Americae pars, Nunc Virginia dicta… John White, Frankfurt, 1590. From Part I of de Bry’s Voyages.

Copperplate engraving, 305 x 420 mm. Excellent. Completely unrestored, lightly toned overall.

English precedent in North America can be traced back to at least 1497, when the Italian explorer John Cabot sailed to northern American coasts under the British flag. Richard Hakluyt, a fanatical proponent of British expansion, claimed an even earlier British precedent by citing the twelfth-century discovery of America by the mythical Prince Madoc (or possibly semi-mythical. Madoc ap Owain Gwynedd (circa 1170) was said to be a Welsh prince, son of Owain Gwynedd. The purported discovery of Welsh-speaking Indians has been cited to support the story).

The mid-Atlantic coast was the clear choice for England to make her foothold in North America for several reasons. It was wise to look south of the Cabot and purported Madoc landfalls, both because France had already established claims there, and because that region’s coastal waters were notoriously treacherous. To the south, however, she had to keep clear of current Iberian interests in Florida. Further, it was still hoped that a sea route through the New World might be found along the mid-Atlantic coast where Verrazano had reported to have seen the China Sea, and control of such a passage would be enormously profitable. Lastly, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, under letters patent from Queen Elizabeth, had sent a Portuguese pilot named Simao Fernandes on a preliminary scouting of the Atlantic coast (1580), and the chart Fernandes prepared from his survey showed a Bahia de Santa Maria, placed at the latitude of Pamlico Sound, as the only obviously beneficial site.

In 1584, one Walter Raleigh, at that time noted for his valor in fighting Irish rebels, was granted a patent for an expedition to North America. The voyage was undertaken that year, though the Queen forbade Raleigh himself to go. Raleigh’s Elizabethan envoys reached and penetrated the Outer Banks that had confused Verrazano sixty years earlier and, like Verrazano, they never reached the mainland. Instead their fancy was caught by an island which was called Roanoke by the Indians. The character of Roanoke Island is obvious from White’s map: it was amply shielded from the ocean by the Outer Banks and lay in a pivotal position between Pamlico and Abermarle Sounds. Access was restricted. It could be reached only by shallow inlets through the Banks, which though inconvenient offered much as regards protection from foreign predators. The local Indians, who were the most southerly of the Algonquian tribes, were scrupulously friendly and catered to their British visitors’ needs. Roanoke was also safely distant from the village of Neuustooc (far left) on the River Neuse, said to be inhabited by “hostile” Indians (probably Siouan-speaking Catawbas).

Back home the following year amid lavish accounts of the land’s virtues, the “Virgin Queen” knighted Raleigh and allowed their new soil to be called “Virginia” in her honor. Plans were quickly made for a permanent settlement. At Hakluyt’s recommendation, John White, an excellent artist and draughtsman, was asked to join the expedition.

The fleet approached North America by way of the Caribbean, reaching the mainland south of Cape Fear (White’s Promontorum tremendum). They followed the coast north to an inlet marked Wokokon which, as White has indicated, has a large area of shoals. Some of the fleet’s seven ships ran aground on them. While crews were busy refloating them, Richard Grenville, commander of the enterprise, led a scouting party in smaller boats into Pamilco Sound and River. After being well received at the town of Secota (Secotan), metropolis of the Secotan Algonquian Indians, they pillaged another village in response to the loss of a silver cup. The full fleet then continued north to Hatorask, at which point a hundred settlers, under Ralph Lane, penetrated the Banks and claimed the island of Roanoac as their new home. (Hatorask is of course the origin of the modern name “Hatteras,’‘ but the geographic features have changed over the past four centuries.) They built a fort on its north end, facing Albermarle Sound and the various Weapemeoc Indian villages. The rest of the party briefly examined the Chesapeake and returned to England.

The principal river seen in White’s Albermarle Sound is the Roanoke (not named). Located on its northern banks is the village of Moratuc, home of the Morotoc (Algonquian) Indians. The river originates further west in mountains of a region labelled Mongoack for the Mangoak Indians who, it was rumored, possessed a curious metal known as wassador which was said to be the color of copper but paler and softer. Other accounts placed this land of strange metal as lying yet further inland. The Europeans did not escape the temptation to believe that these were veiled reports of gold.

Though the lure of gold had remained seductive in the European psyche, the Roanoke settlers were lax in the quest for self-sufficiency. Falling into an oft-repeated pattern, Indian assistance was relied upon for food supplies. Indian stores and Indian patience, however, were inadequate for both peoples and food supplies were soon depleted. An expedition which went up the Roanoke in the Spring of 1586 in search of the Mangoak’s enigmatic yellow metal found the Indian villages deserted. Their inhabitants had fled inland with their staples, and only the chief of Roanoke Island itself continued to help support the British settlers.

Some of the colonists were sent thirty miles south to Croatan Island (Croatoan), which forms part of the Outer Banks itself and thus affords an unobstructed view of ocean. On June 8 of 1586 word was received from the Croatan party that twenty-some sails had been sighted. Sir Francis Drake, en route back to England from his brutal West Indian raids, had come to offer supplies or passage to the colonists. All opted to return to England. Shortly afterwards, Grenville returned with supplies and, finding the place abandoned, left fifteen men to guard Roanoke’s fort.
In July of the following year a fresh group of colonists set out to fetch the Roanoke guards and then sail north to begin a new colony in a more favorable location along the Chesapeake Bay. John White was their governor. Grenville’s garrison had not survived, however, and the relocation did not transpire. White helped familiarize the new colony with the region, and introduced them to the still-friendly Indians of Croatan Island. He then returned to England to secure provisions, leaving behind both his daughter and newly born grand-daughter, Virginia Dare, the first child of English parents born in the New World.

But war with Spain delayed White’s return to the colony, and even after England’s defeat of the Armada in 1588, fear of Spanish reprisal dampened further overseas adventures for another two years. In 1588 Walter Raleigh also attempted to send aid, but the captain of the two ships which had been given the task was distracted by pirating ambitions and returned to England after a damaging bout with French ships.

It was not until 1590, when his map and paintings were engraved on copper and published by Theodore de Bry, that White was finally able to return to Roanoke. But the colonists had vanished, leaving only the letters “CRO” carved on a tree to indicate their fate. White followed the cryptic lead to Croatan Island, but bad weather prevented his landing. What became of the colonists remains uncertain — although the colonists are commonly assumed to have perished, there is also the optimistic view that they were peacefully assimilated into Indian culture. In the early eighteenth century, one John Lawson visited the Outer Banks and was told by Hatteras Indians of white ancestors.

An original manuscript of White’s map such as that which de Bry used as his model is still extant in a manuscript album by White in the British Library, consisting of two maps and 76 watercolor drawings. This engraved version, however, both lacks and adds some nomenclature to that manuscript, containing three more place-names overall along coasts and rivers. These may have been added during the 1587 voyage.

As for Sir Walter Raleigh, the original champion of Chesapeake settlement, by 1592 he had fallen into disfavor with Queen Elizabeth for his affair with (or secret marriage to) one of her maids-of-honor, then pursued a futile search for the riches of El Dorado in Guiana (in about 1530 Spanish explorers were told of “El Dorado,” a king gilded with gold who ruled a kingdom called Manoa on a Lake Parima), and in 1603 Raleigh was accused of “treason.” He lived long enough to see the Jamestown settlement take root, being executed a decade later in 1618. His execution was justified on vague and rather dubious charges, and may have been a matter of political convenience to win Spanish favor.