John White (c. 1540 – c. 1593) was an English artist, and one of several early English colonists who sailed with Richard Grenville in 1585 to North Carolina. During his time at Roanoke Island, he made numerous famous drawings with watercolour of the surrounding landscape and native peoples. These works are significant as they are 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.
White, described as a "Gentleman of London", later became governor of the newly-established Roanoke Colony. There is some debate over his appearance. White was known for his great mustache. Some say he had blonde hair, but others disagree and say it was brown. However, by the time he went to Roanoke it was undoubtedly gray. 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 was 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 dated February 22, 1539 of a christening in the Church of St Augustine, 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.
White and the colonists of the failed Roanoke Colony were 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”. 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 because of England's conflict with Spain and the Spanish Armada; therefore, most of the suitable ships were in military service. That delay, among others, caused White's return to the colony to be postponed until 1590. Tragically, when Governor White finally came back to Roanoke Island, the colony had been deserted. However, there were a few clues about where they went apparently left behind by the colonists: the letters "CRO" carved into a tree and the word "CROATOAN" on a post of the fort. Croatoan was the name of a nearby island (likely modern-day Hatteras Island) and a local tribe of Native Americans. Roanoke Island was not originally the planned location for the colony and the idea of moving elsewhere had been discussed. Before the Governor's departure, he and the colonists had agreed that a message would be carved into a tree if they had moved and would include an image of a Maltese Cross if the decision was made by force. There was no cross. Unfortunately, due to bad weather, White had to abandon the search of adjacent islands for the colonists, he returned to Plymouth, England on October 24, 1590. An Indian he brought back from Virginia, was left in Bideford.
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