The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> History of Drawing
John White

artist and illustrator responsible for the earliest visual record by an Englishman of the flora, fauna, and people of the New World, as well as the grandfather of the first child born in America

Virtually nothing is known about John White's life, except that he appears to have spent most of it engaged in work for Sir Walter Raleigh, chief financier of England's earliest attempts to colonize what is now Virginia. It is also known that he resided, at least for a time, on one of Raleigh's estates in Ireland. There is some evidence that he sailed with Martin Frobisher, who explored the Arctic in 1577, during which expedition he created detailed pictures of the Eskimos and their lifestyles.

By the early 1580's White was a regular fixture on expeditions to Virginia, charged with drawing the flora, fauna and people of the region, as well as with making maps. In 1585 he was a part of an expedition led by Sir Richard Grenville and Ralph Lane. His drawings of Indian villages and maps of the Atlantic Coast around Chesapeake Bay were subsequently used to illustrate A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, a scientific study of the region published by Thomas Harriot, who had also been a part of the expedition.

White's map of Virginia and the Southern coast
White's map of Virginia and the Southern coast

painting of a Native American by White
painting of a Native American

On January 7, 1587, the British Parliament incorporated the "Cittie of Raleigh in Virginia," with John White and twelve assistants as the governing body. Three ships, one of which carried White, left England on May 8, and arrived off the Outer Banks on July 22; the colonists subsequently made their way to Roanoke Island, where they set about establishing a settlement. On August 25, 1587, White's daughter, Elinor White Dare, gave birth to Virginia, who thus became the first English child to be born in the New World.

On August 25, 1587, White reboarded one of the ships that had borne the colonists to the New World and set sail back to England to acquire supplies. Unfortunately, England had gone to war with Spain while he was away, and White was unable to acquire another ship for three years. By the time he finally got back to Roanoke Island, on August 18, 1590, the entire settlement, including his granddaughter, was gone. Aside from the word "CROATOAN" being carved into a tree, no trace of the colony was ever found, and White returned to England on October 24. How John White spent the rest of his life is unknown. The last time he was heard from was in a letter to Richard Hakluyt that was written from his home in Ireland and dated February 4, 1593.

Many of John White's drawings and paintings of Virginia and surrounding region were reprinted in America 1585; The Complete Drawings of John White by Paul Hulton, which was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1984.

See Also

Sir Walter Raleigh
Martin Frobisher
Richard Hakluyt

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> History of Drawing

This page was last updated on 08/17/2018.