Analyzing Documents

How Do We Know What We Know?

Elementary, Middle


Students will analyze documents to learn more about the people and their way of life at Jamestown during the 17th century.

Standards of Learning:

Virginia SOLs: VS 1a; VS 3c, f
National Standards for History: Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Materials Needed for Activity:

Nova Brittania – Broadside
Indenture Agreement
Document Analysis Worksheet
Tobacco and Labor – Essay

Teacher Background:

Words and descriptions by people in the past are valuable insights to their way of life, to their thinking, and to their relations with others.  In 17th -century Jamestown, the only writings we have are those from the English, as the Powhatans and the Angolans did not have a written language.  The two documents that are included in this activity – the broadside Nova Brittania and Indenture Agreement – are only two of many documents that offer a window into the world of 17th -century Jamestown.  See the Tobacco and Labor background essay for more information on indentures.


Step 1:  Review with students the meaning of “indenture” reminding them that this is how most of the workers arrived at Jamestown before slavery took hold.  Discuss with students the “push –pull” factors: economic times were difficult in England and many people wanted to leave with hopes for a better life.  Review the need for labor at Jamestown and how harsh and challenging living conditions were after they arrived.

Step 2:  Distribute copies of the broadside, Nova Brittania, and the Document Analysis Worksheet to each student in the class.  Discuss with them reasons why the Virginia Company of London needed to advertise in order to attract people to the colony.  Read over the broadside so they understand the words.  Ask why they think it is titled “Nova Britannia” (New Britain).  Point out the different ways of spelling words, such as fruite and signe.  Ask if they see any other unusual features.  Making some letters differently, spacing between words.  Model theDocument Analysis Worksheet with them completing it as a class.

Step 3:  Divide the class into approximately five groups with no more than five students in a group.  Distribute theIndenture Agreement to the class asking questions about the purpose of the document, why there were so many blanks to be filled, etc.  Ask them how they would be able to find the answer to the time period in which the document was written.  Research the years of King James’s reign.  Distribute another blank copy of theDocument Analysis Worksheet, reviewing with students each of the sections.  Have students work together analyzing the document and completing the worksheet.

Step 4:  After students have completed their work, discuss their answers as a class. Share information about the documents with the students making certain they understand historical facts.

Summary Activities:

Have students pretend they have arrived in the Jamestown colony as an indentured servant.  Instruct them to write a letter home to their families telling them of their experiences in Virginia and their impressions of the colony.  Students should include such things as the kind of work they are doing, where they are living, the differences they find between Jamestown and their home in England.  Have students share their feelings about whether they feel the broadside was accurate or misleading.

Have students design a broadside (ad) that they think would attract people to the Virginia colony at Jamestown.  Students can draw their own or use computer generated images to design their broadside.  They should be prepared to answer why they believe their ad would be attractive to people in England.

Other Helpful Resources:

Cultures at Jamestown – Essay

Lesson plan materials made possible by Archibald Andrews Marks.