Let's say there's a scuppernong vine, its trunk the size of an elephant's leg—no, the size of a baobab tree. Its tendrils extend across miles and miles of coastal drift, along sand and even into the water. Bronze globes float in the brine when the tide is gentle, become crushed and pulpy in pounding storms. Let's say it's August, and the Gulf Stream is warm, and it is bringing things to shore that the shore has never seen: gold signet rings; Spanish amphoras filled with wine; the bones of Englishmen. Let's say there's sex in this story, and beautiful virgins, and the root of the vine goes deep beneath the sand to the river of time. And the river of time connects all things, sifts and dissolves all memories of scented vines, all bones, all intentions into one slow moving tide of myth; we dip our feet in it. Myth is the language in which we live, that soaks and permeates everything we know and most of what we don't know.
The coastal islands of North Carolina sweep up the mainland shore like a string of long beads hugging the scalloped neckline of a dress, from the South Carolina border to Bald Head at the mouth of the Cape Fear, up past Wrightsville to a stretch of summer resort towns. North of Cape Lookout, the Outer Banks scatter toward the Gulf Stream, as if stretching to hold the vast waters of Pamlico Sound: here are the wilder reaches of the coast, Portsmouth and Ocracoke, Hatteras and Pea Island. Here are more treacherous inlets and shifting sands. Just as the string returns to hug the mainland, there is an anomaly: Roanoke Island, doubled up behind Nags Head, straddling Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds--an extra bead strung between the Banks and the main. The single strand continues, past Albemarle Sound, up Currituck to peter out at Back Bay, beyond the Virginia border.
These sand banks shift and twist with the winds of nor'easters and hurricanes; the sounds behind them swell with fresh water in flood, invade rivers and inlets in high salty tides. Betwixt and between, Roanoke Island bides her time, anchored by bridges, awash and protected in the amniotic fluid of two great estuaries. On this island, among shifting tides and treacherous bars, England made her first American colony. She staked her tenuous claim on the New World with the birth of a girl child, baptized Virginia Dare. What happened to that girl child is one of America's great mysteries:
An English baby is born in an island wilderness.
The baby and her family and friends all disappear.
They leave behind two cryptic messages carved in trees: CRO and CROATOAN.
No one knows where they went.
Or whether they survived.
Speculation on the fate of the colony has grown over four centuries like a grapevine planted in fertile soil, sending off tendrils in all directions, having long since wrapped the facts of the story in extravagant ornament.
In 1999 I set out on a fool's errand, in search of Virginia Dare. Like a toddler wandering off in a snowstorm, Virginia and her Lost Colony have compelled many failed searches. They have inspired books filled with bizarre theories, obscure studies, legends, and even an epic poem whose heroine is blonde with misty blue eyes and a pink-beribboned bonnet. Virginia's story seems antiquated now, dusty and unused as some of those books. Most of the recent searches have taken place in the halls of academe, or in squares of sand marked off by archeologists, orderly as graveyards. The literature on the subject does not head up Amazon.com's bestseller list. But the story is fresh territory for someone like me who wasn't born in North Carolina, someone who came from the north to settle here: You mean there was a colony before Jamestown? Before Plymouth? How come I never heard of it?
The more I found out about Virginia Dare, the more I found myself seduced by her: She seems to captivate those bent on obsession. She brings out the storytellers and mythmakers and charlatans, people who pick a single aspect of her story and let it fester in their minds, for reasons that may have very little to do with the facts. The facts are thin branches on which they hang elaborations. There is a grandfather, a daughter, and a babe. All are lost. Much of the rest is context or conjecture.
The facts are these: Virginia Dare was the first child born of English parents on American soil, on August 18, 1587. She was part of the first English attempt to plant families in the New World, a colony of one hundred-plus sturdy souls. The expedition was governed by her grandfather, John White; organized by Sir Walter Raleigh; and had the blessing of Queen Elizabeth. Virginia survived long enough to be baptized. She was likely still alive when John White shipped back to England for supplies. And, as people around here like to say, she was never seen again by European eyes.
The colonists arrived in the midst of hurricane season. It was also one of the worst drought periods in 800 years. Most of the local tribes—Roanoke and Hattorask on the banks, Chesepiuk and Chowanoc on the mainland--weren't feeling very friendly, and they were hard up for food.
These were not the first English to make it to Roanoke Island, and they were not the only ones to get lost. In fact, if you count a boatload of slaves, reports of a shipwreck, and several explorers left behind in the woods, the population of lost and abandoned people at Roanoke by the time Virginia Dare showed up may have counted well over four hundred.
This colony brought seventeen women to Roanoke Island; one gave birth shortly after Virginia was born, and one came with a babe in arms. There were eleven boys on the ship's roster. There were eighty-five men. They had come for the promise of 500 acres each. They were hoping to find silver and gold. They intended to build America's first English city, the Cittie of Raleigh, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.
In short, they had come with the idea of raising children and improving their fortunes--and they had come to the wrong place.