While the exact fate of the Lost Colony is unknown, most historians agree that the chances of Virginia Dare having been transformed into a deer are vanishingly small. But the legend of Virginia Dare does represent a unique combination of a literary tradition that was imported to the New World from England, along with some uniquely American advertising showmanship.
The story of Virginia Dare's transformation into a deer seems to have been first told in the late 19th Century. The earliest versions of the story, such as the one recorded in an 1880 travel article in the New York Times, leave out the grapes and even the Indians entirely. In these versions, Virginia Dare is a deer with a remarkably long lifespan, and is eventually brought down by a silver bullet shot form a Virginia hunter's rifle in the 19th Century.
A vintage postcard of the amphitheater on Roanoke Island where The Lost Colony drama is performed.
But these first versions of the story are already drawing from an established literary tradition. The White deer is a common motif in English literary legends and is often used as a symbol 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.
The author of the most famous version of the Virginia Dare story was certainly aware of this tradition. This is the version of the story whose summary you've just read, and which comes from 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.
Sallie Southall Cotten and the cover of The White Doe
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 was her contribution to the legend. This was probably because The White Doe was written to sell scuppernong wine.
Before prohibition, North Carolina was one of the leading wine manufacturing states in the country, an industry that is now only slowly creeping back to being an important one for the state. The leading light in this industry wad Garrett & Company, whose line of scuppernong wines were among the most popular blends of wine in America. That line was called Virginia Dare wines.
Virginia Dare as pictured in the frontispiece of The White Doe
Distributing Cotten's book was part of an innovative and aggressive marketing campaign by Garret & Company to promote those scuppernong blends named for the lost colonist. Garret & Co. wanted to build the brand recognition for their sweet wines, as well as expand the appeal of their wines to women. They thought that a romantic, patriotic story was just the thing to encourage women to drink more cheap wine, and so they commissioned the poem from Ms. Cotten and gave the book away with bottles of their wine. Tying the legend of Virginia Dare in with a romantic origin myth for the scuppernong grape was entirely Sallie Southall Cotten's invention. As for the poem itself, while Cotten's style might been seen as stilted to modern eyes, the poem could probably easily hold its own against any other book-length poems advertising wine.
Ms. Cotten's legend has outlasted the memory of its origins as an advertising campaign, and even outlasted the wine itself. Although Virginia Dare wines were the first wines advertised on radio, and the tagline in their advertisements, "Say it again — Virgina Dare," was heard often enough during the 1920s to become one of the first famous radio catchphrases, prohibition was a blow form which Garet & Company never recovered.
Virginia Dare as pictured on the label of Virginia Dare Wines. An unsubstantiated rumor names a young Marilyn Monroe as the model.
When the ban on alcohol sales was lifted in 1929, Virginia Dare wines were the first American-made wines that were once again commercially available. But the company never regained its former glory. Garret & Company folded in the 1950s. But some of the last bottles of Virginia Dare wine made in the late 1940s have a possible connection to another, very different, American legend. These bottles are a much sought-after item by collectors, due to unverified rumors that the model posing for the portrait of Virginia Dare on the label was a young Marilyn Monroe.