Past Times

Story of the Lost Colony continues to fascinate

A cameraman identified only as “Pete” assisted in the production of the 1921 silent film about the Lost Colony.
A cameraman identified only as “Pete” assisted in the production of the 1921 silent film about the Lost Colony. North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives

Last week’s discovery of new clues to the fate of Roanoke Island’s Lost Colony reminds us that our interest in the mystery never fades. Long ago and far from the “Site X” dig, a legend circulated in the early 1900s suggesting that the colonists may have found their way to southeastern North Carolina.

A tiny mound in the shade of a gnarled hickory tree which stands alone in the middle of a Robeson County cotton field may hold the body of Virginia Dare, this continent’s first white child born of English parents.

For more than 350 years – almost since the day Sir Walter Raleigh’s ill-fated “Lost Colony” was found to have vanished into somewhere – historians have advanced various theories as to what happened to the Roanoke Island colonists. The mystery long has intrigued students of history, but no satisfactory solution has ever been disclosed.…

Now Lamont Smith, editor of the Wilmington Star-News, brings a story of this little mound and the legend among Indians living nearby connected with it.

The grave, abandoned and neglected is one mile west from historic Philadelphus Presbyterian Church. It would be hardly noticeable to the passerby except for the legends of the countryside which offer a stout suggestion that it might be the tomb of the first American white child known to history.

There is, Smith says, a superstition among the Indians that the Great Spirit will frown upon those who dare molest this sacred soil. The admonition to steer clear of it has come down through the generations of the tribe.

Jordan Revels, 86-year-old Indian patriarch, will not say that the grave is Virginia Dare’s, but he readily states that it long has been tradition that this spot be not despoiled.

He adds, however, that the name “Dial,” common among Robeson County Indians, is a corruption of the English “Dare,” as “Lock-Lear” is derived from the English “Lockey.”

Maybe it is true, maybe not, the tanned octogenarian observes cagily when questioned about the possibility that the grave is Virginia Dare’s.

He remembers, however, a story that the Dares came from somewhere in the distant past and settled near Philadelphus. He has heard, too, that there was some connection between this grave and the Lost Colonists of Roanoke Island.

Then there is Jordan Maynor, another Indian sage well beyond the allotted three score and ten who has heard the story of the sacredness of the spot for generations. He also said his sires had told a story that a pale-face maiden was buried here.

Oakley McMillan, huge husky and youthful Cherokee leader, also vouches for the legend. He said he had heard it for years and was inclined to the belief that it really was Virginia Dare’s body beneath the hickory tree.

Miss Anna Eliza Bule, on whose ancestral lands the mound is situated, smilingly declined to commit herself other than to say her father, the late McPherson Bule who died in his eighties, told his children the grave was not to be molested and that none could say definitely who lay beneath the green sod. She admits there is something about the grave that distinguishes it from others.

The grave lies some 300 yards from the unpaved highway which leads from Philadelphus Crossroads in the general direction of Maxton.

A mile from the nearest of its kin, the stately hickory stands, surrounded in season by a sea of waving white cotton.

At the roots of the tree the cotton rows stop abruptly. There is a spot six feet long and two feet wide on which lush green grass grows. There is a slight indentation of the soil, oblong in shape and then again the orderly rows of the white staple. The N&O May 8, 1938

Of course the story of what might have happened to Virginia Dare, along with the other colonists, has continued to fascinate audiences of Paul Green’s symphonic drama on Manteo’s waterside stage since 1937. But this was not the first dramatization of the story. In 1954, theater writer David Bowen gave some background to the story that in 1921 was depicted in the first movie ever shot in North Carolina.

As far back as 1880 residents of Roanoke Island and the mainland got together to consider some sort of annual festival honoring the original settlers. This group carried on the festivals on a small scale until 1886, when they reorganized the Roanoke Colony Memorial Association and acquired sixteen acres of farmland on the original site of “The Citie of Raleigh.”

In those days the outer banks were accessible only by boat; but celebrations went on willy-nilly until 1921 when Mrs. Mabel Evans Jones, then superintendent of the Dare County Schools, wrote and produced a script based on historical facts concerning the first colonization. By 1926 the celebration had reached pageant stage, and in that year a full-scale reenactment was presented before thousands of spectators, including the British Ambassador, Sir Esme Howard.

In 1927, Dare County built the original bridge across Roanoke Sound. Three years later the Wright Memorial Bridge was privately built and opened to any daring motorist with the toll charge and the fortitude to try and negotiate the treacherous outer banks sand. (Hard surface roads came still later.)…

Now, more than 600,000 people have paid to see the current celebration, and prospects don’t seem to be dimming. The N&O May 30, 1954

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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