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Document Number: AJ-037
Author: White, John, 1570-1615
Title: The Fourth Voyage Made to Virginia in the Yere 1587
Source: Burrage, Henry S. (editor). Early English and French Voyages, Chiefly from Hakluyt, 1534-1608. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906). Pages 281-300.
Pages/Illustrations: 22 / 0
Citable URL:

Author Note

Almost nothing is known about John White beyond what little can be gleaned from his two voyage reports. It is widely assumed that the author of this text is the same man as John White the artist. If this is correct, he may have accompanied Martin Frobisher on a voyage to the Arctic in 1577 and served as the artist for Ralph Lane’s 1585 expedition to Roanoke Island (see AJ-036).

This expedition sought to establish an English settlement in America to exploit natural resources. Unlike the previous colonization attempts that had been personally financed by Sir Walter Raleigh, John White’s venture included the backing of a corporation of thirty-two investors, many of whom were London merchants. On January 7, 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh granted John White and his partners the privilege of planting a colony in Virginia. White intended to search for the fifteen men whom Sir Richard Grenville had left at Roanoke in 1586 and then build a new settlement to be named “the Citie of Raleigh” on the shore Chesapeake Bay, where it would have deepwater access for ocean-going ships.

Almost nothing is known about John White’s life after his return to Europe. A letter addressed from White to Richard Hakluyt indicates that in 1593 White lived in County Cork, Ireland. He died, perhaps in 1606, never knowing the fate of his colony.

The Fourth Voyage to Virginia, May 8, 1587 to November 5, 1587

Governor John White’s ships left Portsmouth April 26, 1587, and sailed past Plymouth on May 8 bound for the West Indies. They sailed to Guadelupe and Dominica, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Vieques before leaving the Virgin Islands for Virginia in early July. They arrived in Virginia July 16 to try to find the fifteen colonists abandoned by Lane the year before. When White arrived at Roanoke Island, the colonists were no longer there. White found only the word “Croatoan” carved in a tree, suggesting that the settlers may have moved to the nearby island of that name when the supply vessels failed to arrive. The settlement is now commonly referred to as “the Lost Colony.”

The expedition was plagued by disappointments. It failed to find the missing colonists. Local Indians attacked a new colonist while fishing, killing him. Attempts to establish friendly relations the Indians were unsuccessful as several English colonists were killed during attempts to make peace. The conflict that followed showed the advantage held by the local Native Americans, who attacked the English and escaped with ease. The English retaliated by sneaking up on a village and shooting one woman to death, at what turned out to be a camp of Indians friendly to the English. A tentative peace was established with several of the local tribes and more than one hundred English men, women, and children remained to inhabit a colony there.

Before John White could relocate his colony to the shores of Chesapeake Bay, the dire need for supplies compelled him to leave his settlers at the Roanoke site and return to England. The colonists forced White to promise to return to England and bring back more supplies for the colony, which he agreed to do. One of the boats departed for England September 18 1587, and White waited two more weeks before sailing back home. A storm impeded their progress and leaking barrels consumed their water supply, leaving many crew sick and killing two. White’s ship arrived in Ireland October 18 1587, and did not return to Portsmouth, England until mid-November 1587. War with Spain, the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and a prohibition on vessels leaving England prevented White’s return to until 1590. When he eventually returned on his fifth voyage, the colony was gone.

The story of the Lost Colony ranks among the most popular and romanticized episodes in early colonial American history. The text presented here provides almost all of the documented facts about the colony, including a list of the settlers’ names, an explanation of how they came to stay at Roanoke Island, and important clues about the environment in which they were left to fend for themselves. In 1998, tree ring analysis revealed that the years from 1587 to 1589 marked the most severe drought the mid Atlantic coastal region had suffered in eight hundred years, suggesting that crop failure may have played a part in the colony’s demise.

Document Note

This account was first published in Richard Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations. . . . (London: George Bishop and Ralph Newberie, 1589), pages 764-71.

Other Internet and References Sources

The text is available online from both the “Virtual Jamestown” and University of Virginia Library’s Electronic Text Center sites:

For specific information on the Roanoke Colony and a short biography of John White, see the National Parks Service site, “Roanoke Revisited:”

The National Park Service has also placed their Fort Raleigh guidebook online:

Hume, Ivor Noël. The Virginia Adventure: Roanoke to James Towne, an Archeological Odyssey. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994) discusses the archaeological evidence.

For more information on the tree ring analysis, see:

Stahle, David W., Malcolm K. Cleaveland, Dennis B. Blanton, Matthew Therrell, and David A. Gay, “The Lost Colony and Jamestown Droughts,” Science Magazine 280: 5356 (April 24, 1998): 564-67.

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