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
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,
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
***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
Which John Smith is telling the truth?
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?