In 1493 Columbus wrote a letter about his discoveries that was translated and published across Europe. That report opened a period in which the New World became a subject of great interest to Europeans. Especially fascinating were the native peoples. The name "Indians" derived from Columbus's belief that the islands he found were in the Indian Ocean and was used in England as early as 1553.
Europeans learned about the Virginia Indians through both words and pictures. Yet as important as the writings of explorers and colonists were, the most powerful impressions came from prints. The coastal areas around the Chesapeake Bay were visited by a number of European explorers in the 1500s. No images of the natives were produced, however, until the English became interested in colonization in the 1580s.
In January 1585 Queen Elizabeth consented to Sir Walter Ralegh's request that the land along the North American coast be named in her honor as "Virginia." The William W. Cole Collection contains many of the engravings of Virginia, produced from 1590 to the 1800s, that influenced European opinions of, and thus policies toward, the natives.
Sketched from life: John White's paintings
A 1585 expedition to Virginia under Walter Ralegh's sponsorship failed to establish a lasting colony, for the would-be settlers abandoned Roanoke Island and returned to England with Francis Drake in 1586. (A second attempt in 1587 became the "Lost Colony.") The 1585–86 venture did leave a valuable record, however, thanks to a scholar, Thomas Hariot, and an artist, John White. Hariot published A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia in 1588.
A group of John White's paintings are preserved at the British Museum. Although his images depict natives from what is now North Carolina, Virginia can claim them too because White and the English knew that area as "Virginia," and the Indians were southern Algonquian and coastal dwellers, as were the natives of Tidewater Virginia.
Though White's work remained virtually unseen until the mid-20th century, in the last thirty years the paintings have been widely reproduced. Much about their original creation remains uncertain. White probably made sketches and visual notes in the field and used those studies to paint a finished set of watercolors. From this master set of paintings, White then made further copies for various purposes. Only the set at the British Museum is extant, and whether those paintings are from his master set or from a copied set is unknown.
See reproductions of the John White paintings at Virtual Jamestown.
Close copies of White: Theodore de Bry's engravings
In the late 1580s the geographer Richard Hakluyt, an associate of Walter Ralegh, was instrumental in having John White create a set of paintings for the Flemish printer Theodore de Bry.
In 1590, in Frankfurt, de Bry reprinted Thomas Hariot's A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, illustrated with copper-plate engravings after White's paintings by de Bry and his associate, Gysbert van Veen. White's images gained wide exposure through the de Bry engravings, which became the most influential depictions of Virginia Indians. [View five of Theodore de Bry's engravings]
Copies and adaptations of de Bry
For more than two centuries, the 1590 engravings of Virginia Indians by de Bry and van Veen were copied for other publications. Sometimes the copies followed the originals very closely. In other cases de Bry's images were adapted.
In other cases de Bry's images were adapted. For Robert Beverley's 1705 History and Present State of Virginia, the artist, Simon Gribelin, based his engravings on de Bry's images but modified them, at the author's direction, with additional pictorial elements about Indian life. Gribelin's adaptations of de Bry engravings, the third generation of John White's originals, were copied in turn for adaptations that became the fourth and then the fifth generations. The book was translated into French and published in Amsterdam in 1707, and published again that same year in Paris. These editions were unauthorized and thus required new engravings, which were in turn copied for a French atlas in 1732. [View four copies and adaptations of de Bry's images]
John Smith's 1612 map
The only published image that rivaled the de Bry series in influence was John Smith's 1612 map, engraved by William Hole. Smith had an active role in the production of the map, and the year of its appearance he also issued a pamphlet guide called A Map of Virginia. On the map are two inset pictures of Indians. Both are adapted from 1590 prints by de Bry with added details probably provided by Smith. The map proper served as the standard geographical description of the Chesapeake Bay region for more than a century, and it remains today the most important source about Indian settlement.
Real Virginia Indians—in Europe
The earliest portrayals of natives from what is today Virginia were made of Indians who traveled to England, in the period 1614–16. At the time general opinion there was favorable to Indians, in the glow of the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, and before the Powhatan uprising of 1622.
Engraved portrayals of two Virginia Indians, Eiatintomino and Matahan, appeared on a broadside issued in February 1615 that advertised the Virginia Company's lottery (Collection of the Society of Antiquaries, London). Eiatintomino was also portrayed in St. James Park, London, in a watercolor dated about the same time (Collection of Edinburgh University Library). There was apparently an original portrait of Eiatintomino, now lost, from which both the watercolor and the engraving on the lottery broadside were copied.
The most famous Indian subject was Pocahontas. During her visit to London in 1616, she sat for the artist Simon van de Passe. Probably from sketches now lost, he produced a portrait engraving. As far as is known, this portrait was the only one of her from life.
A few years later, the Czech artist Wenceslaus Hollar titled a 1645 etching "Male American from Virginia." Hollar sketched the Indian in Amsterdam and used the name "Virginia" as a general term for the North American colonies. The subject was a Munsee Delaware man known as Jacques, who left for Europe from New Amsterdam in 1644.
Invented scenes for narratives
When artists were hired to illustrate written accounts of events in Virginia, they did not aim to make realistic representations, but to vivify the narratives. Their engravings used European pictorial conventions and generic landscapes, and when the artists borrowed details from other prints, those details sometimes were authentic but often they were not. [View four invented scenes]
In Virginia, favorable impressions of Native Americans evaporated in the wake of the bloody Powhatan uprisings of 1622 and 1644 and the continuing conflict with Indians on the frontier that helped precipitate Bacon's Rebellion in 1675–76. In these circumstances no new art of Virginia Indians was created, and little would be produced until the 19th century.
Lacking first-hand documentation, European publishers often used illustrations that were imagined by artists. A variety of imaginative representations of Virginia Indians, mixing invented and actual details, and with a tendency towards the exotic, appeared from the 1600s to the 1800s. [View four images of fanciful figures]