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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Native Voices Thomas Harriot (1560-1621)

[7429] John White, The Manner of Attire and Painting Themselves, When They Goe to Their General Huntings or at Theire Solemne Feasts (c. 1585), courtesy of The British Museum.

Born in England and educated at Oxford, Thomas Harriot was employed as a young man by the explorer Sir Walter Ralegh. In 1585 he accompanied Ralegh’s New World expedition to Roanoke, where, as a naturalist, he collaborated with painter John White to study the landscape and its inhabitants. Although Harriot must have kept notebooks, none survives. The existing record of his observations is A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588), an optimistic account of native culture that seems to have been written at Ralegh’s direction. Although this work lacks candor–Harriot avoids mentioning how the colonists fled a brutal storm by ship–it does acknowledge how the Indians were gradually devastated by disease and provides detailed descriptions of these native peoples in their soon-to-be-changing natural environment.

Harriot’s account provides some of the only information we possess on the Roanoke people, who perished from disease soon after the Roanoke colony ceased to exist. South of the Potomac River the Virginian Algonquian peoples were united in the Powhatan Confederacy in the late 1500s. The leader of this confederacy, Powhatan, would eventually pledge his daughter to John Rolfe; and, if we are to believe John Smith, this same Indian princess, Pocahontas, saved Smith’s life. Harriot’s and John White’s accounts provide us with important cultural information. Colonial accounts by travelers such as Harriot contribute to our limited understanding of the Native American communities whose own records have not survived.

Teaching Tips

  • Have your students write an ethnographic account of their own family, class, or school as if they were outside observers. You may want to have them do this in two stages: first, have them compose a description of behavior and practices without any analysis; second, have them switch papers with another student and analyze the “meanings” of the group. This short-circuits students’ assumptions that they already know these meanings, and it can viscerally implant the sense of unease or even invasion on the part of the object of the ethnography.
  • Students often assume that Renaissance explorers used our own understandings of race and “otherness” when categorizing Native Americans, even though our notions of race today are much indebted to Enlightenment (i.e., eighteenth-century) thought. Show your students Konrad Kolble’s map of the New World, which depicts four famous European explorers at its corners, and ask them to identify what makes these figures, literally and conceptually, different from the depictions of Native Americans? What does this map infer about what makes someone civilized or savage? How are these categories reflected in White’s drawings and Harriot’s descriptions?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What does Harriot emphasize about North America and its native inhabitants?
  2. Comprehension: What precisely does Harriot object to in the religion of Native Americans?
  3. Context: A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia is largely an advertisement for European settlement in the New World. How do you see Harriot constructing his description of the New World in order to make it seem attractive to ambitious Europeans? How does his view of the New World compare to Williams’s?
  4. Context: To what extent is A Brief and True Report a conduct book for the English? Conduct books were manuals that sought to inculcate proper etiquette, behavior, and therefore values in their readers. In what ways does Harriot advise the English to behave in the New World?
  5. Context: Compare Harriot’s description of the Roanokes’ dress with “The Manner of Their Attire and Painting Themselves” [7429]. Has White taken any liberties or filled in any gaps?
  6. Exploration: Like Bernal Diaz del Castillo (Unit 2), Harriot emphasizes that he is giving a “true” report. How does Harriot establish the veracity of his report? Does he give any clues to what a false report might be? How do his attempts at establishing authority compare to those of Diaz del Castillo?
  7. Exploration: How do Harriot’s objections to native religion show his unspoken assumptions about what is spiritual and what is material?

Selected Archive Items

[1368] Konrad Kolble, Replica of a Map of the Americas with Portraits of Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Ferdinand Magellan and Francisco Pizarro Around Border (1970),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-89908].
In Konrad Kolble’s facsimile of a map published in 1600 by Theodor de Bry, we see four of the most famous European explorers framing the New World, a testimony to its assumed possession by the Old.

[1900] John White, The Manner of Their Fishing (c. 1585),
courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
One of John White’s drawings not taken directly from real life: he shows a dip net and spear (daytime fishing techniques) and a fire in a canoe (used to attract fish at night). White combined disparate New World fishing methods and a mix of species in this and other paintings.

[7429] John White, The Manner of Their Attire and Painting Themselves, When They Goe to Their General Huntings or at Theire Solemne Feasts (c. 1585),
courtesy of The British Museum.
This is a portrait of an Algonquian Indian (either Secotan or Pomeiooc) from Virginia. Elite families and chiefs were elaborately decorated with paint, beads, and quills to signal their status and power. The pose, taken from sixteenth-century European portraits, emphasizes the importance of the subject and the occasion.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6