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John White


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John White (c. 1540 – c. 1606), was an English artist, and one of several early "Virginian" settlers who sailed with Richard Grenville in 1585 to the modern day coast of North Carolina. During this journey he made numerous famous drawings with watercolour of the landscape and native peoples they encountered

John White (c. 1540 – c. 1606), was an English artist, and one of several early "Virginian" settlers who sailed with Richard Grenville in 1585 to the modern day coast of North Carolina. During this journey he made numerous famous drawings with watercolour of the landscape and native peoples they encountered (right). These works are significant as they are much the most informative illustrations of a Native American society of the Eastern seaboard, and predate the first body of "discovery voyage art" created in the late eighteenth century by the artists who sailed with Captain James Cook. They were later engraved by Theodore de Bry and became widely known; all the surviving original paintings are now in the print room of the British Museum.

He returned to the place the English called Virginia with Sir Francis Drake in 1586. White, described as a "Gentleman of London," later became governor of the newly-established Roanoke Colony. In 1587 he led a band of settlers sent out by Sir Walter Raleigh under the authority of the Virginia Company; he subsequently returned to England, and when he got back to Roanoke in 1590 found the colony empty. He spent the rest of his life in England and Ireland.

Apart from his efforts to settle the eastern mid-Atlantic coast of North America, very little is known of the life of John White. There is a record in February 22, 1539 of a christening in the Church of St Margaret, London of a "John White" on that same day; but there is no proof this is the same person. White was sent by Sir Walter Raleigh as Sir Richard Grenville's artist-illustrator on his first voyage to the New World (1585-6); where he had trained, or what he had done before this is not known.

Governor and later life

Image:A Chief Herowans Wife.jpg
A wife of a chief of the Southern Algonquian Indians, late 1500s.

White and the colonists of the failed Roanoke Colony were some of the earliest to attempt a permanent English colony in America. White, as Governor, with thirteen others, were incorporated under the name of “The Governor and Assistants of the Cities of Raleigh of Virginia”.[1] He was the father of Eleanor Dare (née White), by whom the first English baby was born in the New World, White's granddaughter Virginia Dare. However, when the colony ran low on supplies the colonists requested that White return to England for provisions. His return to Roanoke was delayed by England's conflict with Spain and the Spanish Armada, and when he at last returned to Roanoke in August 1590 he found it deserted. Forced by bad weather to abandon the search of adjacent islands for the colonists, he returned to Plymouth, England on October 24 of that year. An Indian he brought back from Virginia, was left in Bideford.

Little is known of White's life after the failure of the Roanoke Colony. He lived in Plymouth, [2][3] and also owned a house at Newtown, Kylmore (Kilmore, County Cork), Ireland. He appears to have been in Ireland living on the estates of Sir Walter Raleigh, making maps of land for Raleigh's tenants. The last surviving document related to White is a letter he wrote from Ireland in 1593 to the publisher of the prints of his Roanoke drawings. However, a record from May 1606 that a Bridget White was appointed estate administrator for her brother "John White" may refer to him.



One of the De Bry engravings, which rather distort the original paintings

One of the De Bry engravings, which rather distort the original paintings

A Bridgett White was also the second wife of a Robert Wight (1578–1617) of Hareby, Lincolnshire, England whom he married on November 25, 1613 at Alford. As this Robert was also the son of an obscure John Wight (b. abt. 1552) and the father of an Elizabeth Wighte (1606–1671) who is sometimes thought to have been the ex-wife of Nathaniel Eaton (1610–1674), the first schoolmaster of Harvard College, Massachusetts; there is a possibility that Bridget White, the sister of John White the Governor of Roanoke Colony, and Bridgett White, the second wife of the same above-mentioned Robert Wight, are directly related to each other.

There is also a record of an Ann Barlow of Petersfield, Hampshire (died 1665), who was the second wife of a certain Josias White (1573–1622) of Hornchurch, Essex, son of a John White of Stanton St John, Oxfordshire (1540 – before September 30, 1618), who afterwards married a Francis Drake (1573–1634) of Walton-on-Thames, Surrey – the nephew of Sir Francis Drake (1540–1596) the famous explorer.[4] This Josias White was the grandson of another John White (died 1580) possibly connected to Dr Thomas White (1514–1588), Warden of New College, Oxford. As the name Barlow is associated with the initial discovery and mapping of the Virginia coast by Capt Arthur Barlowe (1550–1620) in 1584, and it was on Barlow's ship John White first sailed in on as the official illustrator of the New World, it is conceivable that Ann Barlow is directly connected to the first Governor of Roanoke, Virginia.



^ Queen’s College, Oxford, MSS 137](a). On the occasion he was granted arms with eight quarters. The 1st contained his new arms: Ermine, on a canton Gules, a fusil Argent. The 2nd contained the ancient arms of White of Truro. The remaining six quarters contained the arms of some of his “Assistants”. This marshalling, other than being unorthodox, produced minute detail unsuitable for the New World Tapestry canvas. Therefore White (ancient) of Truro is depicted (on Panel 3 of 1585 and Panel 5 of 1587).
^ as the will of his twin brother Robert White bequeathing him property in the city of Plymouth, referred to him as “of Plymouth”
^ Transcripts of Robert White’s will are in the same MSS [Queen’s College, Oxford, MSS 137]; and in the New World Tapestry Library (as is the New World Tapestry) at the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum, Bristol, England.
^ Sir Francis was the son of Edmund Drake and Mary Mylwaye [a probable relation to Sir Anthony Mildmay (1549–1617)] and grandson of John Drake and Margaret Cole. The above-mentioned nephew Francis Drake was the son of Richard Drake and Ursula Stafford, grandson of John Drake and Amy Grenville (1510–1577), and great-grandson of the same above-mentioned John Drake and Margaret Cole. Richard Grenville was the grand-nephew of Amy Grenville, the grandson of Richard Grenville, Amy's older brother. Some think they were related and others don't.



Primary sources

  • Charles Edward Banks, The Planters of the Commonwealth (1930, 1st ed. no. 668 of 758) p. 87 [ship's list of the Mary & John, sponsored by the Rev John White (1575–1648) of Dorchester and departed Plymouth on March 20, 1630]
  • Thomas Hariot, Voyages en Virginie et en Floride ... (1927 edition) Thomas Hariot(1560–1621)


Secondary sources

  • Frances Rose-Troup, John White, the Patriarch of Dorchester and the Founder of Massachusetts 1575 - 1648 (1930)
  • Paul Hope Hulton, America 1585: The Complete Drawings of John White (1984)
  • Arthur Wilmot Ackerman, Reverend John White of Dorchester...(1929)
  • Thomas Perrin Harrison, The First Water Colors of North American Birds (John White and Edward Topsell) (1964)
  • Thomas Hariot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Viginia (1590) [the complete 15 vol Theodor De Bry edition]
  • John Hill Wheeler, Historical Sketches of North Carolina, from 1584 to 1851, vols I – II (1851)
  • Kim Sloan and Joyce E. Chaplin (ed.s), A New World: England’s first view of America (2007 - ISBN 0714126500, British Museum Press, London), catalogue of an exhibition centred round White's drawings at the British Museum, 15 March – 17 June 2007

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