Early Years and Education
Little is known about White's early years except that he might have come from the English Midlands or Cornwall. He married Thomasine Cooper in 1566 in Saint Martin, Ludgate, within sight of Saint Paul's Cathedral in the City of London; the couple had a son, Thomas, born April 27, 1567, who died in infancy. A daughter, Elinor, was christened in Saint Martin on May 9, 1568. She married Ananias Dare in Saint Clement Danes, Westminster, on June 24, 1583.
The details of White's education are implied in the illustrations he produced at Roanoke. For instance, he must have been familiar with the traditions of miniature portraiture, or limning, painting small portraits of the wealthy and powerful that included paraphernalia indicating the subject's rank. Several of his illustrations of Virginia Indians were posed with the subject, hand on hip, turned toward his pointed toe, in the Hapsburg posture common in the work of Nicholas Hilliard, who was the queen's favorite limner. White also must have been familiar with the costume tradition, which emphasized the native, status-marking clothes of foreigners. One of the tradition's primary practitioners, Lucas de Heere of Ghent, had fled the French Inquisition and was living in England. With the artists Nicolas de Nicolay and Abraham de Bruyn, de Heere cultivated an interest in geography and the accurate portrayal of national costumes, and he published his illustrations in widely popular books. White's unpublished costumed figures include illustrations of Indians from the areas around Roanoke as well as people from other parts of the world and suggest that he intended to produce a book similar to de Heere's.
After a winter during which White and Hariot learned about the Algonquian language and culture from Wanchese and Manteo, the second Roanoke voyage weighed anchor in April 1585, again from Plymouth. From his flagship Tiger, Sir Richard Grenville commanded about 600 colonists and crew, half of whom were military men. Fernandes again served as chief pilot, and White and Hariot were charged with drawing and mapping the peoples and land they encountered.
Although relations with the local Indians had been mostly friendly at first, they deteriorated as the military men, dealing with persistent drought conditions, struggled to feed themselves. During the winter of 1585–1586, White and Hariot joined a group that sailed north into the Chesapeake Bay. (Historians disagree over whether both White and Hariot or just one of them joined the expedition.) They visited a number of Algonquian towns there, including Skicoak, capital of the Chesapeake Indians, before returning to Roanoke in the spring. During the summer, a dispute with the Roanoke Indians provoked Lane to storm their town of Dasemunkepeuc, where his men killed and beheaded the weroance Pemisapan (formerly Wingina). When Sir Francis Drake arrived unexpectedly with provisions in June, his ships were scattered by a hurricane, and Lane decided to abandon the colony.
The Roanoke Illustrations
White's surviving illustrations provide a detailed account of Indian life informed by the artist's European training and cultural expectations. Often posing his subjects in the Hapsburg style, White drew a warrior decorated in body paint and holding a bow, and a chief looking to his right and with one arm akimbo. White also captured Virginia Indian cultural activities, such as a couple sitting on a mat eating, a group of men and women seated around a fire, and four men illustrating the process of making a canoe. White's unusual talent for rendering the appearance of Indians can be seen when his original drawings are compared with de Bry's later etchings. In his illustration of Indians dancing in a circle around a series of posts, White records some of the Indians' postures and gestures that struck him as unusual. When de Bry etched the same picture, he Europeanized Indian features and replaced the three Indians awkwardly grappling with each other in the center of the circle with the three graces of Greek mythology—the goddesses of joy, charm, and beauty.
Besides creating portraits and scenes of Indian life, White worked with Hariot, who did the surveying, to produce a series of highly accurate maps. His manuscript map of the Outer Banks was the basis for de Bry's impressive etching and proved useful to multiple audiences. For colonists, traders, and explorers, it located the major Indian villages of the region, and for pilots, the deadly shoal waters. It also identified trees that could be harvested for naval supplies and mountains that hinted at the possibility of gold and copper. Additionally, "The arrival of the Englishemen [sic] in Virginia," a map published by de Bry but whose original is lost, presents a tight view of Roanoke Island and emphasizes the danger of the shallows around the barrier isles by depicting five foundered ships.
Finally, White compiled drawings of plants, land animals, fish, and insects done mostly in Mosquetal but also in Virginia. While many of these pictures, collected at the British Museum, are in White's hand, others are related to his drawings but produced by another artist. A group of Virginia bird illustrations was produced by a third person and based on lost White originals. Together they constitute an important but largely unrecognized contribution to the natural history of Virginia.
The Lost Colony (1587)
The colonists decided that one of them should return to England to inform Raleigh of the change in location and to collect additional supplies and colonists, especially women. After much debate, and despite the fact that any adult could have done the job, White went back himself, leaving his daughter and her newborn daughter, Virginia, behind. It was surprising given that White was one of the few colonists with actual experience in Virginia, including detailed knowledge of the region and its peoples. He should have been considered indispensable, but a sizeable group of colonists apparently were happy to see him leave—another sign, perhaps, of his weakness as a leader.
In March 1588, Grenville prepared to lead a substantial fleet of ships to both attack the Spanish in the Caribbean and to resupply Roanoke, but he was diverted to Plymouth to battle the Spanish Armada. The next month, White and a small group of additional colonists boarded two smaller vessels, the Brave and the Roe, but an attack by a French ship, which left White wounded, forced them to turn back. Finally, in 1590, White managed to join a fleet of privateers willing to take him and a load of supplies to Roanoke. They sailed in March, attempting, with some success, to steal prizes from the Spanish on their way.
On August 18, a small party, including White, sailed up the Roanoke Sound, searching for the English colonists. (It was Virginia Dare's third birthday.) As White later related in his report, the English, after finding a wildfire burning, made their way to Roanoke Island, where they discovered fresh Indian footprints. The party also found carved in a tree the letters "CRO" without a cross. (He and the colonists earlier had agreed that such a sign would be used to indicate distress.) Farther inland, the island's houses had been torn down and replaced with a palisade of trees that formed a fort-like structure. The word "CROATOAN" had been carved into one of the main posts, again without a cross. Croatoan was the island home of Manteo's friendly tribe, and White assumed that at least some of the colonists had relocated there. Meanwhile, his left-behind sea trunks, filled with armor, books, and maps, had been pilfered by the Indians and ruined by the elements.
After a storm forced the English to return to their ships, White convinced two captains to sail to Croatoan the next morning to search for the lost colonists. But one ship lost her anchor and almost ran aground while the captain of the other ship, Abraham Cocke, convinced the always-pliable White to head for the Caribbean instead. There, Cocke and his men joined a group of English privateers, and White never returned to Roanoke. He died three years later, either in England or on one of Raleigh's Irish estates.
1566 - John White marries Thomasine Cooper in St. Martin, Ludgate, within sight of St. Paul's Cathedral in the City of London.
1567–1577 - John White possibly serves as an artist attached to Martin Frobisher's expedition to Greenland in search of the Northwest Passage to Cathay, or China. He produces skillful drawings of the native Inuit people.
May 9, 1568 - Elinor White, born to John and Thomasine White, is christened at St. Martin, Ludgate, near St. Paul's Cathedral in the City of London.
1580 - Suggesting his significant standing as an artist, John White is listed as a member of the Painters-Stainers Company of London, a trade guild.
June 24, 1583 - Elinor White marries Ananias Dare in St. Clement Danes, Westminster.
Mid-August 1584 - The English exploration party led by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe sails for England, taking along two high-ranking Algonquian-speaking Indians, Wanchese and Manteo.
October–November 1585 - An expedition of Roanoke colonists, likely led by Philip Amadas, departs for the Chesapeake Bay, eventually visiting the Chesapeakes' capital of Skicoak and several villages on the Eastern Shore. It is unclear whether one or both of John White and Thomas Hariot go along.
June 8, 1586 - A fleet of twenty-three ships led by Sir Francis Drake, which had been harassing the Spanish in the West Indies and Florida, arrives at the Outer Banks to resupply the colonists at Roanoke Island. A three-day hurricane scatters the ships, and Ralph Lane decides to abandon the colony.
August 27, 1587 - John White sails for England from the colony at Roanoke Island, leaving behind 117 settlers, including his daughter and granddaughter. He will never see them again.
April 22, 1588 - Two small ships, the Brave and the Roe, plus John White and fifteen settlers, sail from Bideford, England, on a mission to resupply the English colony at Roanoke Island. The two ships are separated and, after a fight with the French, are forced to return to England.
October 1590 - After being unable to find the 117 colonists he left at Roanoke Island three years before, John White returns to England. He will never see his daughter or granddaughter again.
1593 - John White dies, either in England or on one of Sir Walter Raleigh's estates in Ireland.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Moran, M. G. John White (d. 1593). (2014, June 5). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/White_John_d_1593.
- MLA Citation:
Moran, Michael G. "John White (d. 1593)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 5 Jun. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: May 3, 2011 | Last modified: June 5, 2014
Contributed by Michael G. Moran, a professor of English at the University of Georgia.