Native North Americans

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750

Curriculum topics: Diverse histories, Local Histories, The British Empire, Tudors

Suggested inquiry questions: What do the diaries show about the first meetings of English colonists and Native North Americans?

Potential activities: Create a timeline to show the history of Jamestown.

Download: Lesson pack

What was early contact like between English colonists and Native Americans?

In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean, unlocking what Europeans quickly came to call the ‘New World’. Columbus encountered land with around two million inhabitants that was previously unknown to Europeans. He thought he had found a new route to the East, so he mistakenly called these people ‘Indians’. Over the next few centuries, European powers colonised the Americas, seeking new land and trade opportunities. Spanish and Portuguese colonised large parts of South America, and other European colonial powers, including English explorers, focused on establishing settlements in North America.

The first permanent English settlement called Jamestown (after James I of England) was established in 1607 in Virginia, North America. These first settlers – and those who sent them – were keen to find out about the area and see what they could gain. The settlers began to explore and they soon encountered the Native people of the Chesapeake Bay region. There were many tribes living there at the time, most belonging to three major chiefdoms: the Powhatan, the Piscataway, and the Nanticoke.

This lesson uses documents that describe what happened between early English settlers and Native Americans in Virginia. Investigate how the English described this early contact. How did Native Americans react to the arrival of Europeans? Were relations friendly and, if so, how and why did they change over time?


1. Extract from 21 May 1607 from a journal of one of the settlers, likely Gabriel Archer, who is starting out on a journey of discovery with Captain Newport.

  • What did the ‘Dyscoverers’ (explorers) take with them?
  • Why might we today question the use of the term ‘Dyscoverers’ to describe the English settlers?
  • How many people went on the exploration?
  • Why do you think this journey of exploration was taking place?

2. This is an extract from 23 May 1607 from the journal seen in Source 1.

  • What was done to show respect for Captain Newport?
  • What did the local Indigenous people give to the colonists? [3 things]
  • What did the Captain get?
  • How do you think these explorers felt about this encounter?
  • Why do you think the settlers were treated like this?

3. This extract from 24 May 1607 from Archer’s journal describes how the English were missing two bullet-bags and their contents.

  • When the loss was reported, how quick and effective was the Native Americans response?
  • Why do you think the materials were taken by the Native Americans?
  • How is the situation resolved?
  • From the evidence so far, how would you describe the relationship between the Europeans and the Native Americans? Make sure you explain your ideas – use the questions below to help:
    • Would you describe this as a friendly relationship?
    • How well have problems been resolved?
    • Are there any sign of nerves or worries? What about tensions or threats?

4. This extract from 24 May 1607 (Whitsunday) from Archer’s journal describes how the colonists erected a cross in the name of King James, then misled their Native American guide about its meaning.

  • Why did the British colonists raise the cross?
  • Why is the cross inscribed with the names of King James and Captain Newport?
  • In your own words, what were the colonists praying for?
  • There is reference to two kings in this extract. Who are they? What may lead to conflict between them?
  • Why do you think the colonists proclaimed King James I as ‘king’ here, close to their new settlement of Jamestown?
  • Nauirans was a Native American Arrohattoc man who came with the British settlers as their guide. What do you think he starts to ‘admire’ or pay attention to when watching this scene?
  • Why do you think the British settlers mislead Nauirans about the meaning behind the cross?
  • The term ‘savages’ used to describe Native American Indians in this source is unacceptable today. What does use of this term suggest about the author’s attitude towards the Native Americans?

5. This extract from 25 May 1607 from Archer’s journal describes the Native American inhabitants showing the settlers how they lived.

  • What are the explorers shown how to do? [Think about what ‘manner of setting’ actually means]
  • If the Native Americans are willing to do this, what does this suggest about them?
  • How would you describe the role of food in the meetings between the Native Americans and the colonists?
  • What hints does this extract give us about how this Native American community lived?

6. This extract from May-June 1607 describes how the Native Americans appeared to the writer.

  • Which aspects of the Native Americans’ appearance seems to be most striking to the settler who wrote this passage? What does the author focus on, and why?
  • Why do you think the author is giving such a detailed account of the Native Americans’ appearances?
  • How might the description differ if it was given by one of the Native Americans themselves?
  • What does the extract suggest about the roles of men and women within the tribes?

7. This extract from May-June 1607 describes how its author viewed the role of religion in the relationship with the Native Americans.

  • What hints are given that suggest the religious beliefs of this particular Native American tribe?
  • What are the religious beliefs of the author?
  • Why do you think the colonists hope to convert the Native Americans to Christianity?
  • Can you spot the words ‘their fury’? Why do you think this is included?
  • Has your view on the relationship between the English settlers and the Native Americans changed since Source 3? If so, how?


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 to establish permanent settlements in the Americas 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, hostilities developed as settlers became increasingly reliant on Native Americans for food and fighting eventually broke out between the two groups. The local chieftain was killed by the English and the colony was eventually abandoned.

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 lesson comes from the first few months of the colony (CO 1/1).

After Captain Newport left for England, 104 settlers remained with Captain John Smith placed in charge. These settlers were unprepared, and did not 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 from the combined effects of famine, disease, and warfare.

Throughout the period of European colonisation, millions of Native Americans were killed, either in fighting or by outbreaks of European diseases to which their bodies had no immunity, such as smallpox. It is estimated that between 80% and 95% of the Native American population died within the first 100-150 years of European contact with the Americas.

Those settlers that survived, together with new arrivals, began to cultivate the land, growing crops such as tobacco. As more settlers arrived, more Native American land was taken, and the Native Americans began to fight back.

Teachers' notes

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 the different aspects of these encounters and why they may have changed.

Some may want to extend this to a comparison between later feelings and actions taken against the Native Americans, examining European stereotypes of the Native Americans, for example the ‘noble and ignoble savage’. To what extent were certain stereotypes already in place while the English settlers were writing these statements? How and why did they subsequently develop and shift?

It is important to explore also what is missing from these sources. Who wrote these journal extracts, and what might their goals be? What other sources should be consulted? It’s especially noteworthy that these sources do not take into account the perspectives of the Native Americans themselves. Why might that be?

What are the limitations in using one perspective? The National Archives code for the document is CO, which stands for Colonial Office. You could discuss with students why the National Archives holds a collection of documents under this name.

The early period covered in this lesson was followed by centuries of colonisation marked by wars, broken treaties, and discriminatory policies that decimated the indigenous North American populations and still impact Native Americans today. Since these sources only show the perspectives of the English settlers, teachers may want to bring in other sources from Native American points of view. The National Museum of the American Indian is a good place to start.


Banner image: Virginia described by Captain John Smith and engraved by William Hole, [1612]. Catalogue ref: MPG 1/284

Sources 1-7: America and West Indies, colonial papers, 1574 – 1621. Catalogue ref: CO1/1.

External links

Virtual Jamestown
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.

We Have a Story to Tell: Native Peoples of the Chesapeake Region
A teacher’s resource provided by the National Museum of the American Indian. This guide offers contemporary Native perspectives about the historical experiences of the Native Americans of the Chesapeake, in particular, the Powhatan, Nanticoke, and Piscataway peoples.

Native Knowledge 360° Education Initiative
Native Knowledge 360° is an initiative from the National Museum of the American Indian to provide educators and students with new perspectives on Native American history and cultures.

American Indian Treaties
From The National Archives in the United States. Includes examples of and information on treaties between European settlers and Native American tribes.

The road to Jamestown
A National Archives talk on the history of Jamestown.

Connections to the Curriculum

AQA GCSE History

Thematic study: Britain: Migration, empires and the people: c790 to the present day

Key stage 3: the development of Church, state and society in Britain 1509-1745:  the first colony in America

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750

Curriculum topics: Diverse histories, Local Histories, The British Empire, Tudors

Suggested inquiry questions: What do the diaries show about the first meetings of English colonists and Native North Americans?

Potential activities: Create a timeline to show the history of Jamestown.

Download: Lesson pack

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