Virginia Dare, the white doe and the lost colony – between history and legend
More than four hundred years ago, Europeans wanted to set up colonies in the New World. Sir Walter Raleigh, an adventurous English gentleman, sent a group of men to explore the present-day continents of North and South America. A later expedition established a settlement on Roanoke Island, on the North Carolina coast. In 1586, after enduring winter hardships, lack of food, and disagreements with the Indians, survivors of this colony returned home to England with their captain, Sir Francis Drake.
Then Raleigh decided to send a second group of colonists and, on April 26, 1587, a small fleet set sail from England, hoping to establish the first permanent English settlement in the New World.
This second group of colonists differed from the first because it included not only men but also women and children, and it would be a permanent colony. The little fleet consisted of the ship Lyon, a flyboat (a fast, flat-bottomed boat capable of maneuvering in shallow water), and a pinnace (a small sailing ship used to carry supplies). The pilot was a Spaniard, Simon Fernando, and the governor of the new colony was John White, who was among those who sailed in the first attempt to colonize Roanoke Island, acting as artist and mapmaker to the expedition. Among the colonists were Governor White’s daughter, Eleanor, and her husband, Ananias Dare. The voyage took longer than the usual six weeks and, originally bound for the Chesapeake Bay, the settlers landed on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, on July 22.
Here they set about the hard and laborious task of finding a way to survive. Life was hard, and eventually the colonists begged Governor White to return to England for supplies. He was very reluctant to leave the colony but finally agreed and, on August 27, he set sail. He planned to get relief supplies and more colonists in England and then return to Roanoke Island as soon as possible. Among the 115 colonists he left behind was his infant granddaughter Virginia Dare, the first child born to English parents in the New World.
However, his plans did not work out. Soon after White returned to England, King Philip II of Spain and his armada (fleet of warships) attacked the British and he was not able to return to Roanoke Island until 1590.
When he arrived, he found that all of the colonists had disappeared. The settlement had been enclosed by a palisade to make a fort, and the only trace of evidence that he found was the word “Croatoan” carved in the trunk of a tree.
And now, what happened to these “Lost Colonists”? No one knows for sure. According to the legend, the colonists assimilated into the local Croatan tribe of Native Americans that inhabited the island and Virginia Dare, became known locally as Winona-Ska, grew into a beautiful young woman who attracted the attention of Okisko and Chico, two prominent warriors of the tribe (or a warrior and an old witch doctor, depending the version you heard).
But Virginia only had eyes for Okisko, and when she rejected the advances of Chico it is said that he grew angry and vowed that if he could not have Virginia then no one could have her.
Borrowing from the old adage “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, which apparently could be extended to male warriors of the day, Chico set about with his plan to deny his rival the love of his beautiful maiden.
Thus, he cast a spell on Virginia that turned her into a white doe. When Okisko saw her new appearance, his heart was broken and he immediately began searching for a way to reverse the spell that had been cast on his beloved Virginia. A sorcerer advised him to make an arrowhead out of Mother of Pearl and to then shoot the doe through the heart with it. He convinced Okisko that the special arrowhead would instantly reverse the curse and return Virginia to human form.
Wanchese, another chieftain in the tribe, unaware of the true identity of the white doe, devised a plan kill the doe in an effort to showcase his hunting skills. He knew that an animal with such an unusual appearance would require a special arrowhead, so he fashioned one out of pure silver for the task.
On the day of the hunt, Okisko and Wanchese spotted the white doe and let loose their arrows at precisely the same instant. Both arrows found their mark and pierced the heart of the doe.
Just as Okisko’s sorcerer had promised, the Mother of Pearl arrowhead transformed the animal back to his beloved Virginia, but the silver arrow from Wanchese took her life as soon as she changed back to human form. In desperation, Okisko ran away and threw both arrows into the water, begging for Winona-Ska’s life. When he returned to the place where she had died, he found no sign of either the doe or the girl. Later the white doe appeared and looked at Okisko with her soft eyes. Then she ran into the woods.
While no traces of the Lost Colony have ever been found, legend has it that the ghost of one of the colonists can still be seen on Roanoke island, and the ghost of Virginia Dare is said to wander the woods of the island in the form of a white doe, searching in vain for her lost love Okisko.
Will the mystery ever be solved? We may never know all the real facts of the story, but the legend is an interesting way to explain the fate of Virginia Dare, one of the Lost Colonists.
In 1901 Sallie Southall Cotten wrote The White Doe: The Fate of Virginia Dare, a long narrative poem that tried to explain the mystery. You can find the story here!