Saturday, 24 November 2012

America's First Pictures

So two days after Thanksgiving.  I was going to do an article about it, but then steak and beer happened, because what's more American than steak and beer?  Anyhow, it got me to thinking about the first Europeans to settle in America.  No, not the pilgrims and their first Thanksgiving in 1621, but the people who tried to settle at Roanoke, the lost colony.

Detail from Hariot's Briefe and True Account of the New Found Land of Virginia, 1590, showing Roanoke island, the colony and settlement of the local area.

In 1585, a group of 107 men were left on the island to establish a colony at the north end of the island -- probably not far from the one pictured above.  So, having had contact with them in 1586, Sir Walter Raleigh sent out an additional 150 colonists including several women and 9 children to settle on the island.  A friend and colleague of Raleigh's called John White led the mission, taking his daughter and son-in-law with him.  He was an artist and cartographer who'd visited before on the 1585 mission and created maps like this:

 Map of Virginia, from 1985, as printed in Hariot's book.  Roanoke is shown above and to the left of Trinitey Harbor.  Ah, those Elizabethans and their quirky spellings!

White also drew and painted pictures of the flora and fauna of the area, including pictures of the native peoples.  This was actually part of his and Hariot's mission, as people back in England wanted to know what was out there -- after all, resources tend to be good to have.  So they both wrote and drew the first pictures and descriptions of The New World.  The illustrations were mostly done by White and they're incredibly interesting.  For example, there's these two gorgeous pages of nature illustrations:

 Left:  "Meesquouns. Almost as bigg as a Parratt."  A Northern Cardinal.   From the British Museum Online.
Right:  A tiger swallowtail butterfly (Mamankanois) and a pufferfish (Tanborel).  This is one of 113 pages of drawings from White's explorations, done in pen, ink, graphite and watercolour.  British Museum Online.

He also created the first pictures of the local people.  I find the picture of the native woman from Florida the most striking:

Yeah, those are her tattoos.  I am such a wimp as I can't even bring myself to get one, much less anything this spectacular!

 Although there are also pictures of less friendly locals too:

Skirmish at Bloody Point, Frobisher Bay.  English with the St. George's cross flag, shooting at Inuit on a cliff.  Bet that went well...

White created around 113 pictures of this type, which you can find at the British Library Online

Sadly, when the colonists arrived on Roanoke in 1587, they found the previous 107 settlers all gone, with only a skeleton left at the barracks to tell a grim tale.  Of course, this made the colonists want to leave, but the fleet commander refused to sail them all back.  Making the best of a bad situation, the colonists set up shop and embarked on improving relations with the local Croatoan tribe, fearing that other tribes may kill them due to earlier cultural misunderstandings such as accused theft, raids and outright murder.  During this time of improving relations, the first European was born in America -- Virginia Dare.  She was White's granddaughter.

The colonists insisted that White go back to England to ask for support as they felt they were still at severe risk from the locals.  Sure enough, he went back that same year, leaving his family at the Roanoke colony.  However, he was unable to make it back to the colony for nearly three years thanks to a small problem with a massive Spanish Armada that required all the boats in the English Navy to be on hand.  By the time White made it back to the colony in 1590, all that was left were some dismantled buildings and the words "Croatoan" and "Kro" carved into a tree.  No one knows what happened to the colonists or White's family for sure.  It's possible that they were taken in by local tribes, that they died in a raid, or that they were kidnapped.  What is a certainty, however, is that they must have been brave to even consider settling there in the first place.

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Edit:  I almost forgot!  If you're interesting in reading a transcript of Hariot's book, you can find it online here:

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