Who Was The First European Child Born in "Virginia"?

The first known English child to be born in Virginia was Virginia Dare, born in 1587 at the Roanoke Colony - which was in "Virginia" then, but is in North Carolina now.

Within the current boundaries of the state, Virginia Laydon was the first English child known to have been born in Virginia. She was the daughter of John Laydon and Anne Burras. Anne Burras was the maidservant to Mistress Forrest, and together they were the first two women to arrive at Jamestown. Anne Burras married John Layden in December, 1608, shortly after her arrival.1

No women were included in the first expedition sent by the Virginia (London) Company to establish Jamestown in 1607. Men were perceived as the most capable colonists - they could explore, seeking mines or new pathways to China. Women were not recognized as essential members of the colony until late in the company's management of Virginia. Only a few other women arrived before 1619, when the Virginia Company consciously sought to make Virginia a more attractive colony for long-term settlement by sending prospective wives to Jamestown.

Only a few English colonists married Native Americans, most notable John Rolfe marrying Pocahontas in 1614. While sexual relations between the colonists and the Algonquians may have occurred often, and the English permitted the Indians to enter the colonial houses freely until the uprising in 1622, formal acceptance of Native Americans into colonial Virginia society was extremely rare. A "population pyramid" displaying age and gender for the early colony would not resemble the culture in England, and the absence of women may explain why some colonists returned to England as soon as they had a chance.

The gender imbalance of the colony indicates that the Virginia Company did not intend to establish an agricultural community initially. Jamestown was planned to be an outpost of men, and the Virginia Company did not try to create a parallel society on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The English understood the role of women in a colonial settlement, before deciding in 1606 to send just men to Jamestown on the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery. Of approximately 120 colonists who arrived at Roanoke Island in 1587, 17 were women and:2

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.

In 1619, the Virginia Company realized that tobacco culture could make a profit. As part of a new strategy, the company sent women to Virginia and started to convert its outpost into a community, but it was too late. Failure to establish a society that could make a profit, or even defend the colony in 1622, cost the company its charter in 1624.

location of Roanoke Colony on White-De Bry Map of Virginia
location of Roanoke Colony on White-De Bry Map of Virginia,
from Thomas Hariot's A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590) (note that "west" rather than "north" is at the top of the map)
Source: Library of Congress

Pre-1970's textbooks on Virginia history may refer to Virginia Dare as the "first child" born in the New World. Such an English-centric perspective completely ignores the fact that Native American children had been born for 10-15,000 years in the New World.

The Vikings created the first European settlements in North America. The Saga of the Greenlanders describes how 60 men and 5 women sailed from Greenland to somewhere between Cape Cod-Newfoundland. The colony lasted only three years before everyone returned to Greenland, but Snorri Thorfinnsson (the son of Thorfinnr and Gudridr) was born during that time. His birth occurred between 1005–13 AD, which is nearly 600 years before Virginia Dare arrived.3

A narrower claim that "Virginia Dare was the first modern European child born in the boundaries of the modern United States" assumes incorrectly that no children were born in the Spanish settlements established in the 1500's. Martín de Arguelles Jr. was born in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1566. He was 21 years old before Virginia Dare was born at Roanoke Island.4

Even the claim that Virginia Dare was the first English child assumes no English sailor ever went onshore and fathered a child with a Native American before the colonists arrived. English sailors along the Atlantic Ocean coastline were rare before 1584, but there is no reason to assume that sailors were celibate.

The settlement of Virginia by the English is often presented as a conquest tale, a story of righteous and modern European colonists replacing technologically-backward, morally-challenged occupants who lacked official right to the land. Claims regarding the "first child born in Virginia" and the "First Families of Virginia" often reflect the racial attitudes of the 1800's, and fail to consider the Native Americans, or the Spanish and other nationalities who set foot on "Virginia" long before Jamestown was built starting in 1607.



1. "Heroines of Virginia," The William and Mary Quarterly, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Vol. 15, No. 1 (July 1906), p.39, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1915736 (last checked July 2, 2014)
2. "The Women of the Lost Colony," Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/fora/historyculture/women.htm (last checked July 2, 2014)
3. T. J. Oleson, "SSnorri Thorfinnsson," in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/snorri_thorfinnsson_1E.html (last checked July 2, 2014)
4. "Firsts," Boca Raton News, July 4, 1971, http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1291&dat=19710704&id=5vdTAAAAIBAJ&sjid=KI0DAAAAIBAJ&pg=4179,227424 (last checked July 2, 2014)
romantic imagery surrounding Virginia Dare is unconstrained by the few facts documenting her life
romantic imagery surrounding Virginia Dare is unconstrained by the few facts documenting her life
Source: Virginia Dare: a romance of the sixteenth centurys

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