John White is one of the great “mystery men” of the early colonial period. Little is known or agreed upon about White’s life, but he left some of the most vivid images of the earliest colonial period in North America.
White first surfaces in English history around 1575, when he was accepted as a member of the Painter-Stainers’ Company of London, something similar to a union of professional painters. In 1 577 he joined an expedition organized by Martin Frobisher for Frobisher’s second voyage to the New World.
The expedition spent that summer cruising around what is now known as Frobisher Bay, just to the north of the Hudson Strait. During those weeks, White made drawings and paintings of the Eskimos, the earliest known pictures of those people.
In 1585, White joined an expedition organized by Sir Walter Raleigh. The goal was to establish on the North American coast an English colony to be named “Virginia” for Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen.” Some 108 English settlers landed at Roanoke Island,along the coast of modern-day Virginia.
White made some remarkable drawings of the natives and their settlements, then returned to England when the colonization ended because of conflict between the settlers and the natives.In 1587, a new expedition with 117 people sailed to North America to establish a new colony, and this time John White went along as its governor.
The group arrived at Roanoke in July, and in August, White’s daughter Eleanor Dare, gave birth to the first child born to the English in North America; the baby was christened Virginia Dare. The following year, the colonists persuaded White that he should return to England to gain more supplies for their struggling colony. Again, White took back to Europe valuable drawings and maps of the New World.
White occupied himself in London, trying to organize a relief expedition; however, his return was delayed by England’s war against the Spanish Armada in 1588. White finally set sail in March, 1 590. When his group arrived at Roanoke Island several months later, they found no one. Instead, in the ruins of the settlement, they found the word “CROATOAN” carved onto a tree.
This referred to a nearby island, but before White’s group could visit there, a storm drove them out to sea.The fate of “the lost colony”remains unknown. Some people believe the colonists were wiped out by the natives or by the Spanish, but others believe that they gradually joined with some friendly tribes and were simply absorbed by them.
While nothing is known of John White’s later years, his drawings and paintings remain as unique evidence of the earliest phase of North American colonization.