Primary Source: De Bry's “Their sitting at meate"

Two mid-Atlantic coastal Indians sit on a reed mat eating enlarged corn kernals from a shallow wooden plate that sits between them. Each person’s legs are spread out in front of them on either side of the plate. On the left sits a man with his head shaved into a mohawk and a feather in his hair. He wears a deerskin, one-shouldered tunic. His hands are both in the dish in front of him and he looks at the woman across from him. The woman looks toward the viewer with a coy expression on her face. Her hair is tied in a low bun at the nape of her neck. She wears a three string necklace of beads. One hand is on her shoulder as her arm covers her breasts. The other arm is in the dish in front of her. Like the man, she wears a deerskin tunic. In front of them are various items: a jug, a leather pouch, a clay pipe, a walnut, a fish, four ears of corn and an oyster shell.

Primary Source

Image Citation
“Their sitting at meate,” 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, JS84.11.05.

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 an Indigenous man and woman eating. Key to the image is the assemblage of items in front of the man and woman, which clue the viewer into important objects in mid-Atlantic coastal life. In the original watercolor version of this image drawn by John White, the items are absent. They were added by the image’s engraver, Theodor de Bry, using descriptions of the Indigenous people in the Americas. They offer insights into the material culture of Algonquian speaking peoples.

Historical Background and Image Analysis

Image/Author Background
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 were 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 watercolors 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 watercolors. In Frankfurt, he created engravings of White’s watercolors. These engravings did not copy White’s paintings exactly. While de Bry had never been to America, he inserted his own preconceived notions about the people and places of the Americas. 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 images 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, Europeans did not gain an objective or fully truthful view of Algonquian Indian life. Rather, their view of the Americas was filtered first through John White’s and then through de Bry’s motives and biases.

Image Analysis
This image is one of Theodor de Bry’s more fanciful renditions of a John White watercolor. In John White’s original “Theire sitting at meate,” a man and a woman sit on a reed mat eating from a wooden platter of hominy. The scene has no background and is instead suspended in beige space. De Bry added scenery to the background: the reed mat sits on the earth, where rocks and tufts of grass appear. He also included an assortment of items in front of the pair on the reed mat. While these objects were not a part of the original painting, de Bry used descriptions from other parts of Harriot’s text to incorporate items that would have been used in mid-Atlantic coastal Indian cultures.

Harriot’s description included with this image reads:

Their manner of feeding is in this wise. They lay a matt made of bents one the grownde and sett their meate on the mids therof, and then sit downe Rownde, the men vppon one side, and the woemen on the other. Their meate is Mayz sodden, in suche sorte as I described yt in the former treatise of verye good taste, deers flesche, or of some other beaste, and fishe. They are verye sober in their eatinge, and trinkinge, and consequentlye verye longe liued because they doe not oppress nature.

By stating that Indigenous people were “sober in their eating” he meant that they did not overeat. He also claimed that because of this, they lived a long time. Harriot’s descriptions often included elements that praised Indigenous people for their “excellencie of wit.” While Harriot was impressed by the intelligence of the Indigenous people he met, he ultimately believed that English culture and tools were superior, and that Indigenous people would soon realize the same thing and “desire our friendship and love, and have the greater respect for pleasing and obeying us.” Ultimately, he still thought they needed to “bee brought to civilitie.”

A Deeper Look
The image contains materials that were central to mid-Atlantic coastal life and culture, which included the Powhatan paramount chiefdom.

Classroom Inquiry

1. Have students examine the items. Think about the items they see. What do you think the item is? What do you think it was used for? Why do you think it was important?

2. Use the “Deeper Look” section to learn more about the items in the image. Was your prediction correct?

Related Classroom Resources

Additional Reading