Thirteen Ed Online
Lesson Plans
Death at Jamestown
Overview Procedures for Teachers Organizers for Students

Procedures for teachers is divided into two sections:
Prep -- Preparing for the lesson
Steps -- Conducting the lesson
Extension -- Additional Activities


Print out the student organizers for handing out during the class sessions.

Computer Resources:
You will need at least one computer with Internet access to complete this lesson. While many configurations will work, we recommend:
  • Modem: 28.8 Kbps or faster.
  • Browser: Netscape Navigator 3.0 or above or Internet Explorer 3.0 or above.
  • Macintosh computer: System 7.0 or above and at least 16 MB of RAM.
  • IBM-compatible computer: 386 or higher processor with at least 16 MB of RAM, running Windows 3.1. Or, a 486/66 or Pentium with at least 16 MB of RAM, running Windows 95.
For more information, visit What You Need to Get Connected in wNetSchool's Internet Primer.

Bookmarked sites:
The following sites should be bookmarked: Materials:
  •  Internet Access
  •  Writing Materials


Introductory Activity:
One fifty-minute class period

  • Propose an imaginary scenario to your students so that they begin thinking about the resources and techniques they'll use throughout the lesson. Ask the class to imagine they are walking to a village located in a jungle. When they reach their destination, they find to their amazement that all of the inhabitants, except for one, have died. This is what they know about the situation:
    • There are no visible causes for the deaths.
    • Some people are lying in their beds, others are found near the well in the village square.
    • The only survivor is unconscious.

  • Have students brainstorm ideas on how they might proceed to find out the cause of these mysterious deaths. What resources could they draw upon to help solve this mystery? (These resources might include the survivor if he recovers, a written record from one of the deceased, and help from the medical, scientific and/or environmental communities.) After the class has generated a list of ideas, have them discuss what they would hope to learn from each source, as well as the reliability of the various sources.

  • Next, tell students about the progression of activities that they will be engaging in over the course of the lesson:
    • They will learn about how historians use and evaluate evidence and sources of information.
    • They will use this information to investigate the deaths at Jamestown.
    • They will use the skills they learn to evaluate a recently proposed theory about the deaths.

    Learning Activities:

    Activity One
    Two fifty-minute class periods

    In this activity, students discuss the differences between primary and secondary sources, and their varying credibility. Then, students learn about the historical importance of Jamestown, and what daily life was like for the original colonists. They write letters to their family in England that describes daily life in the early days of the Jamestown colony.

  • Activate students' prior knowledge by asking them what they know about how historians learn about the past. Where do they get their information? What kinds of sources do they use? Keep track of students' answers by writing their ideas on the blackboard.

    If students do not mention primary and secondary sources, have them visit the UC Berkeley's Library web page, which contains information about primary and secondary sources. As they look at the site, students should write one sentence describing each of the sources.

    Work with the class to develop definitions for each term and post them in the room for the duration of the lesson. Then ask students to label the list of resources created in the previous step as a primary or secondary source.

  • Remind students that they will be looking into the deaths at Jamestown using various sources, but that they will first need to learn about the settlement itself. Ask students to generate a list of questions about what they will need to know about the Jamestown colony.

  • Here is a list of additional questions that you may propose, if students have not already covered them:
    • Where was Jamestown located?
    • Why did they choose this location?
    • Who was responsible for establishing Jamestown?
    • What were the occupations of the original group of colonists?
    • What problems did the colonists face in the early years?
    • What did the colonists eat?
    • How do we know what the colonists ate?
    • What was the starving time winter of 1609-1610?
    • What is the historical significance of Jamestown?

  • Have students find the answers to their questions at the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities Web site. As they find the answers they should also record the various methods that the historians employed during their research of the Jamestown colony.

  • Discuss the results. Focus on the methods historians used to learn about Jamestown, and discuss the use of primary and secondary sources to explain what we know about the Jamestown colony. Have students discuss the differences between primary and secondary sources, and any motives, interests and biases expressed in the material. How does this affect the source's credibility?

  • Next, lead the class into a discussion about why a historian might put him or herself in the place of a person living during a given time period. Tell students to pretend that they are one of the earliest colonists at Jamestown, and that they are to write a letter to their family in England describing their life there. Choose an occupation and write from that person's perspective. (Students should refer back to their answers to questions about occupations above.) The letter should incorporate knowledge they learned in their research and include the following details:
    • A description of the fort and the surrounding area.
    • A description of daily life. (e.g., work, food, problems)
    • A description of what the colony is accomplishing in the new world.
    You may want to give students the organizer for activity one before they begin.

  • Students may complete the letter for homework and share in groups the next day.

    Activity Two
    Three fifty-minute class periods

    In this activity, students use a multidisciplinary research approach to learn how historians have reached conclusions about the deaths at Jamestown. They read primary historical sources, look at the work of archeologists, discuss data from climatologists, and evaluate the credibility of informational sources. They conclude by writing a report to the Virginia Company explaining what is happening at Jamestown.

  • As a review, brainstorm ways that we learn about the past (e.g., written accounts, oral histories, artifacts found by anthropologists, and scientific methods such as carbon dating). Have students discuss the pros and cons of each method, and how it is possible to draw new conclusions by combining these methods. How do we know if a source is reliable?

  • Break students into small groups and send them to the Cornell University Web page to learn how to critically analyze information sources.

    Ask each group to record the 3-5 tips that they think are most important from the Web site, and reconvene as a class to discuss the information. Encourage students to explain why the tips they selected are important. Tell students that they will use this information to evaluate the sources of information that they read in this lesson.

    (Pass out the organizer for activity two.)

  • Before students begin their research, they should speculate about the possible causes of death of the Jamestown settlers. One possible factor is a lack of food and starvation. Remind students about the "starving time" they learned about in Activity One. Have students discuss and record the kinds of questions they can ask to find out more information about the availability of food, including questions about environmental factors. Tell students that as they prepare to visit each site, they will refine their questions. They will write at least three questions (in their organizers) on each of the sections before visiting the sites. They will also critique the information sources and record this in their organizers.

  • Primary Source Readings
    Tell students to read the firsthand accounts listed below. Have them record their questions, answers and additional notes. Make sure students pay attention to information on how many people died, as well as any descriptions of the causes of their deaths. (They will refer to this information later, in the culminating activity.)

    The following sites contain firsthand accounts of George Percy and John Smith, original members of the Jamestown colony.

    Virtual Jamestown Project
    Firsthand account of George Percy
    Since this is a long passage, ask students to begin by scrolling down to the paragraph that begins with the sentence, "Captain being gone for England, Leaving us."

    Virtual Jamestown Project
    Firsthand account of John Smith
    Again, since this is a long passage, have students scroll down to the paragraph that begins with the sentence, "Captaine having set things in order, set saile for England the 22 of June..."

    Here, students will find John Smith's account of the lack of food during this time period. ayers/chapter2/2.2.JohnSmith.html

  • Traditional Archeology Methods/Climatological Data
    Students will continue to research the "starving time" in Virginia in 1609-1610 by looking at climate-related data from traditional archeological methods and climatology data. After discussing this with the class, give them an opportunity to revise their questions for each Web site.

    Here, students will see what archeologists discovered about the Jamestown diet during this time period.

    At this site, students will see how Dennis Blanton, a "prehistoric archeologist," partnered with a University of Arkansas climatologist to try to find out what role the environment might have played in the "starving time."
    April 23, 1998 edition of the William & Mary News A Newspaper for Faculty, Staff & Students

  • To make sure your students have all the information they need, you may wish to go over the following questions with them:

    • What did John Smith write about the lack of food in Jamestown?
    • What did the archeologists discover about the Jamestown diet during this period?
    • What was happening in the Jamestown colony in 1609-1610?
    • What did Dennis Blanton think caused this event to occur?
    • Why did Blanton think it was important to know what role the environment played in these events?
    • How did Blanton use technology to help substantiate his theory?
    • What did the test results show?
    • How did technology help explain what happened at Jamestown in the early 1600's?
    • How do we know that there was a "starving time" in Jamestown in 1609-1610?
    • How does the use of original documents, archeological excavations, and technology help form a picture of what life was like in Jamestown in 1609-1610?

  • Tell students that they will use the information from their research to write a report to their employer, the Virginia Company, explaining what is happening at Jamestown, as well as the causes of the current situation. Work with students on developing criteria for what should be included in this report, as well as the report's format. Remind students to write from the perspective of a person who is living in Jamestown during this time period.

    Culminating Activity/Assessment:
    Now that students have an initial understanding of how historians and scientists develop theories of historic events based on primary source materials, archeological evidence, and the use of technology, they will examine the new theory proposed by Dr. Frank Hancock. Finally, they decide if they agree or disagree with him.

    Dr. Frank Hancock, an independent scientist, developed a new theory to account for the high mortality rate in Jamestown's early years. He believes that international politics, religious turmoil, and personal vendettas may have played a role in the deaths at Jamestown. Dr. Hancock thinks that one of the Jamestown settlers could have been part of an English/Catholic or Spanish scheme to destroy the Protestant colony, and that someone could have put arsenic in the settlement's food supply. Using a variety of sources, students work in small groups to gather information on Hancock's theory, and will form an opinion that supports or disputes it.

  • Break the class into small groups and have them read about this new theory at the SECRETS OF THE DEAD: DEATH AT JAMESTOWN site:

    Students can get additional information on Hancock's theory from these sites:

    " Medical Detective Suspects Jamestown Settlers Were Poisoned" article from Lycos Health with WebMD

    "Were Jamestown Colonists Poisoned?" article from history_colonists.html

    As they read, have students take notes on areas that will be useful to research in order to evaluate the theory. These areas may include:
    • Hancock's methods.
    • The effects of arsenic poisoning.
    • The effects of typhoid and dysentery.
    • Spain and England's positions in the New World.
    • The symptoms of the dying settlers. [Students may refer back to their notes from Activity Two.]
    • The relationship between Protestants and Catholics.
    • Evidence of discord within the colony.
    • Evidence of spies in the colony.
    Review the areas of investigation that students have determined and make suggestions if necessary.

  • Ask students to begin forming questions that will help them gain information on each of the areas they will investigate.

  • As students read information during this activity, they should be critiquing the sources of their information. They may find it helpful to refer back to the Cornell University site at to evaluate the motives, interests, and biases of the information.

  • Students should now research other theories. Here are some useful Web sites for different areas of investigation:

    The symptoms of arsenic poisoning:

    Evidence of arsenic in Jamestown:

    The relationship between Protestants and Catholics in the early 1600s: WestEurope/GunPowder.html

    Internal Fighting at Jamestown

    Evidence of a Spanish spy (George Kendall) /Jamestown.html

  • After students have completed and reviewed their research, discuss how our interpretations of historical accounts can change based on newly uncovered records and interpretations.

  • Assessment - Choose one of the following.

    Option One - Write a paper that either supports or disputes Dr. Hancock's theory. Include a list of sources used and an evaluation of each source's credibility.

    Option Two - Create a re-enactment of the deaths that communicates the theory that you believe best explains what happened in Jamestown. This re-enactment must be supported by documentation of sources used and an evaluation of each source's credibility.

    Provide time for students to share their papers or re-enactments with other class members.


    Cross-Curricular Extensions:

    Overview | Procedures for Teachers | Organizers for Students