John White the Artist & Colonist: Paintings & Biography

Instructor: Matthew Hill
John White was a sixteenth-century English explorer, cartographer, and artist. In this lesson, you will learn about how he became associated with the Roanoke Colony and his legacy.

Roots of an Explorer

John White is synonymous with the 'lost colony' of Roanoke. More importantly, he was also an artist and his numerous sketches of Native Americans provide an early glimpse into people of early America.

White's early years are fairly obscure. He was born around 1540 in England and attended school at St. Martin Ludgate. In 1566 he married Tomasyn Cooper and they had two children--Tom and Eleanor. Common for the era, his son Tom died in infancy, but his daughter Eleanor later played a prominent role in the Roanoke colony.

White studied art in his early years and he impressed his peers enough to sail on one of English explorer Martin Frobisher's American voyages as an artist. They landed in Baffin Island, Canada, and also Greenland. White's service was invaluable as he created visual images of the Inuit Indians. His work was well received, and he was recommended to Sir Walter Raleigh for work on future expeditions. He came to know Raleigh well enough to live on one of his estates in Ireland.

John White: Watercolor of a Native American
John White Watercolor of a Native American

Expedition to Roanoke

Under Queen Elizabeth, the English tried several attempts to establish a colony in the New World. Key leaders such as Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Richard Grenville, and Richard Hakluyt planned and organized many of the voyages. So it was a major career boost for White to be introduced into this circle.

In 1585, Grenville and Ralph Lane led an expedition to Roanoke Island, which at the time was part of Virginia. White went along as an artist and mapmaker. He worked closely with the scientist Thomas Harriot in cataloguing and painting the plant life. His work was much appreciated both for its quality and detail. His map work proved valuable for later explorers and his imagery of Native American life later became the subject of books. After a year, Lane saw little prospect for economic development in Roanoke, and he returned home to England.

John White: Map of Roanoke
John White Map of Roanoke

Governor of Roanoke

White proved his worth, and in 1587 was chosen to head a new expedition to Roanoke. In this new capacity, he served as the colonial governor though it proved short-lived. In May, White departed with more than 100 passengers. The makeup of the crew was different than previous attempts. Unlike Lane's crew which was all male and mostly soldiers, White's crew was composed of farmers and craftsmen and more diversified with men, women, and children, which suggested plans to establish long-term roots. Not long after landing in 1587, White's daughter, Eleanor White Dare, gave birth to Virginia Dare, who was the first person of English descent born in the New World.

Unfortunately, resources were scarce and White left for England in August for new supplies. The situation worsened though when White returned in England. England was at war with Spain and Queen Elizabeth would not spare ships for commercial ventures. In fact, it took White three years to return to Roanoke. White's voyage was difficult, but he finally arrived in 1590 to find a completely deserted colony.

Image of the Baptism of Virginia Dare
Image of the Baptism of Virginia Dare

The Lost Colony

Known as the 'lost colony', the story of Roanoke is one of the great unsolved mysteries in American history. White's crew found one tree marked with the letters 'cro' and another with the full spelling of 'croatoan' carved into a post. Croatoan was the territorial home of a local Indian tribe and White assumed the colonists must have relocated there. He took two ships there but there was no trace of the colonists. It has remained an enduring mystery for over 400 years. White returned home and is believed to have died in 1593 in England or Ireland.

John White Returns to the Lost Colony of Roanoke
John White in the Lost Colony

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