Lesson 1: English-Indian Encounters


This lesson plan explores the dynamics of English-Indian relations in Virginia during the first part of the seventeenth century. It can be used when teaching specifically about the founding of the first colony at Jamestown or as part of a more general unit on the discovery and settlement of the New World. The lesson asks students to analyze documents and drawings in order to investigate English perceptions of, and experiences with, the Indians who inhabited the Chesapeake region.


  1. To understand the preconceptions and expectations the English brought to their initial encounters with the Indians in Virginia.
  2. To examine the different ways in which the colonists and Indians interacted and the underlying tensions in these encounters.
  3. To explore why English settlers and American Indians were unable to form a lasting accommodation with one another in the Chesapeake region.

Pre-Class Preparation

Students will examine several documents of varying length drawn from different sources on the internet. Have your students read these documents prior to coming to class.

Part 1: English Objectives

This part of the lesson should be completed by students as a homework assignment.

The English hoped to realize a variety of benefits from the establishment of a permanent colony in North America. At the same time, they understood that any colonial venture would inevitably bring them into contact with some of the Native American tribes residing along the coast. Promoters and planners of colonization were not quite sure of the reception the first English settlers would receive at the hands of the Indians.

Activity: Have students read the following documents: Richard Hakluyt's "Discourse of Western Planting" (1584); "Instructions for the Virginia Colony" (1606); and "First Virginia Charter" (1606).

Assignment: Ask students to prepare brief written answers to the following questions: What were the specific goals behind English efforts to establish a permanent settlement in North America? What attention do these documents pay to the Native American inhabitants of the area selected for colonization? Based on your assessment of the English goals, what are some of the sources of conflict you can imagine arising between the colonists and Indians?

Part 2: European Impressions of the New World

Europeans recorded their impressions of the Native Americans in words and images. This part of the lesson looks at several different artistic representations of Indians. Google searches can locate the following images online:

  • John White's 1585 drawing of Secoton, an Indian village on the coast of North Carolina, is one of the most valuable pictures of Native American life we have because White actually accompanied an expedition to the area and based his drawing on his firsthand observations.
  • Maps of the region that date from the first half of the 1600s were drawn by European artists who probably based their renderings of the Indians on the written or verbal reports provided by some of the early colonists.

Activity: Look at the images twice. The first time tell students to focus on the information these images convey about their subjects. The second time, ask students to think about what these images reveal concerning the attitudes of the artists who created them.

Assignment: After students finish viewing the images the first time, ask them to respond to the following questions:

  • What does this artwork tell you about how Indians lived in relation to the environment?
  • What generalizations can you make about the social and political organization of the Indians depicted in these images?

After the second showing of the images, ask students to comment on the following questions:

  • What generalizations can you make as to how the artists who created this work perceived their subjects?
  • What aspects of Indian life or of Indian character do they appear most interested in portraying?
  • Do all of these artists share the same "image" of Native Americans or do you see some of these pieces as presenting competing "images"?

Part 3: Early Encounters in Virginia

The final part of this lesson returns to written sources. The first English settlers in Virginia regarded the Indians with a mixture of emotions. Although the colonists were often suspicious, fearful, and not a little scornful of the Native Americans they encountered, they were curious and fascinated, too. The colonists' early dealings with the Indians were also marked by an acute appreciation of their own vulnerability. The English were truly strangers in a strange land, and they understood that the survival of their enterprise depended in part on establishing good relations with their Native American neighbors. By the second half of the 1600s, though, three wars along with frequent minor clashes had destroyed any sense of goodwill among the colonists towards the Indians.

Assignment: : Ask the students to refer to "Observations by Master George Percy, 1607" and the excerpt from John Smith's The Proceedings of the English Colony in Virginia (1612). Both documents provide wonderfully detailed accounts of English dealings with the Indians during the early years of the colony, when relations between the two races were still fluid. Finally, refer your students to the excerpt from A Discourse and View of Virginia, written by the colony's royal governor William Berkeley in the 1660s. Berkeley mentions the Indians only in passing, but his few off-hand references offer telling evidence of how English attitudes had hardened over the decades.

Activity: Ask your students to respond to some or all of the following questions:

  • How would you characterize the encounters between the English and the Indians as described by George Percy and John Smith in their accounts?
  • What expectations did the English bring to these encounters?
  • What can you deduce from these two documents about the Indians' policy towards the colonists?
  • How does William Berkeley's opinion of the Indians differ from the perceptions of Percy and Smith?

Suggestions For Additional Activities

Most of the documents, drawings, and maps featured in this lesson plan came from Virtual Jamestown. This site contains an excellent selection of primary source material relating to the English experience at Jamestown. It also provides a number of very detailed and well-conceived suggestions for using the website in the classroom.