Today is the birthday (1587) of Virginia Dare the first person of English descent born in the British Colonies in the New World. She was born to English parents Ananias Dare and Eleanor White (also spelled Eleanora, Ellinor or Elyonor) and named after the Virginia Colony. What became of Virginia and the other colonists remains a mystery. The fact of her birth is known because John White, Virginia’s grandfather and the governor of the colony, returned to England in 1587 to seek fresh supplies. When White eventually returned three years later, the colonists were gone.
During the past 400 years, Virginia Dare has become a figure in U.S. folklore, symbolizing different things to different groups of people. She has been featured as a main character in books, poems, songs, comic books, television programs, and films. Her name has been used to sell different types of goods, from vanilla products to wine and spirits. Many places in North Carolina and elsewhere in the Southern United States have been named in her honor. All of this is idle nonsense, of course. Virginia more than likely died as an infant.
Virginia Dare was born in the Roanoke Colony in what is now North Carolina: “Elenora, daughter to the governor of the city and wife to Ananias Dare, one of the assistants, was delivered of a daughter in Roanoke.” Little is known of the lives of either of her parents. Her mother Eleanor was born in London around 1563, and was married to Ananias Dare (born c. 1560), a London tiler and bricklayer, at St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street in the City of London. Virginia Dare was one of two infants born to the colonists in 1587 and the only female child born to the settlers.
Nothing else is known of Virginia Dare’s presumably short life, as the Roanoke Colony did not endure. Virginia’s grandfather John White sailed for England for fresh supplies at the end of 1587, having established his colony. He was unable to return to Roanoke until August 18, 1590 due to England’s war with Spain and the pressing need for ships to defend against the Spanish Armada—by which time he found that the settlement had been long deserted. The buildings had collapsed and “the houses [were] taken down”.White was unable to find any trace of his daughter or granddaughter, or indeed any of the 80 men, 17 women, and 11 children who made up the Lost Colony.
Nothing is known for certain of the fate of Virginia Dare or her fellow colonists. Governor White found no sign of a struggle or battle. The only clue to the colonists’ fate was the word “Croatoan” carved into a post of the fort, and the letters “Cro” carved into a nearby tree. All the houses and fortifications had been dismantled, suggesting that their departure had not been hurried. Before he had left the colony, White had instructed them that, if anything happened to them, they should carve a Maltese cross on a tree nearby, indicating that their disappearance had been forced. There was no cross, and White took this to mean that they had moved to Croatoan Island (now known as Hatteras Island), but he was unable to conduct a search.
There are a number of speculations regarding the fate of the colonists, the most widely accepted one being that they sought shelter with local Indians, and either intermarried with the natives or were killed. In 1607, John Smith and other members of the successful Jamestown Colony sought information about the fate of the Roanoke colonists. One report indicated that the survivors had taken refuge with friendly Chesapeake Indians, but Chief Powhatan claimed that his group had attacked and killed most of the colonists. Powhatan showed Smith certain artifacts that he said had belonged to the colonists, including a musket barrel and a brass mortar and pestle. However, no physical evidence exists to support this claim. The Jamestown Colony received reports of some survivors of the Lost Colony and sent out search parties, but none was successful. Eventually they concluded that they were all dead.
William Strachey, a secretary of the Jamestown Colony, wrote in The History of Travel into Virginia Britannia in 1612 that there were reportedly two-storey houses with stone walls at the native settlements of Peccarecanick and Ochanahoen which would suggest that Indians learned how to build them from the Roanoke settlers, since this type of building was not known to Indians of the region. There were also reported sightings of European captives at various Indian settlements during the same time period. Strachey also wrote that four English men, two boys, and one maid had been sighted at the Eno settlement of Ritanoc, under the protection of a chief called Eyanoco. The captives were being forced to beat copper. The captives, he reported, had escaped the attack on the other colonists and fled up the Chaonoke river, the present-day Chowan River in Bertie County, North Carolina.
It’s purely conjecture on my part but I would assume that lack of food was a critical issue for the colonists. It was in Massachusetts. It’s hard now to put ourselves in the shoes of 16th century English colonists, but we have to remember that for them colonization in new territory was a completely new endeavor in all kinds of ways – not least being the production of crops in a strange land. They obviously brought cultigens such as wheat and barley with them, but lacked the skills to grow them successfully in the New World, and it would have taken them time to adapt to local ways. Besides, most of the local Indian groups were foragers and not farmers. Good Christian (i.e. “civilized”)men and women from England were not likely to take kindly to having to adapt to hunting and gathering to stay alive – and wouldn’t be any good at it anyway. To be successful at foraging you have to have a vast store of knowledge of local plants and animals. Fishing would be all right, though. Some of them must have done that in England.
Coastal North Carolina is teaming with fishing opportunities in the ocean, in the brackish sounds, and in rivers. I lived on the coast of North Carolina, quite near where the Lost Colony was, for a year and eventually published a book about the people. I did go fishing a great deal both with commercial boats and also for fun with the locals. Catching mullet and roasting it over a driftwood fire deep in the swamps is a fond memory.
Fish muddle is the generic name in North Carolina for a stew made from catch of the day with vegetables served over grits (or rice). You can think of this recipe as a suggestion rather than dogma. People throw in what they want and the fish or shellfish used vary with the seasons. The point is that it must be very fresh. What makes the stew unusual is the use of eggs, which can be cracked into the soup as it boils and poached, swirled in like an egg-drop soup, or boiled separately, peeled, and then chopped and added at the end.
1½ lb large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1½ lb firm fish fillets, cut into chunks
6 cups fish stock
8 oz bacon, chopped (or salt pork)
1 cup chopped celery
1½ cups chopped carrots
3 cups chopped onions
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
4 bay leaves
4 thyme sprigs
2 (28-oz) cans crushed tomatoes
1 lb new potatoes, peeled and quartered
salt and pepper
hot pepper sauce
6 cups freshly cooked grits (or rice)
4 hard-boiled eggs, coarsely chopped
fresh parsley, chopped
Cook the bacon in a skillet over medium heat until it is crisp and rendered. If you are using salt pork, render it and brown it thoroughly. Drain the bacon or pork pieces and set aside leaving the fat in the skillet.
Stir in the celery, carrots, onions. Sauté until the vegetables are softened but not browned.
Transfer to a stock pot and add the garlic, bay leaves, thyme and tomatoes and bring to a simmer. You can break up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon if you want during the cooking process. Cook for about 15 minutes.
Add the stock, potatoes, and salt to taste. Stir and simmer until the potatoes are soft but not fully cooked.
Discard the bay leaves and thyme sprigs. Season with freshly ground black pepper and hot sauce to taste.
Gently stir the fish and shrimp into the stew. Cover the pot, and simmer gently until the fish and shrimp are just cooked. This is where experience comes in. I find that 5 minutes is usually enough. The shrimp can easily get tough.
Spoon the grits (or rice) into serving bowls. Ladle the stew over the grits and garnish with the eggs, bacon, and parsley.
Serve hot with saltines. Southerners like to crumble them on top.
This is a main meal, but you can omit the grits and increase the amount of stock to serve it as a soup.