In the summer of 1587, an English fleet sailed towards Roanoke Island, just off the coast of what’s now North Carolina. It was led by John White, a gentleman artist and friend of the Elizabethan explorer Sir Walter Ralegh, who had been sent to establish a colony in the New World. Some 114 potential settlers accompanied him, among them his daughter, Eleanor, and her husband, Ananias Dare, a bricklayer from London.
On 18 August, in what must have been basic conditions, Eleanor gave birth to a daughter. The girl was christened Virginia, after the English settlement in North America – itself named after Elizabeth I’s sobriquet: the ‘virgin queen’. Virginia was the first child born to white English-speaking parents anywhere in the Americas.
If her grandfather was delighted, his joy did not last. Only nine days after her birth, White sailed for England, hoping to secure supplies and support for his struggling venture. Delayed by storms and Spanish ships, he did not return for three years, landing – with a grim twist – on the date of Virginia’s third birthday. To his horror he found the settlement deserted, with no sign of life. The settlers, including his daughter and granddaughter, had simply disappeared.
What happened to the settlers will surely never be known. Yet little Virginia has become a near-legendary figure in the US, celebrated with stamps, coins, bridges and parks. A popular folk myth holds that Virginia was adopted by Native Americans, magically turned into a white doe and then accidentally killed by a hunter. So whenever a white doe is spotted near Roanoke Island, locals maintain that it is the spirit of Virginia Dare.
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and presenter.
This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine