Sunday, August 19, 2007

John White Governor of Roanoke Colony

One of the more famous yet mysterious of all the Englishmen involved in the colonization of the New World was the talented John White. White's life before and after his involvement in the English voyages to Roanoke Island is not known well, and there is even room for dispute about the facts of his life during the years of those voyages (1584 to 1590). When and where he was born is not certain, and who his parents were is unknown. The facts about his wife have never been discovered, but it is known that he had at least one child, Eleanor, whose place in history was assured when she arrived, pregnant, with her husband and the other members of the second group of colonists who reached Roanoke Island in 1587. Along with her husband, Ananias Dare, Eleanor became the parent of the first English child known to have been born in America, Virginia Dare, in August of that year.

English land at Virginia
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White, an artist and member of the Painters-Stainers Company in London, may have accompanied Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe on their 1584 reconnoiter of the east coast of America for Sir Walter Raleigh when he was formulating plans to establish a colony there. White's presence on that voyage is not certain, but in his own writings he claimed to have made the Atlantic crossing five times which, considering the known voyages during the time in which he was active in the projects, would suggest that White was a member of the 1584 expedition. He was, however, a member of the 1585 voyage that placed a few more than 100 settlers on America's shores for about eleven months before being transported back to England by Sir Francis Drake in June 1586. Because of the list of colonists left on the island, there has been some speculation that John White was not actually there the entire eleven months and that he returned to England with Richard Grenville about a month after their arrival. Nonetheless, it was during this 1585 expedition that he produced many invaluable watercolors of the flora, fauna, maps, and indigenous peoples of the region. Considering the wealth and breadth of information that White conveyed through his watercolors, it would appear that he spent more than just a few short weeks exploring the island and its environs.

After this first colony was abandoned in 1586, Raleigh was anxious to make another attempt at colonization in the New World. This time, he planned to seat the colony on the Chesapeake Bay, north of his first attempt on Roanoke Island. To lead this endeavor, White was chosen as governor of the colony, and in July 1587 the expedition anchored off the Outer Banks of North Carolina near Roanoke Island. The intention of this stop was to check on the approximately fifteen men placed there in 1586 by Richard Grenville, who had left them there the previous year after finally returning in July or August with supplies for the first colonists. Finding the colonists gone, Drake having taken them back to England, Grenville left another small contingent to keep an English presence in the region. When the next group of settlers arrived with White as governor, no trace of Grenville's men was to be found.

White's tenure as governor of the Roanoke colony began against his own wishes as well as Raleigh's. As mentioned, their aim was to settle this second colony on the Chesapeake Bay. When White and the new colonists arrived at Roanoke Island, they disembarked to search for Grenville's men; but when they attempted to return to their ships, their pilot, a Portuguese privateer by the name of Fernandez, would not allow them back on board. With little room for maneuver, White returned to the site of the previous colony at the northern end of Roanoke Island and began to build anew. The previous colony, led by Ralph Lane, had been made up mostly of military men who had little desire for or skill in dealing with the indigenous peoples. That attitude resulted in hostilities between the Native Americans and the English, and White's colonists soon began to suffer the hardships of living in an alien and hostile environment with too few supplies or skills. The colonists, among them White's daughter and granddaughter, agreed that White should return to England for supplies and relief. He did so in August of 1587 with hopes of a rapid return. Other forces were at work, however, and his anticipated quick return became an agonizing wait.

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