Native North 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?
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.
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 diary 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 perspective 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 in 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.
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
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.