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Following the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the race was on for Europeans to claim what they could of the “New World”.  As a naval race, the English were in the forefront of this.  Sir Humphrey Gilbert explored and detailed much of the eastern seaboard of North America and claimed Newfoundland in the name of Elizabeth I, Queen of England in 1583.  However, that expedition cost him his life when his ship hit heavy storms attempting to return across the North Atlantic Ocean.  Gilbert had meant to establish a permanent English colony in the Americas and that task now fell to his stepbrother, Sir Walter Raleigh, under a grant from Queen Elizabeth in which it was agreed in March 1584 that one fifth of any recovered treasure would go to the crown.

Two ships under Raleigh’s command, captained by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe set out in April 1584 and sailed across to Florida. Turning north, they progressed 125 miles north until coming to a sheltered cove where they landed.  The land they were on turned out to be an island rather than part of the mainland, and it was named Virginia Island, in honour of Queen Elizabeth, “the Virgin Queen”.  The island would later be renamed Roanoke.  Game was plentiful, the land fertile and Native Americans living there were welcoming, with their leader, Granganimeo, becoming very friendly with Amadas and Barlowe.  It was therefore decided this would be the base for a new English colony.

In the spring of 1585 seven ships under the command of Sir Richard Grenville with a hundred men landed on Roanoke to set up a permanent base there.  A year later Sir Francis Drake, who had been working as a privateer (legal pirate) plundering Spanish ships, set in at the settlement with his fleet of 23 ships.  He found few settlers had survived and those who did were starving.  Crops had failed and had had to turn to the local tribes for support.  The friendly Granganimeo had died and his son Pemisapan, who disliked the colonists was now chief and tried to destroy them.  Other tribes had joined in and many colonists died in the fray.  Others succumbed to disease and starvation.  Drake decided to evacuate the colony but when a storm hit, fifteen men were left behind.  No trace of them was ever seen again.

In these days of empire building greed was a powerful driving force.  The survivors of the first settlement had reported large deposits of copper ore on the islands and rich pearl oyster beds along the coast.  So it was decided for Sir Walter Raleigh to send a second expedition in 1586.  This second wave of settlers included women and on 18 August 1586 a little girl was born to a couple named Dare on the island, the first European child to be born on American soil, and was christened Virginia.  Shortly after her birth, her grandfather, John White, an agent of Sir Walter Raleigh, set sail for England before winter set in, leaving 120 men and women, and baby Virginia, on the island with the promise to return the following year.

England at this time however was on the brink of war with Spain.  Sailing was hazardous due to constant attack from French and Spanish ships and in the spring of 1587 the English government banned vessels from leaving English ports.  Anxious to return, in 1588 White convinced two captains to break the law and they set out across the North Atlantic.  They had to abort this sailing when they got into a hostile encounter with a French vessel and had to return.  Open warfare broke out when the Spanish Armada set sail for England in July 1588 and although the English thwarted this attempted invasion, all ships remain impounded for a further two years.

It was not until spring 1590 that Sir John White managed to sail for America, almost four years since he left the Roanoke colony.  When he arrived in August that year, he was met with complete silence where there should have been a bustling, industrious colony.  Many homesteads the settlers built were gone, the wood used to build a sturdy palisade, which was broken and burned in places.  The huts inside this had been ransacked and no sign of any belongings survived.  The village was deserted but there were several new graves.  One sailor then found a carving on a corner post of the palisade, which read simply “Croatoan”.  White thought this may refer to a tribal village some fifty miles distant but could not be sure.

In worsening weather and with superstitious and nervous crews, White decided to abandon his search for survivors.  No trace of any of them, nor their belongings was ever found.  White was unable to convince anyone to finance another expedition and he went to his grave not knowing what became of any of them, including his little granddaughter, Virginia.

Most people assumed that the settlers had been wiped out by hostile Native Americans, disease, cold, or a mixture of all three, and certainly archaeologists found signs of all three when excavating Roanoke in the 1980s.  However, of the dead found they came nowhere near to the 120 settlers who were left there in 1586.  More importantly, no child’s grave was ever found among them.

When colonisation for the Americas began in earnest, some Native Americans were not surprised by the arrival of white Europeans and they spoke of an entire tribe of blue-eyed, white-skinned people who had lived in the area now known as Virginia in the time of their fathers or grandfathers.

Is it possible therefore that the survivors of the Roanoke settlement gathered their meagre belongings, travelled to the mainland, assimilated with friendlier Native Americans purely in order to survive?  And if so, is it possible that little Virginia Dare grew to become the first European, the first of many, to interbreed with the Native Americans?

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