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American Beginnings: 1492-1690
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Toolbox Overview: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Resource Menu: Contact
Text 1. First Impressions
Text 2. Europe's Literary Response
Text 3. Illustrating the New World (Pt. I)
Text 4. Atlantic Coast
Text 5. Pacific Coast
Text 6. Indians' Accounts
Text 7. Spanish Conquest

Reading Guide
Depicting the New World
Unique Aspects of the
[West] Indies
Illustrating the New World (Pt. I)
- English: John White, paintings of the Algonquian Indians (North Carolina), 1585
- English/French: Author unknown, The Natural History of the [West] Indies (Caribbean), ca. 1586, selection of drawings (PDF)
- French: Louis Nicolas, Unique Aspects of the [West] Indies (Canada), 1670s, selection of drawings (PDF)

The most familiar European illustrations of the New World come from a man who never left Europe himself—Theodore de Bry, the Flemish publisher and engraver who adapted others' first-hand illustrations for his multi-volume Grands Voyages, which sold widely across Europe. But what of those first-hand drawings and watercolors? Some were created by trained artists sent along on expeditions to document their discoveries. Others were created by amateur artists whose drawings remained in private collections for centuries before being published. It is these original illustrations we highlight here, leaving the adapted de Bry engravings for the next section.
  • In 1585 John White served as the official artist for the English expedition to Roanoke Island on the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina. Most of his initial drawings were lost when the colonists left Roanoke in 1586, but he later produced sixty-three watercolors that survived in private collections. Not until 1964 were they published as a whole. On the Virtual Jamestown website you will see nineteen of White's watercolors of the Algonquian Indians, paired with the de Bry engravings based on them and published in 1590. There may be no better example of the metamorphosis of popular imagery than these White/de Bry pairings.

  • The Natural History of the [West] Indies (Histoire Naturelle des Indes) is a unique volume of 199 watercolors of the plants, animals, and Indians of the Caribbean, including enslaved Indians working in Spanish mining ventures. Their origin is unknown, but they may have been created in the 1580s by a French Huguenot sailor (or two) on one of Francis Drake's voyages to the West Indies. (One artist may depict himself as the European being warned of the devil lurking in the forest.) The watercolors remained in personal collections for over four hundred years and in 1983 were given to the Pierpont Morgan Library, which produced a facsimile volume in 1993. Fifteen drawings are included here with the accompanying text (no less fascinating than the drawings themselves).

  • Unique Aspects of the [West] Indies (Les Raretés des Indes) is another intriguing collection of amateur drawings, in this case of the plants, animals, and Indians of New France (Canada) in the 1670s. Not only were they kept in private collections for three centuries, they were also ascribed to the wrong person until the late 20th century when an archival discovery led to Louis Nicolas, a French Jesuit who served in New France from 1664 to 1675. His 188 drawings were finally published in Paris in 1930; the originals reside in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ten pages of his engrossing drawings and handwritten commentary are included here.

  • You may wish to include the Spanish illustrations of Mexica and Tlaxcala Indians included in #7:SPANISH CONQUEST, presented in the web gallery Vistas: Visual Culture in Spanish America, 1520-1580.
These illustrations are essential "texts" for your discussion of the Europeans' first impressions of the New World. In addition, some of these images will re-appear throughout the Toolbox, often in revealing transformations. (27 pages, excluding the John White paintings, to be viewed online.)

Discussion questions
  1. Through their drawings, how do the Europeans interpret the New World and its inhabitants?
  2. What most intrigues them about the environment, resources, and people?
  3. What attitudes toward their subjects are implicit in their drawings and text?
  4. From their depictions, what do we learn about the Indians? about the Europeans?
  5. How would you establish criteria for evaluating the accuracy and authenticity of these drawings?
  6. How are they valuable despite any inaccuracies?

Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did Europeans interpret the "newe fonde londe" upon their first contacts?
  •  How did Indians respond to the Europeans?
  •  How did these initial encounters frame future Indian-European relationships?
  •  What did the "New World" signify to Europe in 1500? in 1550?

John White paintings: view online
Natural History of the [West] Indies: 14
Unique Aspects of the [West] Indies: 13
27 pages, excluding the John White paintings
Supplemental Sites
Roanoke Revisited, from the National Park Service (Roanoke)

Histoire Naturelle des Indes (The Drake Manuscript), images from the Pierpont Morgan Library

Louis Nicolas, brief background from Library and Archives Canada

Les Raretés des Indes (Codex canadiensis), all drawings from Library and Archives Canada

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

John White
Virtual Jamestown, from Virginia Tech (VPI), the University of Virginia, and the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia
Others: National Humanities Center

Image: Louis Nicolas, S.J., Les Raretés des Indes (Codex canadiensis), fig. 15, p. 11. Reproduced by permission of the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Toolbox: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
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