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400 Years of Coincidences: History Gets Real for Olivia Daniels ’19

Olivia Daniels standing next to Manteo sign
Olivia Daniels, whose dad is from Manteo, North Carolina, found a sign of home during her summer research in her mom’s hometown, Bideford, England.

If the early English settlers of the Lost Colony of Roanoke hadn't disappeared from recorded history four centuries ago, Olivia Daniels '19 would not be a history major at Davidson College today.

In fact, she would not exist at all.

But four centuries of "coincidental" historical threads lined up just right on both sides of the Atlantic for Daniels to a) be born and b) research the enduring mystery of those long-lost colonists.

Her own tale begins with theirs.

Elizabethan emigrants sailed from North Devon, England, for the New World in 1585, under the patronage of Sir Walter Raleigh. They established a colony on Roanoke Island, in the Outer Banks of what would become North Carolina.

Five years later, they vanished with little trace. All that remained was the word "Croatoan" carved into a tree, and by some accounts a skeleton or two. Time marched on, and memory of the settlers receded with the generations.

Flash forward four centuries.

In 1983, an American teenager named Billy met an English teenager named Sara. The fateful meeting occurred during a high-school trip from Manteo, North Carolina, a town located on Roanoke Island, to Bideford, a town in Devon County, England. Sara was running late, rushing down the school hallway from gymnastics; Billy and the visiting American group were standing in the same hallway waiting to meet the head of school.

Long story short and sweet: in time, this teenage meeting grew into romance, and the romance into Olivia Daniels' family.

Re-Match Made in Devon

The Lost Colony lives on in the popular imagination, a mystery that inspires speculation by visitors to the site and by those in the entertainment industry who capitalize on an enduring cultural fascination.

With her research, Daniels hoped to strip away some of the mystery and add to the factual narrative.

Daniels traveled to Bideford last summer, combining an Abernethy Grant with a job at a Devon newspaper. She set out to explore the "historical cultural memory" of the Lost Colony from the English perspective.

Working from her Bideford grandmother's house, she explored patterns, or the absence of them, in the fabric of history -- her own, and the Lost Colony of Roanoke's.

"I feel as though I've been called to enter the story myself, whether through publication or facilitation of more exchanges -- cultural, academic, geographical -- between the two places that I consider my homes," said Daniels, who was born in North Devon.

When she arrived in Bideford, Daniels discovered that most people just didn't know about Roanoke.

"The historical record and cultural memory are not the same thing," she said.

Billy and Sara Daniels in North Carolina in the 1980s
History in the making: Billy and Sara Daniels in North Carolina in the 1980s days of their transatlantic courtship.

The general lack of awareness in Bideford contrasted sharply with American boosterism and tourism around Roanoke. Most famous in North Carolina is the annual summer outdoor theatre production The Lost Colony, now in its 81st season on Roanoke Island.

"I think at first I discounted how old that event was in England," Daniels said, "and how much had happened there since."

She started digging.

In the archives at her summer newspaper job, she found a 1980s article about the "twinning" (as in "twin" cities) of Manteo and Bideford: The partnership was dubbed "A Match Made in Devon."

She wrote articles of her own, including a profile about a woman named Sadie Green, a "creative connector" with a passion for Manteo. They stay in touch.

She met a local entrepreneur whose firm researched the Lost Colony by coupling statistical projections of death on the high seas in 1585 with DNA testing in 2017.

She read a book, written by former Bideford mayor Andy Gabriel Powell, about Sir Richard Grenville, admiral of the fleet to Roanoke, who is better known for his role in England's confrontation with the Spanish Armada.

Daniels quizzed town clerks about meeting minutes from 2006, a fallow period in transatlantic relations since the towns' twinning in 1981. Apparently, relations soured in part because the Bideford mayor married an American heiress and moved away to South Carolina, leaving behind hard feelings.

Daniels visited the graveyard of Rawly, of the Algonquin tribe, who was brought back to England from that first expedition under Sir Walter Raleigh.

"He was the first Native American to be baptized and die on British soil," said Daniels. "I find this to be an interesting juxtaposition with Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America. While Dare is celebrated and remembered, little remains in the historical awareness of Rawly."

She learned about pottery styles from archaeological digs on the Carolina and Virginia coasts, and she watched "fictionalized documentaries" about Roanoke that still raise local historians' hackles today. Accounts of Blackbeard and the Wright Brothers make cameo appearances in her work.

Daniels even met Mr. John Dare, the head of school who had once greeted her dad's high school delegation that fateful day in 1983. Dare had at that time recently visited Roanoke, where his surname had caused a stir. While there is no proven relation to Virginia Dare, the latterday Dare recently underwent a DNA test, results pending.

Past Is Prologue

A postcard exchange display in Bideford, England
A postcard exchange display in Bideford, England. North Devon was home to many of the original sailors and settlers of North Carolina’s Lost Colony of Roanoke.

History is never finished. "Coincidental" threads of history continue lining up across the Atlantic as Daniels's growing network of contacts creates more social and cultural links between England and the Outer Banks. In May, she will share her findings in a presentation at the Roanoke Island Maritime Museum.

"What I've found so far is that slivers of the historical memory still exist in Bideford, but they are only surviving through the work of a select few people, in part due to financial restrictions," Daniels said.

"How can we harness the digital advancements that define our society today to shine light on one of the foundational stories of its origin? How does the past help us better understand our current politics around globalization and the exchange of culture?"

That broad, deep perspective is the foundation of Daniels' approach to historical scholarship.

As for the personal side of the story, Daniels reflects on the connections that form the tapestry of identity in her Abernethy Grant research report:

"I am privileged to have stood at Grenville's doorstep, knelt in Rawly's final resting place, and circumnavigated Roanoke Island, like the Dares likely did over 400 years prior. My family and my personal connections to both places and the historical legacy that links them are the remains of the original journey that permanently entwined my two home countries together," she writes.

"I can no longer remain outside the narrative."

John Syme