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Document Number: AJ-038
Author: White, John, 1570-1615
Title: The Fifth Voyage of M. John White, 1590
Source: Burrage, Henry S. Early English and French Voyages, Chiefly from Hakluyt, 1534-1608. (N.Y., Scribner's Sons, 1906). Pages 303-323.
Pages/Illustrations: 23 / 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 possibly 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. In 1587, White returned to Sir Walter Raleigh’s Virginia as the governor of another group of colonists (see AJ-037). He intended to stop at Roanoke Island to pick up fifteen men abandoned there the year before by Sir Richard Grenville, and then proceed to the Chesapeake Bay to establish a new colony at a site with deepwater access. When the three ships carrying the group arrived at Roanoke after a somewhat troubled crossing, the ship’s commander refused to carry the colonists any farther. In need of supplies, the settlers insisted that White immediately return to England. The war with Spain and the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588 prevented White’s return until 1590. Almost nothing is known about John White’s life after his return to Europe. A letter addressed from White to Richard Hakluyt, published by Hakluyt as a preface to the text presented here, indicates that, in 1593, White lived at Newtowne, in Kylmore, County Cork, Ireland. He died never knowing the fate of his colony. In 1998, tree ring analysis revealed that the severest drought to strike the mid-Atlantic coastal region in eight hundred years occurred from 1587 to 1589 which would have caused severe food shortages.

White’s Fifth Expedition, 1590

This voyage combined the dual purposes of privateering against the Spanish with re-supplying the settlement at Roanoke Island. White sailed to Morocco, the Virgin Islands, Santo Domingo, Haiti, Cuba, Florida, and finally Virginia. Although White’s ship departed from England in March 1590, the search for Spanish prizes delayed its arrival at Roanoke until the middle of August. The settlement had been ransacked and abandoned. White assumed the settlers had moved to Croatoan Island, but foul weather prevented him from looking for them there before returning to England in October 1590.

This document provides an excellent example of the conflicting ambitions that drove many of the earliest English expeditionsprivateering and colonization. This text is also important for the information it provides about the fate of White’s colony on Roanoke Island. These include the mysterious clues, “CRO” and “Croatoan,” the name of a neighboring island, carved on two trees, presumed by White to be indications that the settlers moved there when the supply vessels failed to arrive. White’s settlement is now commonly referred to as “the Lost Colony” and elements drawn from this account helped make its story one of the most popular and romanticized episodes in early colonial American history.

Other Internet and Reference 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”

For an article on the possible fate of the lost colony, see: <>

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, which received broad television coverage, 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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