The Very Short Story of the First European American
Every year around November we begin retelling the story of the “first Settlers” of the New World. Of course, everyone knows that the pilgrims weren’t the first people in the Americas, nor were the settlers in Jamestown, or even the Spanish explorers before them.
The first Europeans that saw the Americas were greeted by a native population that is often conveniently forgotten when discussing discoveries. After all, American Indians were there to be discovered along with the land, or so some histories seem to read. Yet, Native American life didn’t spring into existence just for the pleasure of European eyes. When Europeans arrived to settle the land in the New World they were confronted with a population that had recently been decimated by sickness, but that still held on to cultural practices that were thoroughly baffling to the newcomers.
Once Europeans arrived and began trading with the indigenous population they developed a curious habit of foisting spinning wheels off on native women. These gifts might have been indented to nudge the native women into what the Europeans considered more appropriate domestic work. It’s no wonder that European men might have wanted tribal hierarchies to look more like theirs. Unlike women in Europe, women in native communities often held high ranks within the tribes. In addition to childbearing, women in the Northeastern tribes were also in charge of bringing materials back for building and artisanship, gathering herbs for medicine and tending the sick, they made weapons, they were responsible for skinning and cooking animals, and they grew all of the produce to feed the tribe. What was especially notable to European explorers was the fact that native women administered all food for the tribe, essentially making them the most indispensable members in their society. Certainly many Europeans saw this other way of life as strange and potential threatening to their carefully curated division of labor.
In 1587, the New World was still an unfathomably vast expanse of unknowable wilderness with nothing familiar or welcoming to offer new settlers. This is the world that Eleanor Dare saw when she arrived at the age of 16 and pregnant. She was accompanied by her father, John White, who was destined to become a governor of the new colony that they were going to found, and Ananias Dare, her husband. No matter how much trust Eleanor put in these men to keep her and her unborn child safe, she must have been fraught with fear nonetheless. After all, the average voyage from England to America lasted two months. While sailing, passengers slept on damp straw beds below deck. Crammed together in the hold, passengers would experience rough seas, sea sickness, and more serious forms of illness such as typhoid and cholera. If someone was not suffering from ill health they would also have to worry about pirates, privateers, and simply getting lost.
After such a voyage, Eleanor probably just wanted a warm bed on dry land, but of course there was nothing but dark, dense forests waiting. However, when Eleanor’s ship first landed after a relatively calm journey, empty wilderness was not what they found.
Before progressing on to the location of their settlement, the ship stopped in Roanoke to pick up the men that were left there. What they found was an empty camp, some bones, and a tree with a single word carved into the bark: Croatoan. Once the ship’s captain saw this eerie sight he refused to go any further and promptly sailed back to England. Eleanor along with 16 other women and 91 men were abandoned there in one of America’s first ghost towns.
This is where the story of Eleanor Dare becomes a bit foggy. Because John White eventually sailed back to England we do know that on August 18, 1587 there was some happy news from the colony.
“Eleanor, daughter to the governour and wife to Ananias Dare, one of the assistants, was delivered of a daughter in Roanoke … and was christened there the Sunday following, and because this child was the first Christian born in Virginia, she was named Virginia.”
Her birth date and her name are all we know about Virginia Dare. A few days after her birth, John White traveled back to England for supplies. When he returned three years later the village had, once again, been abandoned without a single hint as to what became of its inhabitants. Just like that, the first European to be born in the New World was almost instantly swallowed up again in its immensity.
Nobody knows what happened to Eleanor Dare or her child. Perhaps she spent the rest of her life living alongside the women of the Croatoan tribe, tending the fields, watching the children, and making friends in the village. We will never know Virginia’s story. However, we do know the stories of other European women that settled in the New World, and even some of those that lived among Native Americans. European women often kept diaries or told their stories to European men that helpfully made sure that everyone knew they were worthy of being remembered. The stories that we will never hear are those of the Native women who had no written language and whose stories were never recorded for posterity. Their experiences are simply gone like dust blown away in the wind.
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