North Carolina Ghosts and Legends North Carolina Ghost StoriesNorth Carolina Ghost Stories and Legends

Sallie Southall Cotten's 1901 poem The White Doe, or the Fate of Virginia Dare contains the most well-known version of this North Carolina legend.




On August 27, 1587 Governor John White sailed form Roanoke Island to return to England for supplies. He left behind the first settlement in the new English colony of Virginia, consisting of eighty-nine men, seventeen women, and eleven children. One of those children was his own granddaughter, the first English child to be born in the New World — Virginia Dare. None of these colonists were ever seen again by English eyes.

White had intended to return to the Roanoke colony the next year, but the threat of Spanish invasion with the great Armada of 1588 and the constantly-shifting politics of the Elizabethan court delayed White's return until 1590. When he arrived, he found the colony abandoned, the only clue to the fate of the colonists being the word CROATOAN carved into a tree. This was the name of a nearby island, the home of the english-speaking Croatan Indian Manteo. Manteo and another Croatan, Wanchese, had journeyed to England in 1584, returning with the reconnoissance expedition for the colony. White was unable to make a thorough search of the islands, due to the threat of a large storm and the growing impatience of a captain eager to turn south and hunt for Spanish treasure ships. By the time of the next attempt at Colonization in 1608 at Jamestown, the fate of the Lost Colonists had already become the stuff of legend.

One of these legends that has been told time and again on the North Carolina Outer Banks follows the sad, strange fate of that first English child born on New World soil.

According to the legend, Wanchese was fearful of the threat posed by the Englishmen and plotted with a nearby tribe to lead a sneak attack against the colonists. Fleeing for their lives, the colonists were gathered together by Manteo to escape and join his tribe. It was Elanor Dare, the mother of Virginia, who had the foresight to carve their destination in a tree, with her husband dead of an indian arrow at her feet and her precious child clutched into her arms.

But a good number of the colonists did escape, and they lived peacefully with the Croatan Indians. Young Virginia Dare grew to be a beautiful maiden, whose natural grace and virtue made her and example to all who knew her, colonists and Indians alike. As she became a young woman, she naturally attracted the attentions of suitors. Among theirse were the noble Okisko, a jealous sorcerer Chico.

Chico was the first to offer his hand to the young Virginia Dare, but the maiden refused his advanced. Enraged, he used his dark arts to curse the girl, and transformed her body into that of a snow-white deer.

The mysterious white doe was often seen on Roanoke, sadly walking through the now-overgrown and decaying houses built by her people. The story of this beautiful, elusive creature soon spread to all the tribes on the islands.

Now, Okisko, Virginia Dare's other suitor, figured that this white doe had shown up about the same time Virginia Dare had gone missing. Reckoning that his rival in love was a pretty hand at the dark arts, it didn't take him long to figure out that this white doe was his own beloved. Seeking the help of a friendly sorcerer, he learned how to make a magic arrowhead from the mother-of-pearl lining of an oyster shell that would undo the curse.

But Wanchese had also heard of the white doe, and in a bid to prove his worth as a warrior he vowed to kill the rare creature. To this end, he pledged to use a silver arrowhead given to him by Queen Elizabeth when he had been in England.

Okisko and Wanchese, unknown to one another, both tracked the white doe for weeks — one pledged to return her to her true form, the other tobring her death. And as it happened, they came upon the deer at the same hour of the same day, as she was drinking from a still, deep pool in the forest. Okisko saw his beloved, Wanchese saw his prey, and at the same time they both released their arrows. At the same time, both their arrows hit the heart of the white deer, Okisko's undoing the enchantment and Wanchese's bringing death.

Seeing what he had done, Wanchese fled the island in fear, but Okisko sadly carried the body of his beloved to the old fort built by the colonists and buried her at its center.

But soon by that pool where Virginia Dare had dies, a new vine sprung up, whose grapes were sweeter than any tasted before but whose juice was a red as blood.

This version of the legend of Virginia Dare is the one presented in Sallie Southall Cotten's 1901 book-length poem The White Doe, or the Fate of Virginia Dare. Sallie Southall Cotten was a remarkable woman, a strong promoter of women's rights and a leader in the women's club movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An organizer of the North Carolina exhibition at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, it was she who commissioned the beautifully carved Virginia Dare desk that illustrates scenes from the legend and is now on display at the Lost Colony Museum in Roanoke Festival Park. Ms. Cotten was also an early advocate of North Carolina's wine industry, and the addition of the scuppernong grapes colored by Virginia Dare's blood seems to be her unique contribution to the legend. This addition to the legend may also have something to do with the fact that copies of The White Doe were given away as promotions by Garrett & Company, manufacturers of Virginia Dare Wines. An earlier version of the legend, recorded in an 1880 travel article in the New York Times leaves out the grapes and even the Indians entirely and has the white doe being brought down by a silver bullet shot form a Virginia hunter's rifle.

Virginia Dare herself is something of a cultural signifier. For most of the early years of the republic, the story of the Lost Colony was overshadowed by stories of Plymouth Plantation, but the story of a white child growing up in primordial splendor among friendly Indians seemed to suit the Romantic sensibility of the later 19th century, and so the icon of the blonde-haired Virginia Dare and her tragically beautiful death was born. Lately, Virginia Dare has been taken up again as a symbol, this time unfortunately by anti-immigration groups, on whom the irony of using the first immigrant child to be born on American soil as a symbol of a closed-border policy seems to be lost.

While often cited as an Indian legend, the white doe seems to have its roots in English folklore. White deer are common in English legends and often used as symbols of Christian virtue. A similar story of a young girl transformed into a white deer can be found in Yorkshire, where it formed the basis for Wordsworth's poem The White Deer of Rylstone.