Native North Americans

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750

Curriculum topics: Diverse histories, Local Histories, Tudors

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

Download: Lesson pack

What was early contact like between Europeans and Natives?

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.


1. This is an extract from one of the settlers diaries.

  • What did the ‘Dyscoverers’ (explorers) take with them?
  • How many people went on the exploration?

2. This is another extract from the diary seen in Source 1.

  • How welcome were the men made? [Think about how they were ‘entertained’]
  • What was done to show respect for Captain Newport?
  • What did the native people give them? [3 things]
  • What did the Captain get?
  • How do you think these explorers felt about their treatment?

3. This extract describes how the explorers were missing two bullet-bags and the 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 Natives? Make sure you explain your ideas – use the questions below to help:
    • Have both groups shown themselves to be friendly? How?
    • Has respect been shown to each other? How?
    • How well have problems been resolved?
    • Are there any sign of nerves or worries?

4. This extract explains the natives showing the settlers how they lived.

  • What are the explorers shown how to do? [Think about what ‘manner of setting’ actually means]
  • If the Natives are willing to do this, what does this suggest about them?
  • Which of the following sentences best describes this early contact? Write a paragraph to explain your choice
    • the Natives were warning them off – showing they didn’t welcome ‘strangers’ bringing disease
    • the Natives were enormously friendly to the Europeans – helpful in every possible way
    • the Europeans were extremely scared but had nothing to worry about – they all got along fine!

5. This extract describes how the natives appeared to the settlers.

  • Write as much as you can about the following things:
    • clothing
    • footwear
    • hair / hairstyle
    • skin
    • differences between men and women
  • Using this information, why do you think some settlers felt uncomfortable with Native Americans?

6. Imagine you were amongst these first settlers.

  • Write your own journal entry describing your first contact with the Natives. Look at the source to get an idea of a journal entry. Make sure you cover:
      • your fears before you arrived
      • how you felt about the native people after first contact
      • how accurate your fears were
      • what you feel you can gain from these people
      • what you feel you and others must be careful of doing


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.

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 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.

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.

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750

Curriculum topics: Diverse histories, Local Histories, Tudors

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

Download: Lesson pack