John White (d. 1593)


John White was an English artist who in 1585 accompanied a failed colonizing expedition to Roanoke Island in present-day North Carolina and who, in 1587, served as governor of a second failed expedition, which came to be known as the Lost Colony. As an artist attached to the first group of colonists, White produced watercolor portraits of Virginia Indians and scenes of their lives and activities. He rendered the local flora and fauna and, using the English polymath Thomas Hariot as a surveyor, created detailed maps of the North American coastline. He also joined Hariot and others on an exploration of the Chesapeake Bay and made contact there with the Chesapeake Indians. Many of White’s paintings were published, sometimes in altered form, by Theodor de Bry as etchings in Hariot’s illustrated edition of A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590). They are the most accurate visual record of the New World by an artist of his generation. After the first colony failed, White led a second, which was intended for the Chesapeake but which settled again at Roanoke. The colonists included White’s daughter, Elinor White Dare, who gave birth to Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America. A poor and unpopular leader, White agreed to be a messenger back to England to inform the colony’s backers of the location change and a need for new supplies. Waylaid by the Spanish Armada, he did not return until 1590; the colonists had disappeared. White died three years later.

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.

Sir Walter Raleigh

In 1576–1577, after a period spent studying art, White may have participated in one of several expeditions to Greenland led by Martin Frobisher, an Englishman searching for the Northwest Passage. European explorers and colonizers routinely hired artists to create a visual record of the New World, and White’s several illustrations of the Inuit people were skilled enough to recommend him to Walter Raleigh, who, beginning in 1583, lived in Durham House, a mansion on the Thames River granted him by Queen Elizabeth. There, with Thomas Hariot, Richard Hakluyt (the younger), and John Dee, Raleigh planned a series of ambitious voyages designed to establish a permanent English colony, one that would serve as a haven for English privateers, a source of gold and silver, and an opportunity to Christianize the natives. If, as seems possible, Raleigh invited White to Durham House, then he may have met there and received instruction from Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, a Huguenot, or French Protestant, who had accompanied René Laudonnière to Florida in 1564 as a recording artist.

The manner of their attire.

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.

Roanoke (1584–1586)

Thomas Hariot

In 1593, White wrote a letter to his friend Hakluyt from one of Raleigh’s estates in Ireland in which he recalled that he had made, in all, five voyages to North America in his lifetime. Based on this evidence, it is likely that he accompanied the first Roanoke voyage, which launched from Plymouth, England, in April 1584, and was charged with reconnoitering the area ahead of a larger expedition the next year. With commanders Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, chief pilot Simon Fernandes, and, possibly, Thomas Hariot, the group landed at the Outer Banks in July. There they made friendly contact with the Indians of Ossomocomuck, a region populated by various Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking groups. After about two months, the Englishmen sailed home accompanied by two high-ranking natives: Wanchese, an adviser to the Roanoke weroance, or chief, Wingina; and Manteo, son of the weroansqua, or female chief, of the Croatoan Indians, who lived on a barrier island.

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.

Plan of an Entrenchment Near Cape Rojo

On the way to Roanoke, Grenville’s Tiger stopped at Mosquetal in present-day Puerto Rico, where White painted the island’s flora and fauna and expertly depicted the temporary entrenchments built by Grenville’s men. The colonists arrived at the Outer Banks late in June but quickly lost most of their provisions when the Tiger ran aground. On July 11, Grenville led a party of sixty men on a weeklong trip to the mainland, visiting the towns of Pomeiooc, Aquascogoc, and Secotan, the first and last of which White painted in detail. At the end of August, after establishing camp at Roanoke Island, Grenville returned to England, leaving Ralph Lane in charge.

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

The watercolors that White produced during his yearlong voyage can be found in two sources: a collection of originals at the British Museum in London and the illustrated edition of Hariot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia. Hariot’s illustrated report, published by Theodor de Bry in 1590, includes etchings based on White originals, some of which were later lost. Many more of White’s illustrations were destroyed when, as the colonists deserted Virginia, Drake’s sailors threw overboard a chest containing his work.

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.

White also drew the villages of Pomeiooc and Secotan using a bird’s-eye perspective. The Secotan illustration includes the circle dance and shows not only the dancers but also two lines of people waiting to join the ceremony. The picture also illustrates corn growing in three stages, lending credence to Arthur Barlowe’s claim that the Roanokes grew three full crops of corn in a season.

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)

Anglorum in Virginiam aduentus (The arrival of the Englishemen [sic] in Virginia)

Walter Raleigh’s first attempt at colonizing Roanoke was a disaster. The colonists had found no quick sources of wealth and had made enemies of the Indians there. Even as he turned his attention to Ireland, Raleigh determined to make another attempt, but this time replacing the hot-headed and sometimes idle military men with laborers, craftsmen, farmers, and their families. They would pay their own way in exchange for land and they would work to make the colony self-sustaining. Rather than risk the ire of the Indians at Roanoke, not to mention the dangerously shallow coastal waters, Raleigh decided that the colony should settle near the Chesapeake Bay, an area that White and Hariot had explored in 1585. On January 7, 1587, Raleigh drew up a corporate charter, The Governor and Assistants of the Cittie of Raleigh in Virginea, and named White as the governor.

Baptism of Virginia Dare

Although he was a veteran of the 1584 and 1585 expeditions and for this one had recruited the colonists, White was a strange choice for governor. He had no leadership experience and possibly was born a commoner. (Some historians present evidence of a “gentle” birth.) To redress the latter problem, Raleigh granted him and other leaders coats-of-arms and designated them gentlemen. The problem of leadership remained, however. After the 117 colonists, among them White’s pregnant daughter, Elinor White Dare, and her husband, arrived at Roanoke Island in mid-July 1587, a dispute erupted between White and Simon Fernandes, who piloted the flagship Lion. As captain of the ship, White was charged with all major decisions and Fernandes with the daily operations of the vessel. White had directed Fernandes, on the way to the Chesapeake, to stop briefly at Roanoke in order to check on a contingent of fifteen soldiers left there by Grenville shortly after Lane and company’s departure. (The soldiers had since disappeared.) Now Fernandes insisted they stay at Roanoke. It was a telling sign of White’s lack of leadership that, in the end, he was forced to comply.

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.

John White marries Thomasine Cooper in Saint Martin, Ludgate, within sight of Saint Paul's Cathedral in the City of London.
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.
April 27, 1567
Thomas White is born to John and Thomasine White, but he dies in infancy.
May 9, 1568
Elinor White, born to John and Thomasine White, is christened at Saint Martin, Ludgate, near Saint Paul's Cathedral in the City of London.
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.
April 27, 1584
Under the aegis of Walter Raleigh, two ships (names unknown) leave Plymouth, England, for North America. One of the ships, weighing about 50 tons with about 45 soldiers and sailors, is commanded by Philip Amadas with Simon Fernandes as pilot. The other, a 30- to 40-ton pinnace, carries Captain Arthur Barlowe and about 30 men.
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.
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.
May 11, 1585
Having separated from the fleet's other ships in a storm off Portugal, Sir Richard Grenville and the flagship Tiger drop anchor at the island of Saint John's (present-day Puerto Rico), establishing a fortified camp at Mosquetal (present-day Guayanilla Bay). They stay for a few weeks, and John White paints the local flora and fauna.
June 26, 1585
About a week after sighting the American mainland, Sir Richard Grenville and the Tiger land at Wococon Island, one of the barrier islands of the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina.
June 29, 1585
The Tiger, commanded by Sir Richard Grenville and piloted by Simon Fernandes, runs aground trying to navigate an inlet near Wococon Island. Much of the cargo is lost, leaving the hundreds of colonists with only twenty days' worth of food.
July 11, 1585
Sir Richard Grenville leads a party of sixty men, including the Indian Manteo, on a weeklong trip to the mainland, where they visit the villages of Pomeiooc, Aquascogoc, and Secotan. John White paints the first and last of these, but a missing cup at Aquascogoc leads Philip Amadas to burn the town.
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
The English colonists return to Roanoke Island after their expedition to the Chesapeake Bay. In their absence, the Roanoke Indians have suffered from disease (brought by the English) and famine, straining relations with the remaining English.
June 1, 1586
Ralph Lane and twenty-six men, including the Indian Manteo, march into Dasemunkepeuc. Philip Amadas shoots the weroance Pemisapan, who pretends to be dead before fleeing into the woods. The colonist Edward Nugent gives chase and returns with the chief's head.
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.
January 7, 1587
Sir Walter Raleigh draws up a corporate charter, The Governor and Assistants of the Cittie of Raleigh in Virginea, for an English colony he plans to settle in the Chesapeake Bay. He names John White its governor.
May 8, 1587
Three ships and approximately 150 settlers and crew sail for America from Plymouth, England. John White is governor of the expedition that plans to stop off at Roanoke Island in present-day North Carolina before establishing the "Cittie of Raleigh" on the Chesapeake Bay.
July 22, 1587
After landing on the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina, John White and forty men sail to Roanoke Island to check on a garrison of soldiers left there the year before. They find only the bones of one of the men.
July 23, 1587
John White and his men travel to the north end of Roanoke Island in search of a garrison of fifteen soldiers left behind the year before. They find nothing.
August 18, 1587
Elinor White Dare gives birth to Virginia Dare on Roanoke Island. Elinor White Dare's father is the colony's governor, John White, and her husband, Ananias Dare, is one of White's advisers. The baby is the first born to English parents in North America.
August 21, 1587
Three ships are finished unloading and pilot Simon Fernandes is ready to set sail for England from the colony at Roanoke Island. First, however, the settlers need to designate a representative to accompany Fernandes with the mission of updating Sir Walter Raleigh on the colony. No one volunteers.
August 24, 1587
Virginia Dare, daughter of Elinor White Dare and Ananias Dare, is christened at the English colony on Roanoke Island.
August 25, 1587
The English colonists on Roanoke Island put in writing their request that their governor, John White, return to England as their representative in order to update Sir Walter Raleigh on the colony. They emphasize White's reluctance and their unanimity.
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.
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.
March 20, 1590
Four English privateering ships set sail from England on a mission to drop off John White at the English colony at Roanoke Island. White had left the colonists there three years ago and was delayed by the Spanish Armada; he returns with no passengers or supplies.
August 16, 1590
John White arrives back at the Outer Banks in an attempt to rejoin the English colonists at Roanoke Island, including his daughter and granddaughter. He has been gone for three years.
August 17, 1590
A storm sinks one of the ships anchored at the Outer Banks, killing the captain and six crewmen. The ships are there to drop off John White at the English colony at Roanoke Island after a three-year absence.
August 18, 1590
John White and a company of sailors go ashore at Roanoke Island. Hoping to be reunited with his granddaughter on her third birthday, White instead finds the colony abandoned. The word "CROATOAN" is carved into a post, suggesting the colonists may have relocated to that island.
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.
John White dies, either in England or on one of Sir Walter Raleigh's estates in Ireland.
  • Horn, James. A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
  • Hulton, Paul. America 1585: The Complete Drawings of John White. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony. Savage, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1984.
  • Moran, Michael G. Inventing Virginia: Sir Walter Raleigh and the Rhetoric of Colonization, 1584–1590. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2007.
  • Quinn, David Beers. The Roanoke Voyages 1584–1590: Documents to Illustrate the English Voyages to North America under the Patent Granted to Walter Raleigh in 1584. 2 vols. London: The Hakluyt Society, 1955.
  • Quinn, David Beers. Set Fair to Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584–1606. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.
APA Citation:
Moran, Michael. John White (d. 1593). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/white-john-d-1593.
MLA Citation:
Moran, Michael. "John White (d. 1593)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 30 May. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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