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Captain John Smith General History of Virginia Lesson Plans

Captain John Smith was said to be many things: an adventurer, a decorated soldier, an explorer, a conqueror, a poet, a mapmaker, and an author. The General History of Virginia originally The Generall Historie of Virginiais, detailed history of the planters’ years in Jamestown from 1607-1609.

Student Activities for The General History of Virginia

Essential Questions for The General History of Virginia by Captain John Smith

  1. What makes a narrator reliable, or unreliable?
  2. Why are historical narratives important?
  3. What are some ways that people persevere in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation?
  4. Why is self-reliance an important characteristic to have?
  5. Why is the idea of a “fresh start” so appealing to people?
  6. How can an historical narrative be used to promote a new place or idea?

The General History of Virginia Summary

The General History of Virginia by John Smith was published in 1624. Many critics have doubted the validity of Smith’s narrative, and many have called him an embellisher. The narrative describes important moments for the British colonizers, such as Smith’s encounters with the Native Americans, including Pocahontas. When John Smith and the English colonists arrived in coastal Virginia in 1607, it was inhabited by about 14,000 Powhatan Indians who spoke an Algonquian language. They were led by Wahunsonacock who is referred to as Chief Powhatan. One of Chief Powhatan's daughters was nicknamed Pocahontas, which means "playful one". Pocahontas met John Smith in 1607 when she was about 11 years old. In Smith's telling, it is the important alliance that he forges with Chief Powhatan that helps maintain a friendly relationship between the English settlers of Jamestown and the Powhatan Indians. While Smith refers to the Native Americans as “savages” in his narrative, some historians say that Smith did regard the Native Americans with kindness and respect.

In John Smith's history about Virginia, he saw himself as the hero of the colony, referring to himself in the third person throughout his narrative. This style of writing creates an abstract picture of a man who helped to save the settlers by organizing, delegating, building, and always saving the greatest, most difficult and dangerous tasks for himself. Regardless of how genuine this account is, the narrative is nonetheless a fascinating look at the obstacles and perseverance of the settlers in an unfamiliar and dangerous territory. Smith hoped that his narrative about his time in Virginia would attract more settlers to the "New World" who were in search of adventure and new economic opportunities. He looked to the new settlements as a way to strengthen England’s economic prowess and power on the world stage.

Primary Types of Narrative Accounts

Narrative nonfiction comes in many forms, and serve as important historical documents and sources of entertainment.

Captivity NarrativeEvents that occur while the author is in captivity
Slave NarrativeEvents that occur while the author is enslaved; usually documents injustices of the captivity, and includes how the author was freed or escaped
JournalDaily events, observations, and important data is often included in a journal; can also include personal feelings or judgments
Exploration NarrativeEvents that occur during an exploration of a new place or land
Historical NarrativeEvents that attempt to construct a history of a particular time or place; may be the writer’s own observations, or may include other firsthand accounts

Reliability of a Narrator

Narratives are particularly tricky, because bias and subjectivity can creep in, according to the purpose of the writer. In John Smith’s case, he wanted more English people to colonize the New World, so he tried to make it sound as exciting as possible, all while making sure he painted himself as a hero. When reading, try to identify the purpose of the writer:

  • Is it simply to record information?
  • To document personal thoughts?
  • To persuade readers to do something?
  • To entertain?

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