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Governor: 1587-1590

by Dennis F. Daniels
Research Branch, NC Office of Archives and History, 2006.

See also: John White, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography; Art of John White

<"Map made by John White, 1585-86, showing the relationship of Roanoke Island, Dasamonquepeuc, Port Ferdinando, Croatoan, and Hatoraske." National Park Service. (Fort Raleigh National Historic Site)John White (born ca. 1540), artist, surveyor and cartographer, is best known as the governor of the second English expedition to Roanoke Island that ended in the ill-fated “Lost Colony.” He created an accurate map of the “Virginia” coast that was incorporated by other European mapmakers in their maps of North America and sketched the first drawings of the America’s natural life and natives, ones that outclass any other efforts at artistic portrayal of the New World. At one time, it was debated whether White the governor and White the artist were the same person, but historical evidence indicates that the governor and artist were indeed the same person.

White’s personal history prior to the Roanoke voyages is obscure, made more so by the fact that John White was such a common name. He was likely born in England possibly between 1540 and 1550 since he was a grandfather by 1587. White attended church in the parish of St. Martin Ludgate in London; he married Tomasyn Cooper in June 1566. The marriage produced two known children: Tom, who died as a young child, and Eleanor. White possibly was trained as an illustrator under a London master.

By the 1580s, White had become deeply involved with the English efforts to colonize North America. In 1585 White accompanied Sir Ralph Lane’s expedition at establish the first English colony in America. White served as the official artist and mapmaker for the expedition; he worked with scientist Thomas Harriot in recording flora and fauna and native people. In 1588 Harriot published A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia; it was not until Frankfort engraver and printer Theodor de Dry published Harriot’s book in 1590 that he White’s images were reproduced. The book was published in four languages and attained wide attention in Europe.

Following the return of the all-male Lane colony, a new scheme emerged to establish another colony in Virginia. The new colony was to be settled with families and would be self-sustaining. The Chesapeake Bay area was the site selected for the colony. Sir Walter Raleigh, who held the land patent for Virginia, gave White the responsibility of organizing the effort. White spent late 1586 obtaining prospective settlers, in time securing 113 people. These included White’s daughter Eleanor and son-in-law Ananias Dare (who was also listed as one of White’s assistants). On January 7, 1587, a formal plan was established naming “John White of London Gentleman, to be the chief Governor there.”

The new colony left for Virginia in May 1587; they arrived at Roanoke Island in late July. The second colony at Roanoke repaired the building left from Lane’s colony and constructed new ones. White attempted to establish friendly relations with the Indians, but failed and tensions resulted. On a personal level, White became a grandfather following the birth of Virginia Dare the first English child born in North America, on August 18. The colonists’ situation soon became precarious. They arrived too late to plant crops, and the colonists could not depend on the Indians for help. With their supplies running low, the colonists asked White to return to England for supplies. White departed for England in late August and arrived in November.

White did not return to Roanoke until August 1590 because of various problems, including hostilities between England and Spain. In time, White arranged a relief expedition. However, when he and his party went ashore, they found no sign of life, but discovered that the colonists had constructed a fort. On an entrance post, the group found the word “CROATOAN” carved in it. The word was a predetermined signal that the colonists had gone to Croatoan, Manteo’s friendly Indian tribe. Poor weather conditions and a shortage of food and water forced White to give up the search for the colonists. White returned to England arriving in November 1590. The fate of the “Lost Colony” was never determined. The incident was a personal tragedy for White because he never again saw his daughter, son-in-law, or granddaughter.

Details of White’s life after Roanoke are virtually unknown. By February 1593 he resided in a house in County Cork, Ireland. Beyond this information nothing else survived. The date of his death has not been determined.


Adams, Randolph G. 1935. An effort to identify John White. The American Historical Review. 41 (1): 87-91. (JSTOR subscription required.)

Cumming, William Patterson. 1938. The identity of John White, governor of Roanoke, and John White, the artist. North Carolina historical review. 15 (3): 197-203.

Durant, David N. 1981. Raleigh's lost colony. New York: Atheneum.

Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes. 1999. American national biography. Vol. 23. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. 2007. Roanoke: the abandoned colony. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

National Gallery of Art (U.S.). 1965. The watercolor drawings of John White from the British Museum. National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh [and] the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

Neville, John D. 1985. John White. Raleigh, N.C.: America's Four Hundredth Anniversary Committee, N.C. Dept. of Cultural Resources.

Powell, William Stevens. 1991. Dictionary of North Carolina biography. Vol. 6, T-Z. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Online via NetLibrary and NC LIVE.

Quinn, David B. 1985. Set fair for Roanoke: voyages and colonies, 1584-1606. Chapel Hill: Published for America's Four Hundredth Anniversary Committee by the University of North Carolina Press.

Quinn, David B. 1991. The Roanoke voyages, 1584-1590: documents to illustrate the English voyages to North America under the patent granted to Walter Raleigh in 1584. New York: Dover Publications.

White, John, and P. H. Hulton. 1984. America, 1585: the complete drawings of John White. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

WorldCat (Searches numerous library catalogs)

Image Credits:

Map made by John White, 1585–86, showing the relationship of Roanoke Island, Dasamonquepeuc, Port Ferdinando, Croatoan, and Hatoraske.. National Park Service, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

Origin - location: 
User Tags: 



Where can I find Governor John White's will online?
Thank you very much.


Dear Dean,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia and taking a minute to ask this really interesting question.  

As I read back through the article, I see that White's last known location appears to have been in County Cork, Ireland in 1593, although the exact date of his death is unknown.

Here at the Government & Heritage Library we have research librarians who are experts in genealogy.  They would be happy to help you explore approaches to this question and places to start a search.  They may be contacted by telephone or email.

Good luck in your research!

Kelly Agan, NCpedia Staff



I am his descendant my name is William david white Jr i have letters and books he wrote talking to my guest great great grandmother a native that he never married but cheated on his wife. i have locations of graves site and photos and letters and dairies


How exciting...I have just found David....after a long journey....Are you willing to share info? Thanks so much..Angie Long...Vienna, VA


I was just reading the comments and upon yours. I believe I am a descendant of someone from the lost colony - "someone" because I don't have the records to prove it. However, I am still researching and am very interested in John White. If you ever feel keen to share some information about your relative I'd more than interested. I really feel as though something else went on when he had come back to the island - that he knew what had really happened to his daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law.



My son who is 10 is doing a project. Do you have any info you could send me. Thanks Helen.


Hi Helen,

Thanks for visiting NCpedia for your son's project.  An email has been sent to the email address provided with your comment to connect you with reference librarians at the Government & Heritage Library.

Best wishes,

Kelly Agan, NCpedia Staff, Government & Heritage Library


im only using this for my lame explorer report


I am a possible decentant of John I am over 50% Saponi Indian and my roots are traced to Granville County in Henderson,N.C. My great grandmother was named Panola Grey White and was born at Ashland Plantation in Henderson, NC.Her parents were John White and Tabathia Kitrell White. Tabathia's mother was Mary Mann. Panola married William David Clayton....100% Saponi ..whose mother was named Eliza Stewart. I would like to be tested for the DNA PROJECT for the Lost Colony, going on in Houston, Texas. If anyone is interested, let me know.


Possible in the sense that anything's possible, but very unlikely. John White's only known child that survived to adulthood was a daughter, so he left no male descendants surnamed White. Moreover, since we don't have a DNA profile for John White, there would be nothing to compare any results to regardless. You'd be better served learning more about your actual ancestors. Good luck with your research.

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