Touring The Elizabethan Gardens with John Morgan

This week I am on vacation in Nags Head, North Carolina. On Monday I had the opportunity to visit the Elizabethan Gardens on Roanoke Island. The garden is located adjacent to the site of the Lost Colony, the first English attempt at colonization of North America. The garden was constructed in the 1950s by the North Carolina Garden Club as a memorial for the Lost Colony. It is meant to represent what may have been constructed if the colony had succeeded.

The focal point of the garden is a sunken garden featuring an ancient Italian fountain and pool with balustrade, wellhead, sundial, birdbaths, stone steps and benches, dating back beyond the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Many of the features in the garden have amazing stories of their own. The front gates that once graced the French embassy in Washington, DC, but perhaps the one item with the most unique history is the statue of Virginia Dare.

History remembers Virginia Dare as the first child born of English parents in the New World. In August, 1585, twenty-two years before Jamestown, 108 Englishmen under the far-reaching hand of Sir Walter Raleigh, managed to sail into what is now called Roanoke Sound and came ashore on an island called Roanoke in what is now Dare County, North Carolina. Having found a safe harbor between the mainland and the Outer Banks, they chose an area covered with live oaks on Roanoke Island overlooking the Roanoke Sound as the site for the first English colony in North America. Later this group returned to England.

Two years later, Raleigh sent a second ship of colonists, this time including women and families. Several weeks after their arrival in July of 1587, Eleanor Dare gave birth August 18, 1587, to a baby girl who was named Virginia after Elizabeth I, England’s Virgin Queen. It was also a name befitting the first English child born in the wilderness of the New World.

Ten days after the birth of his grandchild Virginia Dare, John White, governor of the colony, returned with the ship to England to secure additional supplies. The colonists were left to fend for themselves without the unifying strength of their governor, without the additional supplies and adequate skills in how to deal with the wilderness of a strange and alien land; the various Indian tribes and the whims of nature in this area which vacillated from drought to hurricanes. 

Because England was at war with Spain and involved in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Governor John White could not return immediately with his ship of supplies. When he finally was able to return three years later in 1590, there was no trace of the colonists and no visible evidence of a struggle. On a post near the entrance to the settlement the bark had been peeled off and a single enigmatic word carved into the wood – CROATOAN. Possibly this referred to a nearby island of that name or the Croatan Indians who were considered friendly. There was no sight of a cross which had been the prearranged signal of distress. No trace has ever been found of these colonists in subsequent years.

In the 1840s Maria Louise Lander of Salem, Massachusetts, and American sculptor created the figure of a heroine, not from Greece or Rome, but from a haunting legend in her own country. Using a large pillar of white marble from the quarry of Carrara, Italy, Miss Lander began to chisel endless markings of this finely grained stone. After fourteen months of labor, she completed her statue and placed it aboard a sailing vessel en route to Boston. The vessel encountered a severe storm off the coast of Spain and was wrecked, sending its cargo to the bottom. Two years later the ship’s cargo was salvaged, including the statue of Virginia Dare, and Miss Lander was forced to buy back her statue which she restored to its original beauty and exhibited it in Boston where it was greatly admired. After that the statue was purchased in New York for $5,000 and brought to a studio which caught fire and Virginia Dare was again in danger of being destroyed but was saved by a pair of folding doors that were closed. The New York buyer died, the executors refused to confirm the sale, so the statue went back to Miss Lander.

Miss Lander decided to keep the statue until her death and will it the State of North Carolina. Three years after her death, in 1926, the statue was formally accepted by the State and exhibited in the Hall of History in Raleigh for all to admire its artistic beauty and form. But it became a controversial work of art, some not being able to see art in a half nude maiden clad in a fish net and complaints came to the Department of Archives and History that the statue was obscene. The fact that it was placed beneath the portraits of three Confederate Generals did not help either! After spending a few years in a basement, and hidden in buildings Virginia Dare finally made it to her birthplace on Roanoke Island.

The garden has an amazing history, and it is a beautiful place to visit. They also have a number of activities throughout the tourist season like Yoga in the garden, Tea with The Queen, and more! It is definitely worth checking out on you next visit to the Outer Banks.

John R. MorganComment