The Women of the Lost Colony

Although a matriarch sat on the throne of England, men dominated Elizabethan society. In Queen Elizabeth’s court, there was little opportunity for the advancement of women. However, compared to other women in Europe, English women enjoyed an unusual amount of freedom and control over their own lives. It was said that the English woman was a good match for the swashbuckling, adventurous Elizabethan man. Perhaps this is why seventeen women joined the 1587 colony to the New World that became known as the Lost Colony.

Ananias, Eleanor, and Virginia Dare

Ananias, Eleanor, and Virgina Dare

Vicki Wallace

Sir Walter Raleigh knew that self-sustaining family groups were necessary to establish a permanent English settlement in the New World and made sure that his 1587 colony included both women and children. However, other than their names, little is known about the seventeen women of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. One of the few well known female colonists was Eleanor White Dare. Eleanor was the daughter of John White, governor of the colony, and the wife of Ananias Dare, one of White’s assistants. Shortly after arriving on Roanoke Island, Eleanor gave birth to a daughter named Virginia, the first child born of English parents in the New World. She may have had little or no choice about coming to the New World. John White was trying to recruit families to move permanently to Virginia, and what better way to do this than by setting an example with his own family?

A scene from the play

Women working on nets during the play "The Lost Colony."

Roanoke Island Historical Association

It took a determined and dedicated woman to cope with life in the New World. Although little is known about the daily life of the colonists, a probable pattern can be determined. On Roanoke Island, the women were likely up before dawn collecting wood and preparing the cooking fires. Along with their own families, it is possible that the women looked after the needs of five or six men who were without families. They would collect water and Indian corn in order to make a porridge called “frumenty,” lead a prayer before the morning meal, and then send the men off to work. Before midday, water would be fetched to do the laundry. A midday meal would be prepared and taken to the men wherever they were working. Afternoons were filled with gardening, baking bread, mending clothing, and sewing garments. When the men returned in the evening with fish or game, the women cleaned and cooked them. The evening might entail settling disputes, nursing the ill with homemade herbal medicines, or singing and dancing.

If the 1587 colony had sustained itself, the women would have likely bared many children. In the sixteenth century, married women were expected to bear children for up to twenty-five years. Women would begin bearing children soon after they were married at age thirteen or fourteen. They would continue bearing children until their health mandated they stop, typically in their early forties. Women tended to have between eight and fifteen children, with half surviving less than one year. In the 1580s, the most practice female profession was midwifery.

Though little is known of these seventeen women brave women of the 1587 Lost Colony, we know they sacrificed their lives to follow a dream of a better life, helping to sow seeds for English colonization in the New World.

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