Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Object Details

Drafted by John White (British, American, 1540-1606; active America 1585-1593), engraved and published by Theodore DeBry (Flemish, 1528-1598)
Germany: Frankfurt
paper; engraving on laid paper
Plate mark: 12 in x 16 3/8 in; 30.48 cm x 41.5925 cm
Richard B. Arkway, Inc., New York, New York
Credit Line
Gift of Mr. Sandy M. Pringle
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

Object Essay

In 1584 Elizabeth I allowed Sir Walter Raleigh to send Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlow to North America to establish a colony. The expedition landed on Roanoke Island and named the colony Virginia. At that time maps were drafted by the expedition’s artist and cartographer, John White, who was to return as governor in 1591. It is thought that White worked with John Hariot, a mathematician who wrote a narrative of the discoveries in the land that today comprises Virginia and the Carolinas. The narrative, accompanied by White’s map, was published by Theodore DeBry in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. In an age of astounding Renaissance discoveries, this publication must have been one of the most exciting. 

William P. Cumming describes this map as “the most careful delineation made in the sixteenth century of any considerable part of the North American coastline.”1Cumming 1966, 8. See also Cumming 1958, pl. 14, 122–23. The geographic delineations are primitive but show firsthand knowledge of the rivers flowing into Pamlico Sound and the outlets through the Outer Banks into the Atlantic Ocean. Such details have provided scholars with information on the ever-changing configurations of the coast from Cape Hatteras to the Chesapeake Bay. To the right is a very early depiction of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, reflecting little specific information but indicating the presence of a mighty body of water.

Artistically, this map is a superb example of Renaissance decoration applied to cartography. Exquisite strapwork ornamentation enhances the title, the scale of miles, the credits, and the entire ensemble. The ocean contains numerous sailing ships, a sea monster, and an intricate compass rose. In the sound and on the land are minute figures of American Indians taken from John White’s watercolors.2John White’s watercolors are now in the British Library. See Hulton and Quinn for White’s American drawings. The map is oriented to the west so that a reader can conceive how one approaches the coast of the New World. 

Donald H. Cresswell 

Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.