White has been discovered to hold some intriguing information. A patch hides a drawing of what looks very similar to a fort on a piece of land where the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers meet. Even more startling, on top of the patch are markings done with invisible ink! These marks seem to show something larger and more significant than a fort. The site is approximately 50 miles west.

Fact: a stone was discovered in this area in 1937 by a tourist. Upon this stone was carved the date of Ananias (Eleanor’s husband) and Virginia Dares’ deaths: 1591. On the back, addressed to “Father,” the writer relays 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. This rock is signed with the initials “EWD.”

Probabilities:  White’s map was made to hide the location of where Sir Walter Raleigh wanted to found the settlement of Raleigh. Invisible ink may have been used to hide such details if map was captured by the Spanish. When the colonists discovered that their pilot would not take them on to Chesapeake Bay, this location was a likely and logical plan B.

The stone was carved by Eleanor. I could see a grieving wife and mother, who had hung on through unimaginable degradations and hardships, sitting down, gritting her teeth against her hopelessnes, and carving. Carving a good-bye to her husband and daughter and a message of hope to her father. Scholars agree, the Olde English used in the message is perfect.

According to Eleanor’s note, only 7 English survived the Indian attack.

Rumors: for years after John White discovered his ghostly, empty fort, rumors circulated of sightings of whites living among Indians. Members of the Jamestown Company reported seeing a young white child playing along the river, but he or she quickly disappeared into the woods. There were stories of English slaves sold to tribes as far west as the mountains of North Carolina. A missionary recounted meeting Indians who were familiar with the Welsh language—there was a Welsh family among the Lost Colony. Eleanor was rumored to have married a chief and had another child. In another version, she was sold as a slave to a chief and had a child with him.  These haunting, fleeting stories persisted for decades.

Eleanor would have kept going. I believe it was in her nature. Other rocks with messages on them have been found, but most likely those are hoaxes. Still, that doesn’t mean Eleanor stopped writing. We just haven’t found the rest of her story. We will; it’s in our nature.

If you’re as intrigued as I am about the Lost Colony, check out these remarkable books: Roanoke by Lee Miller, and The Lost Rocks by David La Vere.

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