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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.