Virginia Dare’s 350th birthday celebration on August 18, 1937, was a historic milestone that not only captured President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attention but also set the stage for the country’s most long-lasting outdoor drama.
By all accounts, Virginia Dare was the first English child born in the New World on August 18, 1587. More than four centuries later it’s still an Outer Banks tradition to celebrate her historic birth every August 18.
This tradition began rather humbly in 1894 when the Roanoke Colony Memorial Association held a small inaugural meeting and declared that their annual stockholders’ meetings would take place exclusively on August 18. But people became increasingly interested in this idea over the next few decades, and the momentum eventually spurred a number of elaborate plans concerning the 1937 celebrations — the year that would mark Virginia Dare’s 350th birthday.
To commemorate this milestone, Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Paul Green was commissioned to write a play about the first permanent English settlers. Green named it The Lost Colony: A Symphonic Drama of American History, and his outdoor drama debuted on July 4, 1937, at the newly constructed Waterside Theatre on Roanoke Island.
In a few short months President Franklin D. Roosevelt would become one of its most famous audience members. As the guest of honor for the 350th Virginia Dare Day anniversary celebrations, Roosevelt arrived in Elizabeth City by rail on the morning of August 18 before setting sail on a Coast Guard cutter for the rest of his journey to Manteo.
In Manteo thousands of people reportedly gathered at Fort Raleigh to hear him give a speech, which included an opening announcement that he had signed a bill authorizing the creation of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore the afternoon before.
After Roosevelt’s short speech, he spent the afternoon at a private cottage in Nags Head before returning to Roanoke Island for that evening’s performance of The Lost Colony. Joining him at the drama that night were more than 2,000 guests, many of whom had to stand. Once the whirlwind day was over, the president left without further ceremony, though many locals who were awed by his presence cherished the opportunity to talk for decades about the day the president came to the Outer Banks.
Green’s play was another matter entirely. While it was initially funded in part by Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to counteract the economic impacts of the Great Depression — and was only expected to last that one summer season, no less — its immediate popularity did not escape attention. Though the play had to be suspended for several years during World War II, The Lost Colony will celebrate its 80th anniversary season in 2017, making it the longest-running outdoor drama in the country.
Even more impressively, this year marked the 429th anniversary of Virginia Dare’s birth, and Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, The Elizabethan Gardens and The Lost Colony celebrated the day in grand style, continuing a 79-year tradition.
Research assistance for this article came from the Outer Banks History Center, a regional archives and research library of the State Archives of North Carolina. In 2016 the History Center Gallery in Manteo presents “Explore Your Outer Banks Parks: Celebrating a Century of the National Park Service.”
Take Your Seat Now
In an effort to keep The Lost Colony continuing for future generations, Roanoke Island Historical Association is offering endowed seats in Waterside Theatre. For $250 you can get an engraved inscription on a seat in the theater and help the show go on. For information go to thelostcolony.org/contribute/seatcampaign/ or call 252-473-2127