In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean, unlocking what Europeans quickly came to call the ‘New World’. Columbus ‘found’ a land with around two million inhabitants. He thought he had found a new route to the East, so he mistakenly called these people ‘Indians’. Within a hundred years, Europeans were trying to settle in the Americas. With Spanish and Portuguese explorers in the south, English explorers focused on North America.
This lesson examines what happened between early English settlers and Native Americans in North America. Using primary source evidence you will investigate what the early contact was like. Were the Native Americans savage and vicious hosts? Were the Europeans unreasonable and unfair? Or did they all just get along fine? You need to find out what happened.
The evidence comes from 1607. This was the year that the first permanent English settlement was established in North America, known as Jamestown. These first settlers – and those who sent them – were keen to find out about the area, keen to see how they could benefit. These settlers began to explore and they soon encountered the Native people. Using the information they recorded, you are going to examine their initial thoughts and feelings.
The first English explorers to North America arrived five years after Columbus in 1497, led by the Italian Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot). However the English did not try and establish permanent settlements in the ‘New World’ until much later.
In 1585, English colonists attempted to settle at a place called Roanoke. The settlement lasted only for a short time. After initial friendly relations, fighting broke out with the Native Americans when they refused demands for food from English soldiers. The colonists fled.
On May 14, 1607, the first lasting English settlement in North America was established. The settlement was named ‘Jamestown’ after the current King of England, James I. Captain Newport led the expedition, staying until June 22nd, when he sailed back to England for supplies. The source material in this Snapshot comes from the time between May and June, when Newport was in America. The report was probably written by Captain Gabriell Archer (CO 1/1).
104 settlers were left, with Captain John Smith placed in charge. These settlers were unprepared, and did not even plant the right crops or eat the right foods. They soon encountered starvation and famine, despite stealing food from the Native Americans. In the first three years, despite new arrivals, more than 80% of the settlers died – mostly from illness such as malaria. Thousands of Native Americans were also killed, either in fighting or by outbreaks of European diseases to which their bodies had no immunity.
Those settlers that survived, together with new arrivals, began to cultivate the land, growing tobacco. As more settlers arrived, more Native American hunting grounds were taken, and the Native Americans began to fight back. Any chance of peaceful relations were at an end.
This lesson asks pupils to investigate the early contact between Europeans and Native Americans. Using primary source diary extracts, pupils are able to understand and appreciate the first encounters between European settlers and the indigenous people of North America. Pupils are asked to explore both positive and negative aspects of these encounters, which can then be developed further in a number of ways. Some may prefer to extend this to a comparison between later feelings and actions taken against the Native Americans, examining when the European ‘stereotype’ of the Native Americans emerged.
Source 1 : MPG1/284 : This is a contemporary map engraved by William Hole based on descriptions by the discoverer of Virginia, Captain John Smith. The map uses a mix of English and Native place names.
Source 2-7 : CO1/1 : These are extracts from the diaries of one of the Virginia settlers, possibly Captain Gabriel Archer, and show the life of the settlers as well as their interaction with the native Americans.
The lesson could form a background to the teaching of the History Scheme of Work Unit 19: What were the effects of Tudor exploration? The lesson also covers breadth of study National Curriculum requirements through investigation of a world study before 1900, specifically indigenous peoples of North America. The final written task offers a clear literacy opportunity, and further links with citizenship and PSHE issues could be made with teacher development.
A site giving a lot of information about the original settlement at Jamestown, including a 3D reconstruction of the settlement and information about the people who lived there.