Analyzing Primary Sources

How Do We Know What We Know?

Elementary, Middle


Students analyze a picture of a Powhatan object shown on the John Smith map in order to learn more about Powhatan Indian life.

Standards of Learning:

VA Sols: VS 1 a, e
National Standards for History: Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Materials Needed for Activity:

Powhatan Indian World – Essay
Map of Virginia by John Smith
Powhatan Indian Wearing a Gorget—detail from John Smith’s map
Powhatan Indian Gorget
The Six P’s: Artifact Investigation – Worksheet


Teacher Background:

A Powhatan woman would have worn long hair, probably loose, and a deerskin apron, with nothing in back.  If she was well off, she may have worn a headband or beads around the neck.  A Powhatan man would wear the same kind of apron and a gorget that could be made from shells or copper.  A gorget is a neck piece that could be worn in Powhatan culture as a symbol of wealth and authority.  Gorgets made of copper indicated both wealth and power, because copper was very scarce and, thus, highly valued among the Powhatan Indians.


Step 1:  Review with students how we learn about the past, including examining artifacts, documents, pictures and words.  We have very few of these about the Powhatan Indians from the early colonial period.  Among the things we do have is a map that was drawn by John Smith.  Included on the map are some illustrations that show how the Powhatan Indians looked and how they dressed sometimes.  Often, we can reproduce artifacts by analyzing primary sources like the John Smith map.

Step 2:  Divide students into small workgroups.  Distribute a copy of John Smith’s Map of Virginia to each group and discuss why it is an important primary source, as well as what kinds of information we can learn by analyzing it.  For example, by studying the images on the map we can learn about how Powhatan Indians looked, dressed and where they lived.

Step 3:  Without revealing the name of the object, distribute the Picture of the reproduction Powhatan Indian gorget to each group.  Ask students to find something that looks similar to the object in the picture on John Smith’s Map of Virginia.  Direct their attention to the illustrations on the map if necessary.  After each group matches the reproduction gorget to the Powhatan Indian on the map, distribute the detail from John Smith’s Map of Virginia depicting a Powhatan Indian Wearing a Gorget.

Step 4:  Distribute The Six P’s: Artifact Investigation worksheet to each group and discuss the six steps they will use to investigate an artifact.  The worksheet requires the students to investigate a problem, place, purpose, people, perspective, and proof associated with an artifact. Using the worksheet, the Picture of the reproduction Powhatan Indian gorget, and the Powhatan Indian Wearing a Gorget, direct each group to complete the investigation by answering the questions on the worksheet.

Summary Activity:  Have students report their findings.  As a group they should come to a consensus about what the object is and its significance to the Powhatan Indians. Ask students why this object would be important to the Powhatan people.  Why would John Smith include a picture of a Powhatan Indian wearing this object on his map?  Share the background information about the gorget with the class. Discuss its significance as an indicator of wealth and position in Powhatan society.  Ask if they have seen similar symbols of wealth and power in other cultures or time periods throughout history?

Lesson plans made possible by Archibald Andrews Marks.