How did the three cultures at Jamestown interact?

Lesson Plan
Powhatans hunting and fishing, Theodor de Bry

Powhatans hunting and fishing, Theodor de Bry

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Upper Elementary


Virginia Standards of Learning


Comparing and Contrasting, Making Connections, Using Information Resources, Questioning and Inquiry Skills



The story of Jamestown is the story of the interaction among three cultures – the Powhatan Indians, the English and the Africans – each of whom had their own unique way of life.  The ancestors of the Powhatans had lived in eastern Virginia for thousands of years and had formed a hierarchical political structure and complex trade relationships.  The English had begun to explore westward, looking for new lands and resources partly due to economic events.  In 1619 Africans were transported to Virginia against their will.  In Africa, they had been part of a highly developed culture in what is present-day Angola.  The story of Jamestown is the meeting and interaction of these three distinct cultures. 

Students will compare and contrast the parent cultures of the three groups of people who came together at Jamestown – the Powhatan Indians, the English and the Angolans – and describe similarities and differences.

Essential Question:

How did the three cultures at Jamestown interact?


Comparing Cultures Guiding Questions

Comparing Cultures Graphic Organizer

Cultures at Jamestown Quotes

Comparing Cultures Images


Step 1:  Begin the lesson by asking students how we know what we know about the past. We may examine pictures (such as drawings, engravings, portraits), artifacts, documents (such as letters, diaries, journals), archaeological remains (such as building foundations, garbage) or even nature (tree rings).  Ask students how they know about their families, what they did, where they lived, what they looked like.  Ask how people in the future will learn about us.  How will it be different from the way we are learning about the past?

Step 2:  Remind students that all cultures at all times share basic human needs.  How each culture meets its needs may vary based on geography, available resources, and its technology.  It is because of these differences that cultures may clash when they come into contact with each other. This is what happened when the three cultures – the English, the Powhatans, and the Angolans met each other in Virginia in the 17th century.  Provide students with a copy of the Cultures at Jamestown – Comparison Chart.   Discuss with students the six human or cultural activities that are included on the chart.   Explain to students that they will examine pictures of the three cultures and words of people from the 17th century to complete the chart.  Their goal is to be able to describe the lifestyles of each of the cultural groups and to find where they were similar and where they were different.  They may also determine areas where they were able to cooperate and what ultimately led them to conflict.

Step 3: Model the activity by completing one of the cultural comparisons – clothing – with the class.  Distribute copies of pictures 1 – 3.  Ask students to first study the picture of the two Powhatan Indians.  What is their first impression of the picture?  Is it an action picture or are they posing?  Have them describe what they see including the clothing, jewelry, and other objects in the picture.

Step 4:  Now have them look closely at the details of the picture.  Use the Comparing Cultures – Guiding Questions to guide the students’ observations.  Have students write their observations in the “clothing” section of the Comparison Chart under “Powhatans.”

Step 5:  After completing this part of the chart, have students look at the picture of the Englishman.  Ask students the same guiding questions.  Discuss and then have them complete the chart under “English.”  Once they have completed this, have students observe the images of the Angolan and respond to the same questions.  Have students complete the chart under “Africans.”  Explain they will be using these and other pictures to answer questions about the other cultural activities of each of the three groups.

Step 6:  Break students into 5 groups with no more than 4 – 5 students in each group.  Assign each group a specific cultural activity to analyze – food, housing, technology, transportation or communication.  Provide each group with a set of pictures 1 – 11 and the Comparing Cultures – Guiding Questions.  Groups should focus on one picture at a time, using the questions to guide their observations.  Once all groups have completed their work, have each group discuss their observations with the class.  Record the consensus on an overhead chart for all to see.  Have students complete their own charts.

Step 7:  Explain to students that another way to learn more about these cultures is through written descriptions of people from the past.  Distribute copies of the Comparing Cultures – Period Quotes.  Ask each group to read the quotes, looking for additional information about their assigned activity.  When the groups have finished, again have each group report their findings.  Fill in additional information on the overhead chart.

Step 8:  Remind students that all cultures have similarities and differences and that sometimes these lead to cooperation and other times, to conflict.   Ask students to refer to their Comparison Charts and find at least two ways all three cultures were similar.  How were they different? Discuss as a class.

Step 9:  Next ask students to imagine they were members of the Powhatan culture when the English arrived.  Remembering or referring to their charts, ask them how and why they think they would cooperate with the English.  What did the English have that they wanted?  Iron tools, weapons, copper.  Ask if they were English, what did the Powhatans have that the English needed?  Food, furs, knowledge of the land, hunting knowledge.  Finally, ask students to imagine they were Angolans.  How is their situation different?  The Angolans came against their will, and they did not bring their material culture with them.  The English needed their labor, and they had little choice but to work and adapt.   What did the Angolans bring with them from Africa?  Knowledge and memories of their homeland including their culture, technology, etc.  How might conflict result when these cultures interacted?  The English needed land for their population to grow and to grow their cash crop, tobacco.   Indians wanted to protect their land to use as they always had – hunt freely, move when necessary.   Angolans worked and adopted the material culture of the English, but they also brought knowledge of their homeland and memories of their culture and traditions to Virginia.   Discuss as a group.


Have students pretend they are part of a TV program called, “Back to the Future.” Remembering all of the things that led to cooperation and conflict, have them write a paragraph explaining what they would change about the Jamestown story. Invite students to share their stories with the class.