The First Map of Roanoke Island

John White produced the first English map of Roanoke Island as a rough sketch entitled “a description of the land of Virginia.” It was the first English map of America made by direct observation. The map covered territory between the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, Mattamuskeet Lake, and various and sundry other small islands and unidentified place names. It also covered some of the landscape and commodities of the region including fish, grasses, sandbars, and water depth.

a description of the land of virginia

Historians for a long time misassociated the origin of the map with John Smith. It was believed Smith drew the map sometime around 1618 and sent it off to England in a letter. However, historian David Beers Quinn concluded that the map was most likely drawn by John White in late summer/early fall of 1585, and sent to England in early September 1585 on either the ships the Roebuck or the Elizabeth.1

It is not yet possible to assign authorship to John White despite the handwriting on the map resembling that John White’s.

Here is the map as I found it at the National Archives in Kew, London.

John White Roanoke Island
MPG 1/584, extracted from CO 1/1, 1585

A close up of some of the items on the map:

the port of saynt maris wher we arivid first

The port of St. Mary’s is where the 1585 English expedition first arrived. St. Mary’s was the name that the Spanish had given the Chesapeake Bay. This suggests that the English were using a Spanish map, and didn’t quite have a grasp of the location and the size of the Chesapeake Bay. Later English voyages continued to confuse Roanoke Island with the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay.

here groith ye roots that diethe read

The roots referenced may be the dogwood (Cornus Florida). Its roots have been used from prehistory to the present to create a red colored dye. Coincidentally, the dogwood is also the state tree of North Carolina.


The Indian village of Pomeiooc. The circle around indicated it as a palisaded village. The following John White watercolor is of Pomeiooc.

Palisaded Indian village of Pomeiocc

The Indian village of Secotan. John White painted several watercolors of the village.


Roanoke Island, NC 1585
ye kinges ill

The King’s Island is now known as Roanoke Island. The king was Wingina of Secotan Indians. Arthur Barlowe chronicled Wingina’s rise to power. Barlowe claimed that Wingina’s tribe was battling a group of Indians around the mouth of the Neuse River. Wingina proposed a peaceful alliance with the rival group and it was accepted. To celebrate, a huge feast was thrown and the Secotan Indians ambushed their former rivals while feasting and murdered them.

the grase that berither the silke groithe here plentifully

The grass here is uncertain but it could be Bear Grass (Yucca flaccida) or Spanish Bayonet (Yucca aloifolia). At the time, England was searching for a source of silk outside of China.

freshe water with great store of fyshe

This is the Albemarle Sound showing two rivers flowing into it, the Roanoke and Chowan. It was noted on the map as a source of fresh water for drinking and plentiful fish for eating.

here were great store of great red grapis veri pleasant

The great store of great red grapes were either Summer (Vitis aestivalis) or Muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia) grapes. I like to imagine they were muscadine grapes because eating muscadines is a rite of passage for all North Carolinians.

  1. David Beers Quinn, The Roanoke Voyages vol. 1 (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1955).

1 Comment

  1. Dear Mr. Findley,

    I am investigating the muddled history of the “Mothervine” on Roanoke Island. I want to get the map and notes on the John White map you found at “National Archives in Kew, London” which I have not been able to fine on their website. Any help you can give me would be greatly appreciated!

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