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Open Features: Faceless In The Hall Of Fame

"For almost a year I have been researching a woman with a unique place in history yet there is little trace of her existence,'' writes Mary Pilfold-Allan. "That woman, or more precisely, nineteen-year old girl, became the mother of the first English child to be born on North American soil.''

She was Eleanor Dare (nee’ White) and she lived in the ‘Golden Age’ when, despite a Queen on the throne ruling supreme, women had little status in society and were mere ‘chattels’.

Eleanor’s entire life is plotted by just a handful of firm facts; the rest is pure conjecture. The first three facts concern parental background. Her father was John White, a recognised artist and limner who occasional worked on commissions for the Office of the Queen’s Revels. Her mother was a Thomasina Cooper and the coupled married at St. Martin’s, Ludgate in London on 17th June 1566.

The next three facts concern Eleanor’s birth and place within the family.

St. Martin’s register announces that she was baptised on 9th May 1568. A brother, Thomas, had preceded her on 27th April 1567 but sadly did not survive and the same register records his burial on 26th December 1568. There is no indication why he died or whether the mother, Thomasina, was still alive as the entries mention only ‘the daughter of’ or ‘the son of’ John White.

Between Eleanor’s birth and her marriage there is a huge void. She is a faceless person floating along on the tide of Elizabethan life. Then, at just fifteen years old, she is noted as marrying Ananias Dare, a member of the Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers on 24th June 1583 in St. Clement Danes, Westminster. After that the void closes in again until four years later she is listed among 117 colonists setting out for Virginia in 1587 with permission to establish the first permanent English colony in America. What a mammoth step to take; yet there is nothing to indicate how she felt about it all.

Her husband is nominated as one of the twelve Assistants appointed to help the newly designated Governor of the colony, her own father, John White. On the surface this latter appointment may seem a strange choice, however he had been on at least two previous voyages to the New World sketching the flora, fauna and native Indians, hence he was somewhat familiar with the territory and conditions. The 1587 voyage, with women and children included, left Plymouth on 8th May.

It is hard to imagine what a nineteen-year old girl felt as she prepared for the journey, especially as she was pregnant at the time. She faced weeks at sea in a rolling boat, sharing primitive facilities, making do with salted beef and ship’s biscuits, longing for a chance to walk on dry land and drink fresh water, not to mention the fear that must have been part of the whole venture into the unknown.

There is no ship’s log in existence to guide us through the voyage day by day, however several years later John White wrote a narrative that gives an overall flavour of the journey. He tells of disagreements with the pilot, of stopping at an island on the way and many colonists going down with a bad case of ‘burning’ tongues from eating green ‘pommes’, of a lack of fresh water and of no opportunity to stock up on salt – informative but general information. At no point does he mention his daughter.

On 22nd July, after weeks at sea, the colonists reach Roanoke Island and go ashore. It is meant to be nothing more than a stopping place on route to the mainland, Virginia, but the pilot refuses to go on, claiming he must return home before the onset of bad weather. The colonists are confronted with staying where they are through the coming winter months until fresh ships and supplies arrive from England the following spring. They unload their possessions, build shelters, store their precious commodities and hope for the best. In the midst of all the activities, one of the Assistants decides to go crab fishing and is later found murdered by a local tribe.

Finally the narrative gives a mention of Eleanor:

18th August: ‘Eleanor, daughter of the Governor, and wife to Ananias Dare, one of the Assistants, was delivered of a daughter in Roanoke, and the same was christened there the Sunday following (24th August) and because this child was the first Christian borne in Virginia, she was named Virginia.’

After that her name is never attached to any other fact, although we do know that three days after the baptism of his grandchild, John White boarded ship to return home in the hope of rallying extra help to their cause. Eleanor is left behind on Roanoke with her newborn baby and the other colonists. The 27th August 1587 is in effect, the last occasion any of the colonists were ever seen again.

John White was unable to keep his promise to return the following year. The Spanish Armada prevented all sailings from England by privately commissioned vessels. When he eventually made it back in 1590 there were no sign of life on the island, only the initials CRO carved on the trunk of a tree.

The saga and its mysterious outcome have given rise to the tale of the ‘Lost Colony of Roanoke’ and this year will be the 425th anniversary of the birth of Virginia Dare. How ironic that a tiny baby makes it into the history books, yet the person who gave birth to her is almost invisible. Eleanor left no written word, there are no known portraits, despite her father’s artistic talent, and no other person has left us a comment on her looks or personality. She is faceless and almost, but not quite, overlooked.

How far the world has come since those Elizabethan days. Each and every one of us is now recorded in minute detail, our data stored, our features captured by photographs and on numerous CCTV cameras that plot our lives. We merrily put down endless dross on social networking sites and pour out the minutia of our lives on email. The Eleanor of the Lost Colony, mother of the first child to be born on North American soil would have no chance of remaining faceless in our modern, frantic society, where everyone seems to achieve that so often joked about, ‘fifteen minutes of fame’.

**

Mary Pilfold-Allan tells us that Eleanor Dare is the subject of the first essay in a series about early settler women of North America 1587–1700 that will be published as a book ‘Strong Women’ when complete.

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