Analyzing Words


Upper Elementary, Middle


Students will analyze writings in order to learn more about the early years of settlement at Jamestown.

Standards of Learning:

VA SOLs: VS 1a, e; ELA 4.3, 4.5, 6.1, 6.3
National Standards for History: Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Materials Needed for Activity:

Life at Jamestown – Essay
Life at Jamestown – Period Quotes
Life at Jamestown – Word Analysis Worksheet

Teacher Background:

George Percy, like many Jamestown colonists, had acquired military experience before coming to Jamestown. Therefore, when Newport divided the colonists into three groups upon landing – builders to start constructing the fort, agriculturalists to clear ground and plant foodstuffs, and explorers to travel up the James River in search of neighboring tribes, clues to the “Lost Colony” and valuable commodities – Percy joined the explorers group, as did some of the other leaders.  Percy’s writings are one of the most detailed accounts we have of life during the first year in the colony.

Captain John Smith, another of the original voyagers to Jamestown in 1607, had an extensive military background and a reputation as a brave and courageous warrior.  Having been charged with mutiny during the voyage, he remained under restraint for almost a month after landing.  He was also one of the designated councilors, much to the dislike and disgust of some of the others.  Once free from his restraints, he quickly took over the exploration of Virginia, making almost constant trips to explore the Chesapeake Bay, discover new rivers, and trade with the Indians for corn.  As a result, Smith’s account does not say much about events within the confines of Jamestown.  Smith later became the president of the colony and is generally credited with saving it from collapse. 


Step 1:  Review with students the different ways we learn about the past, such as studying artifacts and analyzing documents and pictures.  Tell them another way we know about the past is by reading written descriptions by people who lived during a particular period of time.  These words are invaluable in teaching us about their lifestyle, what occurred when and what they thought about an event or person.  Unfortunately, the writings from Jamestown are relatively meager compared to some other places and times.  Yet, people like John Smith and George Percy contributed a great deal of information about their experiences while they were there.

Step 2:  Review with students the information in the Life at Jamestown background essay, focusing on the hardships of the colony and factors that led to its survival.

Step 3:  Pass out copies of Life at Jamestown – Period Quotes. Have students look at the

first selection of Percy’s writings taken from his Observations collection.  Read it aloud as the students follow along with their copies.  Ask students to identify some ways English words have changed and expressions which are no longer used.  Once they understand the language as stated in the writings, ask what information they learned about Jamestown in these first few days from reading this passage.

Note:  The word “savage” was used frequently by the British, referring to others who were not English and did not share their religion or customs.  This word did not have the same meaning for the English then as it does for us today.

Step 4:  Introduce students to the activity by distributing copies of the Word Analysis Worksheet.  Discuss the worksheet with them and explain that some groups will examine another excerpt from George Percy’s writings, while other groups will examine writings by John Smith.

Step 5:  Break students into groups of no more than five students each.  Assign each group one of the Percy or Smith writings to read and analyze.  Students should discuss among themselves the questions on the worksheet, but they do not have to agree on the answers.  Encourage students to have reasons for the answers they give.

Step 6:   After a set amount of time, have students come back together as a class and discuss some of their answers. Encourage students to be able to explain why they responded as they did.  Ask students what advantages there are to these kinds of observations.  They are first-hand accounts of what happened from the perspective of an observer at the time.  Ask student about the disadvantages of using these sources to learn about the past.  Challenges may include historical bias or some misleading information if the person exaggerated, as John Smith was reported to have done at times.  There may also be memory problems if the person does not write his accounts until years after they have occurred.  John Smith wrote his accounts years after he was at Jamestown.  In order to have information that is as valid as possible, historians may compare information of two or more writers of the same time period, if possible.

 Lesson plans made possible Archibald Andrews Marks.