Which John Smith Passage is most accurate? Background for the Teacher

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Educational materials developed through the Howard County History Labs Program, a partnership between the Howard County Public School System and the UMBC Center for History Education.

Which John Smith Passage is most accurate?
Background for the Teacher:
John Smith is famous as a leader of the Jamestown colony. He was also an explorer, cartographer,

author, and a businessman who promoted the colonization of Virginia. He has been widely praised for

his strong leadership, skills as a captain, and his work in documenting detailed information about the

New World. Smith was a prolific self-promoter, and much of what we know about him is from his own

Born in England in 1580, Smith began his career at age 16 as a soldier and sailor aboard merchant ships. After fighting in several foreign wars and escaping slavery by the Turks, he returned to England in 1604-05 and began working with the Virginia Company. Smith was a member of the expedition to launch the first English colony in the New World at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. As the colonists struggled to survive the harsh winter, lack of fresh water, disease, and Native American attacks, Smith rose to leadership of the colony.
In this performance task, students will examine two accounts from John Smith that give conflicting

information about a famous event – his encounter with the powerful Native American chief Powhatan

and his eleven year old daughter, Pocahontas. (Many students are familiar with this event from the

popular Walt Disney movie, Pocahontas, although the film is historically inaccurate.) Students will

source the information in the documents, which provide clues about which account can be considered more reliable. With secondary students, teachers may also want to spend time talking about Smith’s actual relationship with Pocahontas and her relative fame in America and Europe after Smith’s original encounter with Powhatan.
Although many of the details of this encounter are uncertain, in part because of Smith’s conflicting

accounts, we do know that Smith and some fellow colonists were ambushed in December 1607. Smith

was the only member of the party to survive. The Native Americans brought him before Powhatan, the powerful leader of a large confederacy of about 30 Algonquian-speaking Indian tribes that occupied the region between tidewater Virginia and southern Maryland, to decide his fate. During his four-week-long captivity, Powhatan questioned Smith extensively about the intentions of the colonists. He was also forced to participate in some sort of ceremony involving Pocahontas. Smith was always in fear for his ife. Ultimately, Smith favorably impressed Powhatan. He was made a subordinate chief in the tribe and was released to return to Jamestown.
As the Jamestown colony dissolved into chaos, Smith’s attempts to restore order through strict

discipline helped to save the colony, but it caused many to dislike him. In 1608, Smith explored the

Chesapeake Bay region, creating maps and records that were extremely valuable to future colonists. In 1609, he was accidentally burned and then went back to England. Smith would never return to Virginia, but he did conduct further voyages of exploration in the New England area. His strong personality offended many in England, however, and Smith was never permitted another leadership role in settling the New World. John Smith died at age 51 in 1631.


Historic Jamestown: Unearthing America’s Birthplace. “Captain John Smith.” Accessed November 13, 2013..


Context Setting:
Begin the task by asking students to share what they may already know about John Smith. Who was

John Smith, and what did he do? What did he look like?

Read RS#01: John Smith – A Short Biography aloud to the students. Compare their prior

understandings to what they learned in the reading. What did you learn about John Smith that you

did not already know? What kind of a man was he?

Document Analysis:
Explain to students that they will be reading two primary source documents that have been adapted

from their original form to make it easier for students to understand. Preview the documents,

focusing on the difficult and archaic vocabulary terms.

Divide the room into halves. Have half of the room read RS#02: Source A – A True Relation, and the

other half read RS#03: Source B – The General History.

After reading, ask the students to share their observations about the two different sources.

Next, you may also have each student read the other source.

Have a student read the title and author of each source aloud. Ask the class, “Is this the same event?

If so, why do you think the accounts may be so different? Let’s do some further investigation to see

if we can find out.”

Corroborating Evidence and Constructing Interpretations – Close Analysis:
Direct the students to RS#04: Graphic Organizer – Which John Smith is Telling the Truth?

Working in teams, have the students work through the documents and respond to the prompts.

Remind the students to examine the sourcing information about each document very carefully.

The teacher may want to do a read-aloud/think-aloud of the sourcing information at the bottom of

each document. Teachers should help students understand the different original dates of each


Before they begin, remind the students about John Smith’s original job. His job was to establish

colonies in the New World for the Virginia Company.

Thoughtful Application:
Individually, have students determine which source they believe to be more credible. They should

be able to provide evidence to support their conclusions.

Each student will write a short speech explaining “which” John Smith is telling the truth. In other

words, which of John Smith’s accounts of his meeting with Powhatan is likely to be more accurate?

Students should provide evidence from the sources to support their conclusions.

Have students volunteer to read their speeches to the class. After hearing others share, ask the

students to review their own choices. By a show of hands, determine how many students changed

their opinions.

Grade the speeches using RS#05: ARCH Historical Thinking Skills Rubric – Sourcing, Critical Reading.

Alternative methods for determining student understanding are to write an argumentative essay,

conduct a Socratic seminar, or produce a political cartoon.

Resource Sheet #01
John Smith – A Short Biography
John Smith is best known for his explorations in the Chesapeake region, especially for

his role as one of the leaders of the Jamestown Colony in Virginia. He was born in England in

1580. Smith left home at age 16 after his father’s death and volunteered in France as a soldier.

He continued as a soldier and also as a sailor for a merchant ship, eventually being promoted to

Captain. He was later wounded in battle and captured by the Turks and sold into slavery.
According to Smith, a Turkish girl fell in love with him and sent him to her brother for

military training. Smith then claimed to escape by murdering the brother and returning to

England in the winter of 1604-05. Later, he began to work with the Virginia Company, which

was planning to colonize Virginia for profit. Smith was a part of the famous expedition that

landed in Jamestown in 1607.
Harsh conditions confronted the colonists, as they battled disease, food shortages, and

Native Americans who raided their camps. Smith was named a leader and helped to defend the

settlement from the Native Americans. In December 1607, Native Americans ambushed Smith

and a group of colonists. According to Smith, the Native Americans killed everyone but him and

then took him to see their chief, Powhatan. Historians disagree about what happened next, but

Smith wrote that the chief was impressed with him and allowed him to live. He was questioned

about the colony and took part in some sort of ceremony in which his life may have been

threatened. He was released after several weeks in captivity.

Upon his return to Jamestown, Smith found the colony in turmoil, and he left to explore

and map the Chesapeake Bay. Things got worse at Jamestown during his voyage, and he was

eventually elected as their president in September 1608. He introduced a policy of strict rules,

better defenses, and expanded farming. John Smith’s leadership helped the colony survive.

Smith went to England for treatment of an injury in 1609 and did not return to Jamestown. His

independent nature made him unpopular with the Virginia Company, and its leaders refused to

put Smith in another colonial leadership position. In 1614, he did lead a successful voyage to

Massachusetts and Maine, naming the area “New England.” Smith published several books,

many of which promoted his importance in settling the New World, and he died in 1631.

Source: Historic Jamestown: Unearthing America’s Birthplace. “Captain John Smith.” Accessed November 13,

2013.. http://apva.org/rediscovery/page.php?page_id=25.

Document A – A True Relation by John Smith (Excerpt)
The next night I lodged [stayed] at a hunting town of Powhatams, and the next day arrived at

Waranacomoco upon a river of Pamauncke, where the great king is resident [lives] . . . Arriving

at Weramocomoco [? On or about 5 January 1608], their Emperor proudly lying upon a

Bedstead a foot high, upon ten or twelves Mats , richly hung with many chains of great pearls

about his neck , and covered with a great Covering of Rahaughcums. At head sat a woman, at

his feet another; on each side sitting upon a mat uppon the ground, were ranged [arranged] his

chief men on each side of the fire, ten in a rank [row], and behind them as many young women,

each a great Chain of white Beads over their shoulders, their heads painted in red: and with

such a grave [serious] and Magestic [royal] countenance [facial expression], as draw me into

admiration to see such state in a naked Savage .

He kindly welcomed me with such good words , and great Platters of sundry Victuals [food],

assuring me his friendship, and my liberty within four days….

. . . He asked me the cause of our coming….
. . . He desired me to . . . live with him upon his River, a Country called Capa Howasicke. He

promised to give me Corn , Venison [deer meat], or what I wanted to feed us: Hatchets and

Copper we should make him, and none should disturb us.

This request I promised to perform : and thus, having with all the kindness he could devise

[create], sought to content [satisfy] me, he sent me home, with 4 men: one that usually carried

my Gown and Knapsack after me, two other loaded with bread, and one to accompany me.

***Resource: Smith, Captaine John. A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as has

Happened in Virginia Since the First Planting of that Colony, which is now resident in the South part

thereof, till the last return from thence. London: 1608. Also modified from the resource adapted by the Stanford History Education Group’s Reading Like a Historian curriculum.
Document B – The General History by John Smith (Excerpt)
How Powhatan entertained him.

How Pocahontas saved his life.
At last they brought him [Smith] to Meronocomoco, where was Powhatan their Emperor. Here

more than two hundred of those grim Courtiers [high-ranking men] stood wondering at him, as

he had beene a monster. . . Before a fire upon a seat like a bedstead, he sat covered with a

great robe, made of Rarowcun [raccoon] skinnes, and all the tayles [tails] hanging by. On either

hand did sit a young wench [woman] of 16 to 18 yeares, and along on each side the house, two

rowes of men, and behind as many women, with all their heads and shoulders painted red. . .

. . . two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could laid hands on him

[Smith], dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to

beate out his braines, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no entreaty [begging]

could prevaile [succeed], got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him

from death: whereat the Emperor was contented [satisfied] he should live to make him

hatchets . . .
. . . Two days after, Powhatan having disguised himselfe in the most fearefullest manner he

could, caused Capt. Smith to be brought forth to a great house in the woods…then

Powhatan…came unto him and told him now they were friends, and presently he should go to

James towne, to send him two great guns, and a grindstone, for which he would give him the

Country of Capahowosick, and forever esteem him as his son Nantaquoud. So to James towne

with 12 guides Powhatan sent him.

***Source: Smith, Captaine John. The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles. London: I.D. and I.H., 1624. p. 48-49. Also modified from the resource adapted by the Stanford History Education Group’s Reading Like a Historian curriculum.

Graphic Organizer – Which John Smith is Telling the Truth?

Part One: Source the Documents

Document A: A True Relation by John Smith

Document B: The General History by John Smith

When was this account written?

How many years after Smith met Powhatan in December 1607 was this source created?

What was going on in Smith’s life at the time the source was created?

What do you think was Smith’s purpose in creating this source?

In one sentence, summarize the main idea of this source. What

happened when Smith met Powhatan?

Part Two: Critical Reading

http://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/images/jsmith-apva.jpg Which John Smith is telling the truth? http://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/images/jsmith-apva.jpg

In what ways are these two descriptions about the same event different?

Why might the same author offer different descriptions of the same event?

Which account do you find more credible and what evidence led you to that conclusion?

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