Role Plays: Artist, Captain, Governor

NAME:  John White    

TITLE: Artist, Captain, and Governor


John White is most widely known for his watercolor drawings of Algonquian Indians of the Outer Banks of North America. Little is known about his early background. He had painted Indians on Baffin Island above the Arctic Circle and portraits of Inuk adults brought to England. Sir Walter Ralegh planned the Roanoke Colony with the purpose to protect Protestantism and give England a place among the great nations of the world. In 1584, he sent Captains Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to reconnoiter the coast and locate a place, especially one that would serve as a base for attacking Spanish, treasure-laden galleons traveling from Havana to Seville. Amadas and Barlowe brought back glowing reports about the area as a promising paradise; they also brought back two Indians, Wanchese and Manteo, who would learn the language and assist future operations. On the basis of their highly favorable report, Ralegh immediately laid plans for a return voyage. He engaged a science advisor, Thomas Hariot, a brilliant mathematician recently graduated from Oxford University, and John White. Their charge was to produce a full natural history of the region, its flora and fauna, and the native people and their culture. White created about 75 beautiful drawings, about a fourth of them of the Algonquians and their daily lives: fishing, hunting, cooking, caring for children, preparing and cooking food, worshipping, and celebrating important occasions. White could not have produced such up close renderings alone, but with the assistance of Manteo and the Croatoans, White was able to gain intimate access and bequeath to history valuable and unprecedented illustrations of life among the coastal Algonquians. Along with Thomas Hariot’s work on the Indians relationship to the environment and conversations about religion and history, the Manteo-White-Hariot report created new knowledge and knowledge in new ways about Indians of the Algonquian language group that resonated, more or less, from Roanoke Colony to Jamestown, New England, and beyond.  Thomas Hariot’s book would be called A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590). Yet it was not White’s watercolors that appeared in the report, but engravings of them. Incredibly, White’s watercolors did not appear in public until 1964. Theodor de Bry, a German engraver was hired to do the copper plates necessary for publication in the Report. De Bry’s engravings changed the look of White’s watercolors and embellished them, adding parts not in the originals. (For a selection of the watercolors and engravings side by side)


Little is known of John White’s early life. He was likely born in the 1540s in the English midland or Cornwall region. He married Thomasine Cooper in 1566. His daughter Elinor, christened in 1568, married Ananias Dare in 1583 and they would later go with him to Roanoke Colony. There a grandchild was born and named Virginia Dare. White studied art for a year in 1576 and may have gone on several trips with Martin Frobisher to Greenland where he likely produced images of the Inuit people.  Colonizers and explorers routinely hired artists to create a visual record of “New World” expeditions. The Inuit drawings gained the attention of Sir Walter Ralegh who was planning a colony to be the haven of privateers to steal Spanish gold and silver while Christianizing the native people. Indians knew the region of the Outer Banks as Ossomocomuck, populated by various Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking groups. In 1585, White first sailed to the Outer Banks in a convoy with Thomas Hariot, 600 passengers, two Indians, Wanchese and Manteo,  taken in an earlier exploratory voyage by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, all under the command of Sir Richard Grenville. White had worked with the Indians to learn Algonquian prior to leaving on the voyage. During the year, he made his watercolors of the local flora and fauna, visited likely with Manteo the villages and people of Pomeiocc, Aquascogoc, and Secotan. He may have journeyed to the Chesapeake Bay area and the Chesapeake capital of Skicoak (present day Norfolk) and also visited several villages on the Eastern Shore. Disputes violent conflict with the Indians, diminishing supplies, and a three-day hurricane led to the abandonment of the colony, except for fifteen soldiers left behind. Early the next year (1587), Ralegh drafted a charter for an English colony in the Chesapeake Bay and named John White as governor. That year three ships and 150 sailors left to establish the “Cittie of Ralegh.” First, they went to Roanoke Island to check on the soldiers left behind and found only bones. The group decided to return to England and report to Ralegh what they had found, this time leaving 117 settlers, including White’s daughter, husband, and grandchild. Plans were to return to resupply them within a year, but a sea battle with the French forced a return to England and the Spanish Armada prevented a return to Roanoke for three years. In 1590, four English privateering ships left for the Chesapeake Bay on a mission to drop off White at Roanoke, But when White and a group of sailors went ashore, the found the colony abandoned and the word “Croatoan” carved into a post. Later White returned to England, never again to see his daughter or grandchild. Three years later he died and was buried either on one of Ralegh’s Irish estates or in England.


White’s drawings should be the focus of this role playing activity. The drawings became the bases for Hariot’s Report, but not in the original drawings. In order to be printed, copper plates of the images had to be engraved. Theodor de Bry, a German engraver, was hired to do the plates. De Bry took liberties with the engravings, adding features and embellishing them with his own perspective on Algonquian culture and personal appearance. As for White himself, his illustrations were naturally informed by his own personal European training and cultural expectation. For example, his “Indian in Body Paint,” shows a warrior in body paint standing with an oversized bow, arm akimbo, looking to his right, a posture and style familiar in European drawings. Yet the illustrations capture, like no other images ever made, of Algonquians going about their everyday life. It seems that White’s intention was to give people back home a view of native people as he saw them. With these understandings and this background history in mind, focus on one or two illustrations and stage the following scene (two students):

Imagine that one of you is Wolf Blitzer from CNN and the other is John White. Do some research and answer these questions:

Blitzer: Who are you?


Blitzer: Why did you go to Virginia?


Blitzer: Why did you paint Indians?


Blitzer: How did you gain such intimate access to your subjects?


Blitzer: Who is Theodor de Bry and why did he copy your watercolors?


Blitzer: Would you take on of your watercolors and compare it to its engraving and point out the differences?


Class exercise:

Each student takes a watercolor, and in a brief essay, describes and analyzes the content, and compares it to the corresponding engraving.


Encyclopedia of Virginia History

Virtual Jamestown



©This module created by Crandall Shifflett, Virginia Tech

All Rights Reserved