The Voyages of John White

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The Voyages of John White

Excerpts from Hakluyt's Voyages

   By Richard Hakluyt

   Originally published in 1600

   Reprinted by the Viking Press, 1965

England was a latecomer to the transatlantic trade, or trade with the Americas across the Atlantic Ocean, that had vastly enriched Spain and Portugal since the voyages of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) in the 1490s. But by the mid-1500s, English seafarers and merchants were increasingly becoming interested in exploring the Americas, where they hoped to find treasure and opportunities for trade. In 1578 Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) granted Humphrey Gilbert (c. 1537–1583) a charter to settle any territories in the New World that were not already claimed by a Christian monarch. Gilbert's first expeditions reached Canada. He claimed Newfoundland for the queen in 1583, but he died on the return voyage to England with his entire crew when his ship sank in a storm. Walter Raleigh (1552–1618), Gilbert's half-brother and business partner, continued the work of organizing and financing further explorations.

"We let fall Grapnel [anchor] neere the shore, & sounded with a trumpet a Call, & afterwardes many familiar English tunes of Songs, and called to them friendly; but we had no answere."

In 1584 Raleigh sent two ships to North America to explore possible locations for a colony. The explorers reported that the land along the coast looked promising, and they brought back two Native Americans, Manteo and Wanchese. The Native Americans, who fascinated Londoners, became a sort of advertisement for the New World, and Raleigh was able to generate enough financial support to plan a colonial venture. In 1585 he launched his first expedition to Virginia, a name he had chosen in honor of the queen. Richard Grenville, the leader of the venture, was instructed to set up the colony. The workers whom Raleigh hired to execute his plans did not necessarily intend to stay on as permanent settlers. Among these were scholar Thomas Harriot (1560–1621) and artist John White (died c. 1593), whose job was to record details about the region, including its animals, plants, geographical features, and people.

The colonists had planned to arrive in time to plant crops, but delays at sea had made this impossible. In addition, much of their seed had been destroyed by salt water during the voyage. When Grenville discharged the colonists and returned to England for more supplies, Ralph Lane was left in charge of 107 men, including Manteo, with only about twenty days' worth of food. At first the colonists established good relations with the natives, building a fort near the Indian village at the northern end of the island. But as supplies dwindled, Lane demanded more and more food from the Native Americans, who grew increasingly hostile. The colonists refused to work, spending most of their time looking in vain for gold. By the summer of 1586, after only ten months, they were desperate to leave. When seafarer Francis Drake (1540–1596) stopped at Roanoke after conducting raids against the Spanish in the Caribbean, he took the colonists back with him to England. When Grenville arrived back in Virginia later that year, he found the colony abandoned. He left fifteen men there with a good store of food and supplies, and he returned to England.

Raleigh organized a second colonial expedition in 1587, this time sending a group of families—including eighty-four men, seventeen women, and nine children—to settle in Virginia with John White as deputy governor. This group originally planned to settle in the Chesapeake Bay region, but the ship's captain refused to take them farther than Roanoke. As with the first colony, this group soon ran short of supplies. White decided to return to England immediately for more provisions, leaving his family behind. If the colonists encountered dangers and had to leave the site, they were to leave a sign for White so that he would know where to find them.

In 1589 the English writer and geographer Richard Hakluyt (1552–1616), a friend and business associate of Raleigh's, published the first edition of Principle (sic) Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries of the English Nation. This book, known simply as Hakluyt's Voyages, chronicled the entire history of English exploration. It also made a strong case for building colonies in North America, which would provide England with essential raw materials and also weaken Spanish influence in the New World. The book was quite popular, and it helped to promote interest in English colonization of North America.

White equipped two ships with supplies for the Virginia settlers, but war with Spain prevented him from returning to Virginia until 1590. When he arrived at Roanoke he could find no sign of the colonists. Their houses had been abandoned. White found the word "CROATOAN" carved on a tree, but no other clues about the colonists' whereabouts. Hakluyt published White's accounts of his expeditions to Virginia in a later edition of his Voyages.

Things to remember while reading the excerpts from Hakluyt's Voyages:

  • The Virginia colonists were not prepared for the hardships of life in North America. They expected to find easy sources of wealth, and they were surprised at the difficult conditions they faced in the New World.
  • The colonists had only the supplies they brought with them, and no way to communicate with England when supplies ran low or they encountered other problems. In addition, they could not return to England if their situation became too difficult or dangerous, as the ship that had brought them to the island returned home immediately. They were entirely on their own.
  • The colonists's built a friendship with Native Americans on the island of Croatoan, as well as those living on the mainland. However, this relationship became increasingly strained, as the colonists demanded more and more food from the Native Americans. Sometimes violence broke out between the two groups.

Hakluyt's Voyages

The fourth voyage made to Virginia with three ships, in the yere 1587. Wherein was transported the second Colonie Julie [July]

… The two and twentieth of July wee arrived safe at Hatorask, where our ship and pinnesse ankered [anchored]: the Governour went aboord the pinnesse, accompanied with fortie of his best men, intending to passé up to Roanoak forthwith, hoping there to finde those fifteene Englishmen, which [Sir Richard Grinvile] had there the yeere before, with whom hee meant to have conference, concerning the state of the Countrey, and Savages, meaning after he had so done, to returne againe to the fleete, and passé along the coast, to the Bay of Chesepiok, where we intended to make our seate and forte [fort], according to the charge given us among other directions in writing, under the hande of Sir Walter Ralegh: but assoone as we were put with our pinnesse from the ship, a Gentleman by the meanes [name] of Ferdinando, who was appointed to returne for England, called to the sailers in the pinnesse, charging them not to bring any of the planters back againe, but to leave them in the Island, except the Governour, & two or three such as he approved, saying that the Summer was farre spent, wherefore hee would land all the planters in no other place. Unto this were all the saylers [sailors], both in the pinnesse, and shippe, perswaded by the Master, wherefore it booted [helped] not the Governour to contend [argue] with them, but passed to Roanoak, and the same night at sunne-set went aland on the Island, in the place where our fifteene men were left, but we found none of them, nor any signe that they had bene there, saving onely wee found the bones of one of those fifteene which the Savages had slaine long before.

The three and twentieth of July the Governour with divers [various members] of his company, walked to the North ende of the Island, where Master Ralfe Lane had his forte, with sundry [various] necessary and decent dwelling houses, made by his men about it the yeere before, where wee hoped to find some signes, or certaine knowledge of our fifteene men. Where we came thither, we found the fort rased downe, but all the houses standing unhurt, saving that the neather [bottom] roomes of them, and also of the forte, were overgrowen with Melons of divers sortes, and Deere within them, feeding on those Melons: so wee returned to our company, without hope of ever seeing any of the fifteene men living.

The same day order was given, that every man should be employed for the repayring [repairing] of those houses, which wee found standing, and also to make other newe Cottages, for such as should neede….

On the thirtieth of July Master Stafford and twenty of our men passed by water to the Island of Croatoan, with Manteo, who had his mother, and many of his kinred [family] dwelling in that Island, of who wee hoped to understand some newes of our fifteene men, but especially to learne the disposition [mood] of the people of the countrey towards us, and to renew our old friendship with them. At our first landing they seemed as though they would fight with us: but perceiving us begin to march with our shot towards them they turned their backes, and fled. Then Manteo their countrey man called to them in their owne language, whom, assoone as they heard, they returned, and threwe away their bowes and arrows, and some of them came unto us, embracing and entertaining us friendly, desiring us not to gather or spill any of their corne, for that they had but little. We answered them, that neither their corne, nor any other thing of theirs, should be diminished by any of us, and that our coming was onely to renew the old love, that was betweene us and them at the first, and to live with them as brethren [brothers] and friends: which answere seemed to please them well, wherefore they requested us to walke up to their Towne, who there feasted us after their manner, and desired us earnestly, that there might bee some token or badge given them of us, whereby we might know them to be our friends, when we met them any where out of the Towne or Island. They told us further, that for want of some such badge, divers of them were hurt the yeere before, being found out of the Island by Master Lane his company, whereof they shewed us one, which at that very instant lay lame, and had lien of that hurt ever since: but they sayd, they knew our men mistooke them, and hurt them in stead of Winginos men, wherefore they held us excused.


… The 13 of August our Savage Manteo, by the commandement of Sir Walter Ralegh, was christened in Roanoak, and called Lord thereof, and of Dasamonguepeuk, in reward of his faithful service.

The 18 Elenor, daughter to the Governour, and wife to Ananias Dare one of the Assistants, was delivered of a daughter in Roanoak, and the same was christened there the Sonday following, and because this child was the first Christian borne in Virginia, shee was named Virginia. By this tine [time] our ships had unladen the goods and victuals [food] of the planters, and began to take in wood, and fresh water, and to new calke and trimme them for England: the planters also prepared their letters and tokens to send backe into England….

At this time some controversies arose betweene the Governour and Assistants, about choosing two out of the twelve Assistants, which should goe back as factors [representatives] for the company into England: for every one of them refused, save onely one, which all other thought not sufficient: but at length by much perswading of the Governour, Christopher Cooper only agreed to goe for England: but the next day, through the perswasion of divers of his familiar friends, hee changed his mind, so that now the matter stood as at the first.

The next day, the 22 of August, the whole company both of the Assistants and planters came to the Governour, and with one voice requested him to returne hinselfe into England, for the better and sooner obtaining of supplies, and other necessaries for them….

The fift voyage of M. John White into the West Indies and parts of America called Virginia, in the yeere 1590


… The 15 of August towards Evening we came to an anker at Hatorask, in 36 degr. and one third, in five fadom water, three leagues from the shore. At our first coming to anker on this shore we saw a great smoke rise in the Ile [Isle] Raonoak neere the place where I left our Colony in the yeere 1587, which smoake put us in good hope that some of the Colony were there expecting my returne out of England.

The 16 and next morning our 2 boates went a shore, & Captaine Cooke, & Cap. Spicer, & their company with me, with intent to passé to the place at Roanoak where our countreymen were left. At our putting from the ship we commanded our Master gunner to make readie 2 Minions and a Falkon well loden [loaded], and to shoot them off with reasonable space betweene every shot, to the ende that their reportes might bee heard to the place where wee hoped to finde some of our people. This was accordingly performed, & our twoe boats put unto the shore, in the Admirals boat we sounded all the way and found from our shippe untill we came within a mile of the shore nine, eight, and seven fadome but before we were halfe way betweene our ships and the shore we saw another great smoke to the Southwest of Kindrikers mountes: we therefore thought good to goe to that second smoke first: but it was much further from the harbour where we landed, then we supposed it to be, so that we were very sore tired before wee came to the smoke. But that which grieved [troubled] us more was that when we came to the smoke, we found no man nor signe that any had bene there lately, nor yet any fresh water in all this way to drinke. Being thus wearied with this journey we returned to the harbour where we left our boates, who in our absence had brought their caske a shore for fresh water, so we deferred our going to Roanoak until the next morning, and caused some of those saylers to digge in those sandie hills for fresh water whereof we found very sufficient. That night wee returned aboord with our boates and our whole company in safety….

Our boates and all things fitted againe, we put off from Hatorask, being the number of 19 persons in both boates: but before we could get to the place, where our planters were left, it was so exceeding darke, that we overshot the place a quarter of a mile: there we espied towards the North end of the Iland [Island] ye light of a great fire thorow [through] the woods, to the which we presently rowed: when wee came right over against it, we let fall our Grapnel [anchor] neere the shore, & sounded with a trumpet a Call, & afterwardes many familiar English tunes of Songs, and called to them friendly; but we had no answere, we therefore landed at daybreake, and coming to the fire, we found the grasse & sundry rotten trees burning about the place. From hence we went thorow the woods to that part of the Iland directly over against Dasamongwepeuk, & from thence we returned by the water side, round about the North point of the Iland untill we came to the place where I left our Colony in the yeere 1586. In all this way we saw in the sand the print of the Salvages feet of 2 or 3 sorts troaden [trampled] ye night, and as we entred up the sandy banke upon a tree, in the very browe thereof were curiously carved these faire Romane letters C R O: which letter presently we knew to signifie the place, where I should find the planters seated, according to a secret token agreed upon betweene them & me at my last departure from them which was, that in any wayes they should not faile to write or carve on the trees or posts of the dores the name of the place where they should be seated; for at my coming away they were prepared to remove from Roanoak 50 miles into the maine. Therefore at my departure from them in An. 1587 I willed them, that if they should happen to be distressed in any of those places, that then they should carve over the letters or name, a Crosse in this forme, but we found no such signe of distresse. And having well considered of this, we passed toward the place where they were left in sundry houses, but we found the houses taken downe, and the place very strongly enclosed with a high palisade of great trees, with cortynes [walls] and flankers [bastions] very Fort-like, and one of the chiefe trees or postes at the right side of the entrance had the barke taken off, and 5 foote from the ground in fayre Capital letters was graven CROATOAN without any crosse or signe of distresse; this done, we entred into the palisade, where we found many barres of Iron, two pigges of Lead, foure yron fowlers [shotguns], Iron sacket-shotte, and such like heavie things, throwen here and there, almost overgrowen with grasse and weedes. From thence wee went by the water side, towards the point of the Creeke to see if we could find any of their botes or Pinnisse, but we could perceive no signe of them nor nay of the last Falkons and small Ordinance [ammunition] which were left with them, at my departure from them….

The next Morning it was agreed by the Captaine and my selfe, with the Master and others, to wey anchor, and goe for the place at Croatoan, where our planters were….

What happened next …

Historians are not certain about what happened to the lost colonists. Most scholars believe that they probably moved inland. Some evidence suggests that they may have settled among local Indian tribes, but their exact fate remains unknown.

The failure of the first Virginia colonies was a setback for the English, but this proved to be temporary. They learned that they could not hope to discover rich deposits of gold and silver in North America. They also learned that colonization would require much hard work under difficult conditions. This knowledge prepared them for the hardships that lay ahead for those who succeeded in establishing England's first permanent colonies at Jamestown, Virginia (1607) and Plymouth, Massachusetts (1620).

Did you know …

  • Though Walter Raleigh organized two major colonial expeditions to Virginia, he never set foot there himself. Wanting to keep him close to her at court, Queen Elizabeth refused permission for him to sail to Virginia.
  • Raleigh wanted the Roanoke colony to include a school that would teach the settlers Algonkian, the language of the original inhabitants.
  • The first English child to be born on American soil, Virginia Dare, was born in the Roanoke Island colony in 1587. She was John White's granddaughter.
  • The first specimens of two new crops, potatoes and tobacco, were probably brought to England by the Virginia colonists. Raleigh, who ordered potatoes planted on his estate in Ireland, was influential in persuading Europeans that potatoes were edible and nutritious.

Consider the following …

  • White was assigned to draw examples of things in the New World that were not known in England. Read about, and find photographs of, a place that you have never been. If you were to visit this place and were assigned to make a visual record of what you found there, what things would you draw, and why? Create a booklet of these drawings, and explain what they could teach to those who had never seen this region.
  • Given the evidence, write a credible account of what happened to the lost colony. You can write from the point of view of the colony's leader or from the viewpoint of a modern historian.

For More Information


Fecher, Constance. The Last Elizabethan: A Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1972.

Hakluyt, Richard. Hayluyt's Voyages. New York: Viking Press, 1965.

Trevelyan, Raleigh. Sir Walter Raleigh. New York Henry Holt and Company, 2002.


American Journeys: Eyewitness Accounts of Early American Exploration and Settlement: A Digital Library and Learning Center. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"Early Images of Virginia Indians." Virginia Historical Society. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

First English Settlements in the New World. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"John White Drawings/Theodor De Bry Engravings." Virtual Jamestown. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

Roanoke Revisited. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"Sir Walter Raleigh's American Colonies." British Explorers. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

Hatorask: Hatorask Island.

Pinnace: Small boat.

Sir Richard Grinvile: Sir Richard Grenville.

Farre spent: Nearly over.

Master Ralfe Lane: Ralph Lane.

Rased: Leveled to the ground.

Master Stafford: Edward Stafford, one of the colonists.

Winginos men: The Native Americans on the mainland, ruled by Wingino.

Dasamonguepeuk: Native American settlement on the mainland.

Fadom; fathom: Unit of length equal to six feet.

Minions: Small cannons.

Falkon; falcon: Small cannon.

Palisade: Fence.

Prigges: Blocks of metal.

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The Voyages of John White

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