Primary Source: de Bry's “Their manner of fishynge in Virginia"
“Their manner of fishynge in Virginia,” engraving by Theodor de Bry after a watercolor of John White, 1577-1590. From A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, 1590. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, JS84.11.03 A.
Standards and Skills
Virginia Standards of Learning: VS.2d, VS.2e, VS.2f, US1.3c, US1.5a
Meets National Standards of Learning for Social Studies
Summary and Significance
This image depicts how mid-Atlantic coastal Indians might have fished, using spears, nets, weirs and canoes. It also depicts the rich bounty of available resources available in the Americas like fish, birds, plant life and trees. For potential colonists or investors in ventures to the Americas, this would have been enticing.
Historical Background and Image Analysis
John White was an English gentleman and artist. While exploring what would become Roanoke in 1585-1586, John White created portraits of the Indigenous people he encountered and their towns. Meanwhile, fellow colonist Thomas Harriot wrote about the native inhabitants he encountered in an account titled A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. In 1587, White was made the governor of what became the famous Lost Colony of Roanoke, along the coast of today’s North Carolina.
The people and places John White painted resided in and near the Outer Banks of modern-day North Carolina. While the Roanoke colony was in modern-day North Carolina, the colony was part of the land Queen Elizabeth I granted to Sir Walter Raleigh, land she called “Virginia.” As mid-Atlantic coastal Indians, the Indigenous people John White painted shared many aspects of culture and language with the Powhatan paramount chiefdom to their north. Therefore, historians use these watercolors to learn about Powhatan culture, even though the paintings do not specifically depict members of the Powhatan paramount chiefdom.
John White returned to England before the members of the Roanoke colony infamously disappeared. By the time he went back to Roanoke in 1590, he found a deserted colony and was forced to return to England once more.
Theodor de Bry was a goldsmith, engraver and printer. He was born in Belgium, but throughout his life he also lived in France and England until settling in Frankfurt, Germany. In Frankfurt, he set up a publishing house. While in England, de Bry had acquired the text of Thomas Harriot’s A Brief and True Report and John White’s paintings. In Frankfurt, he created engravings of White’s paintings. These engravings did not copy White’s watercolors exactly. While de Bry had never been to America, he inserted his own preconceived notion about the people and places of the Americas, including making the features of Indigenous people look more European. In 1590, de Bry published Thomas Harriot’s account alongside his engravings of John White’s paintings in a volume together. The images and text were primarily anthropological in nature: they included portraits of Indigenous people, depictions of their culture and way of life and imagery of their towns. Europeans and their interactions with Indigenous people were absent from the volume.
A Brief and True Report was wildly successful and gave Europeans hungry for information about the Americas a glimpse into a place they would likely never see. However, they were not gaining an objective or fully truthful view of mid-Atlantic coastal Indian life. Rather, their view of the Americas was filtered first through John White’s and then through de Bry’s motives and biases.
When you look at this image, what do you notice? What do you think the person who created this image wanted you to think and feel? As historians, there’s a lot we can learn from this image about how mid-Atlantic coastal Indians fished.
This image depicts several methods of fishing. These descriptions were supplemented by a written description in the text, which read:
They haue likewise a notable way to catche fishe in their Riuers for whear as they lacke both yron, and steele, they faste vnto their Reedes or longe Rodds, the hollowe tayle of a certaine fishe like to sea crabb in steede of a poynte, wehr with by nighte or day they stricke fishes, and take them op into their boates. They also know how to vse the prickles, and pricks of other fishes. They also make weares, with settinge opp reedes or twigges in the water, which they soe plant one within a nother, that they growe still narrower, and narrower, as appeareth by this figure. Ther was neuer seene amonge vs soe cunninge a way to take fish withall, wherof sondrie sortes as they fownde in their Riuers vnlike vnto ours. which are alfo of a verye good taste. Dowbtless yt is a pleasant sighte to see the people, somtymes wadinge, and goinge somtymes sailinge in those Riuers, which are shallowe and not deepe, free from all care of heapinge opp Riches for their posterite, content with their state, and liuinge frendlye together of those thinges which god of his bountye hath giuen vnto them….
There is a lot to learn from the image about what its creator thought was important, and his worldview. Beyond showing how Indigenous people fished, this image includes elements that were meant to entice potential colonists or colonial investors.
1. Using the image, ask students if they can identify the following methods of fishing: weirs (traps), nets, spears.
2. Using the image, ask students what potential colonists might think about the Americas if they saw this image. What about it would make prospective colonists think about coming to the Americas? What wouldn’t?
Related Classroom Resources
- Directory: Teaching with Primary Sources Digital Library
- Essay: Who Were the Powhatan Indians and How Did They Live?
- Lesson Plan: How did the Powhatan Interact with their Environment?
- Primary Source: “The manner of making their boates”
- Primary Source: “Their sitting at meate”
- Primary Source: “The browyllinge of their fishe over the flame”
- Primary Source: “A weroan or great Lorde of Virginia”
- Thomas Hariot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, DocSouth, https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/hariot/hariot.html.
- Kim Sloan, ed., A New World: England’s First View of America (UK: The British Museum Press, 2007).
- Helen Rountree, The Powhatan Indians of Virginia (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989).