Virginia Dare: America’s First Missing Daughter

Many true crime fans are familiar with the sad stories of famous missing persons such as Madeline McCan, or Natalee Holloway, both of whom went missing while travelling overseas. However, few true crime fans are as familiar with the story of the first missing person in recorded American History—a tale that has not only piqued the interests of the true crime world, but also that of supernaturalists across the United States.

When learning about the birth of American in school, many children are taught about the Pilgrims and their transatlantic journey on the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. However, very rarely is there such a deep dive on one of the first ever attempts to settle in America. In 1585, acting on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I, Ralph Lane sought to establish the first colony in what is now the United States. Lane established a colony on Roanoke Island in what is now Dare County, North Carolina. After that colony went under, a second colony was sent to the same island in 1587—what has become known in history as the Lost Colony.

Virginia Dare is on record as being the first baby born in the United States to English settlers. Her birth was a momentous event for the colony as they attempted to put down strong roots in their new settlement. News of her birth rang out through the new world and in the old, and Virginia’s name became synonymous with early American colonialism. Many municipalities and sites across America bear Virginia Dare’s name in honor of the first missing child known to American history.

The Lost Colony

The Lost Colony was far from self-sustaining, as a lack of supplies and a hostile relationship with the indigenous peoples of the area shook the foundations of the colony. Virginia Dare’s grandfather, John White, sought to mitigate this instability by making a supply to England and return with supplies for the colony. However, while he was abroad, the Anglo-Spanish War prevented White from returning to the Roanoke colony when he had intended. When he was finally able to return in 1589, White discovered that the entire population of the Roanoke settlement—around 112 settlers—had completely vanished, including Virginia Dare. There were no burial grounds or remains found, and the only infamous, cryptic clue to the whereabouts of the missing colonists was a single word carved into the fence around the settlement: CROATOAN. This led White to believe that the colonists might have resettled on nearby Croatoan Island. However, before he was able to follow this lead to his missing settlers, the ship he was travelling on was forced to return to England.

Historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists around the world have speculated what might have happened to Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony. Some speculate that the colony succumbed to either disease or starvation due to their lack of resources. Some say that they ran afoul of indigenous peoples of the area. Others say that they were victims of Spanish hostiles during the course of the Anglo-Spanish War. However, in 2020, these researchers believe they might have finally found an answer.

The First Colony Foundation is a North Carolina nonprofit that is dedicated to researching and documenting the history of the Lost Colony. Among many documents they have reviewed include John White’s own writings in which he claimed the colonists had plans to move should the settlement become inhospitable.  In 2012, researchers with the First Colony Foundation found the answer while studying a map at the British Museum that John White had painted himself. They discovered that White had made a few marks in invisible ink, likely to hide the information from the Spanish. He’d outlined two forts both about 50 miles away from the Roanoke settlement, which coincided with the distance the colonists had purportedly planned to travel should they ever have to leave the island.

What They Found in the Ground

Upon investigation of the sites that were marked on White’s map, the First Colony Foundation found shards of broken pottery that they believe to be remnants of pottery owned by the lost colonists. Researchers are confident that these are not the remnants of pots owned by Jamestown residents in the 17th century because of the lack of English pipes found in the dig sites—a very popular item amongst Jamestown settlers. This has lead researchers in the First Colony Foundation to speculate that the Lost Colony may have actually splintered into smaller groups to survive and assimilated with the indigenous population in the areas proposed on White’s map.

However, some scholars remain skeptical that the pottery remains are an indicator of the Lost Colony’s presence on these secret, marked locations. Charles Ewen, an archeologist at East Carolina University told National Geographic, “They are looking to prove rather than seeking to disprove their theory, which is the scientific way.”