A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588)


A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, by Thomas Hariot, was the first book about North America to be produced by an Englishman who had actually visited the continent. First published in 1588 and reprinted first by Richard Hakluyt (the younger) and then by Theodor de Bry, Hariot’s report documented his trip to Roanoke Island off the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina from 1585 to 1586. With its descriptions of the region’s flora and fauna, along with the Native Americans who lived there, A briefe and true report came to be one of the most important texts produced in relation to the beginnings of English settlement in the Americas. The de Bry editions included engravings of images by John White, who had accompanied Hariot and the 600 other colonists. Together, Hariot’s text and White’s images played a crucial role in encouraging English investors to continue their colonial endeavors in the New World, and thus led directly to the beginnings of English settlement in Virginia.

Sir Walter Raleigh

Hariot was born around 1560 and graduated from Oxford University in 1580. A mathematician with broad intellectual interests, he was intrigued by the prospect of unexplored lands across the Atlantic Ocean and joined Walter Raleigh at his Durham House estate, where he lectured on open-ocean navigation. During the winter of 1584–1585, Hariot learned some elements of the Algonquian language from two Native Americans, Manteo and Wanchese, who were brought back from an expedition to Roanoke Island in 1584.

While some scholars believe it’s possible that Hariot joined that 1584 expedition, he certainly was along when Sir Richard Grenville and 600 or so colonists arrived at Roanoke on June 26, 1585. Hariot and the expedition artist John White explored and mapped the area around Roanoke, carrying out Raleigh’s request that they present him with both textual and visual depictions of the settlement and its surroundings. During the winter of 1585–1586, Hariot or White (or both) accompanied a group of English colonists north to the Chesapeake Bay, where they encountered the Virginia Indians of Tsenacomoco.

Although Raleigh was principally interested in the types of commodities, particularly potentially valuable ones, available in the Virginia colony, he also charged Hariot and White with representing the exotic local flora and fauna, as well as the appearance, character, and practices of the Indians they met. Hariot’s writings, in partnership with White’s delicate but vivid watercolor paintings, depict numerous aspects of the Indians’ lives and culture, including their bodies and clothing; their diets; the layouts of their homes and towns; their religious practices; their methods of agriculture, fishing, hunting, and boat-building; and the way in which they waged war upon their enemies. Taken in combination, Hariot’s words and White’s images presented the

Theire sitting at meate

New World as simultaneously exotic and reassuring to English readers. Virginia, in their description, was a land of lush vegetation and amicable natives, and thus was an ideal site for continued efforts at colonization, despite this initial effort’s lack of success.

Hariot, White, and their fellow colonists abandoned the Roanoke settlement for England in 1586, bringing with them Hariot’s notebooks and White’s watercolors. In 1588, the first edition of what became known as A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, presumably composed by Hariot from his notes throughout the year 1587, was published as a small volume, devoid of illustrations, and attracting relatively little notice. The following year, however, Hariot’s text gained a broader readership when it appeared in the first edition of The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation, a collection of accounts compiled by Richard Hakluyt (the younger). It was published again in Hakluyt’s second edition (1598–1600). Then, in 1590, the Flemish printer Theodor de Bry included both Hariot’s text and White’s images—transformed by de Bry into copperplate engravings—in the first edition of his own collection, Grand and petit voyages. Published in English, French, German, and Latin, de Bry’s Grand and petit voyages went through seventeen editions between 1590 and 1620, and many elaborate copies were commissioned by wealthy patrons across Europe who valued the books both as sources of information and as precious art objects. Readers considered the engravings—particularly those that depicted the bodies, clothing, and daily life of the Indians—to be especially fascinating. Although they described only the inhabitants of the region around the Roanoke settlement, they soon came to represent all indigenous Americans in the minds of many early modern western European readers.

Regulorum aut Principum in Virginia typus (An example of the Rulers or Chiefs in Virginia)

The reprinting of Hariot’s text in both the Hakluyt and the de Bry compendia had a seismic effect upon its readers, especially those Englishmen interested in the nation’s colonial ventures. By the time Hariot’s book had reached a wide audience, the failure of the so-called Lost Colony of Roanoke, led by John White, had become common knowledge within cosmopolitan circles. While Hariot’s optimistic predictions of a highly fertile land populated by welcoming natives had not been borne out, the promise of a “new found land of Virginia” remained alluring and encouraged influential Englishmen to continue their efforts to found a permanent settlement in North America. According to the historian James Horn, Hariot “had crafted a coherent argument in favor of colonization and described the means by which colonies would benefit their sponsors, settlers, and the nation,” and it was this argument that would, within a few decades, lead to the landing at Jamestown.

April 9, 1585
Five ships and two smaller pinnaces along with 600 men set sail from Plymouth, England, for Roanoke Island, along the present-day Outer Banks of North Carolina. Sir Richard Grenville commands the flagship Tiger, which is piloted by Simon Fernandes. John White, Thomas Hariot, and the Indians Manteo and Wanchese are also present.
June 1585
Late in the month, an expedition of English colonists that includes the artist John White and the mathematician Thomas Hariot arrives at Roanoke Island off the coast of present-day North Carolina.
August 1585
Sir Richard Grenville and Thomas Cavendish, the two leaders of an expedition of English colonists settled on Roanoke Island off the coast of present-day North Carolina, return to England. They leave Ralph Lane to serve as governor.
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.
February—March 1586
A group of English colonists that includes the artist John White and the mathematician Thomas Hariot returns to Roanoke Island from an exploratory trip north to the Chesapeake Bay and inland along the Elizabeth and Nansemond rivers. The trip was launched the previous fall.
Thomas Hariot, John White, and their fellow colonists abandon the Roanoke settlement for England, bringing with them Hariot's notebooks and White's watercolors.
After meeting the Flemish engraver Theodor de Bry in London, Richard Hakluyt (the younger) assists him in assembling an illustrated, multilingual edition of Thomas Hariot's account of the Roanoke colony, A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, published in 1590.
Thomas Hariot publishes in England a small octavo edition of A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia that serves as propaganda for Raleigh's 1587 colony.
Theodor de Bry's edition of Thomas Hariot's A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, which features etchings based on John White's watercolors and maps, is published in Frankfort, Germany, as the first book in de Bry's America series.
  • Fox, Robert, ed. Thomas Harriot: An Elizabethan Man of Science. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2000.
  • Horn, James. A Land As God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America. New York: Basic Books, 2005.
  • Horn, James. A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. The Jamestown Project. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony. Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1984.
  • Miller, Lee. Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000.
  • Quinn, D. B. The Roanoke Voyages, 1584–1590. London: The Hakluyt Society, 1955.
  • Sheehan, Bernard. Savagism and Civility: Indians and Englishmen in Colonial Virginia. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
  • Sloan, Kim. A New World: England’s First View of America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Stick, David. Roanoke Island: The Beginnings of English America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.
APA Citation:
Zacek, Natalie. A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/a-briefe-and-true-report-of-the-new-found-land-of-virginia-1588.
MLA Citation:
Zacek, Natalie. "A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 12 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 08
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.