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The General History of Virginia by John Smith

Teacher Guide by Kristy Littlehale

Find this Common Core aligned Teacher Guide and more like it in our High School ELA Category!

Student Activities for The General History of Virginia Include:

Captain John Smith was 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.

By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!




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John Smith’s Narrative: The General History of Virginia

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 settlers, such as Smith’s encounters with the Native Americans, including Pocahontas. In fact, it is the important alliance that Smith forges with Chief Powhatan that helps keep the people of Jamestown safe. While Smith refers to the Native Americans as “savages” in his narrative, in actuality, it is said that Smith regarded them with kindness and respect, and that he did not treat them any differently than his white counterparts.

Smith 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 a frightening and foreign world. Smith hoped that it 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 foothold in the world.


Primary Types of Narrative Accounts

Narrative nonfiction comes in many forms, and serve as important historical documents and sources of entertainment.



TYPE DESCRIPTION
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 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:


Essential Questions for The General History of Virginia

  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 Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Timeline of Key Events for The General History of Virginia

Have students keep track of a timeline of up to ten events from John Smith’s The General History of Virginia. Using the narrative, along with their history textbooks or online resources, have them plug in the dates of the major events, including their arrival, the account of the first winter, his capture by the Native Americans, his return to England, etc.


Example The General History of Virginia Timeline


December 1606 Three ships leave England and set sail with 105 men and boys to establish a colony in Virginia
May 1607 After spotting land and scouting the area, the settlers step on land, naming it James Cittie, or Jamestown
October - December 1607 The colony loses over half of its settlers to starvation, disease, and Native American attacks
December 1607 Captain John Smith is captured by the Powhatan tribe and brought before Chief Powhatan; he claims that Pocahontas saves his life
September 1608 John Smith is elected President of the Virginia Council and issues the edict: “He that will not work shall not eat”
October 1609 Smith is replaced by George Percy, and was injured in a gunpowder explosion. He returns to England, never to return to the colony or New World again
December 1609 Chief Powhatan and his tribe lay siege to James Fort, and all but 60 settlers inside die from starvation
June 1612 Jamestown produces its first tobacco crop, which they export to England
August 1619 African indentured servants arrive on a Dutch ship; first meeting held of the Virginia General Assembly (House of Burgesses)
March 1622 A surprise attack by the Powhatans kills 342 colonists, although Jamestown is spared

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Themes in The General History of Virginia


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Themes come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify key themes in John Smith’s The General History of Virginia and support their choices with details from the text.

The General History of Virginia Themes and Ideas to Discuss

The Importance of Self-Reliance

An important theme in The General History of Virginia is the importance of self-reliance. The settlers embarked on a journey to a world where they would have no contact with home. It was essential that they be able to build their own settlement, draw on resources from the land, make friends with the Native Americans if possible, and begin a long-term investment in this new future. The people who went needed to be prepared to do all of this without much help from home.


The Excitement of Exploration

Another important theme raised in The General History of Virginia is the excitement of exploration. For Smith, the trip is a combination of virtù, prosperity, and piety. The first, virtù, is a sense of adventure and heroism - an expectancy of the achievement of great things. Going to Jamestown was stepping into an unknown world. It was full of mystery, excitement, and danger. Second, the exploration of this new place could yield new and great riches, an opportunity which many would jump at. Finally, the new world was an opportunity to bring Christianity to new peoples and places. The excitement was palpable for the settlers.


The Necessity of Hard Work

An additional important theme in The General History of Virginia is the necessity of hard work. In spite of the many hardships the settlers faced, Smith did not have a lot of patience for those who could not pull their own weight. When he was finally put in charge, he ensured that the settlers had plenty of incentive to work hard by telling them that those who did not work would not eat. Smith and other leaders of the settlement knew that in the harsh conditions, so far away from the homeland, everyone would have to work hard so that they all could survive.


Man vs. Nature

A final important theme found in The General History of Virginia is man vs. nature. The elements wore on the settlers, from the first starving time, where they were unable to produce a viable crop, to the bitter cold of the first winter. Then, the settlers were plagued by illness and disease, and unable to work or contribute. Made worse by all of this were periodic attacks by the Native Americans, who knew the landscape better than the settlers did. The human will to survive in such circumstances is one that Smith highlights and celebrates throughout his narrative.



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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in The General History of Virginia. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.


  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Identify the theme(s) from The General History of Virginia you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for examples that represent this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.



(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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Smith as an Unreliable Narrator in The General History of Virginia

While John Smith did many things for the Jamestown settlement, his account can often be seen as far-fetched, exaggerated, or unreliable. Have students look at Smith’s account and keep track of instances where John Smith may seem to be exaggerating, or unreliable. Have students storyboard these moments with the traditional layout or with the grid layout as in the sample storyboard below.



“The new President, and Martin, being little beloved, of weak judgment in dangers, and less industry in peace, committed the managing of all things abroad to Captain Smith: who by his own example, good words, and fair promises, set some to mow, others to bind thatch, some to build houses, others to thatch them, himself always bearing the greatest task for his own share, so that in short time, he provided most of them with lodgings, neglecting any for himself.”


“Notwithstanding, within an hour after, they tied him to a tree, and as many as could stand about him prepared to shoot him: but the King holding up the compass in his hand, they all laid down their bows and arrows, and in a triumphant manner, led him to Orapaks, where he was after their manner kindly feasted and well used.”


“Having feasted him after their best barbarous manner they could, a long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could laid hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs to beat out his brains, Pocahontas, the King’s dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death…”

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Promoting a New World with The General History of Virginia

John Smith had an important purpose in writing The General History of Virginia: to get more settlers to go to the New World. Have students think about somewhere they’d like others to visit. It could be a favorite city, vacation spot, country, landmark, etc. Have them create a storyboard that highlights the interesting qualities of the location, and persuades readers to go check it out! Have students try to make the location sound as exciting as possible, much like John Smith did. (They can even exaggerate a little bit, for good measure, as a biased narrator!)


Persuasive Writing Example: Promoting Savannah, GA


Place: Savannah, Georgia
Reasons to Go: Savannah, GA is filled with interesting Southern culture, beautiful cobblestone streets, tons of old Southern history, and it has beautiful parks to visit. It’s also one of the most haunted cities in America. The people are lovely and welcoming, and the weather is warm!
Things to See: River Street, the Savannah River, the Savannah Historic District
Important Landmarks: Forsyth Park, Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Bonaventure Cemetery
Important People: Dianna Agron (Actress), Johnny Mercer (Songwriter), Juliette Low (Founder of The Girl Scouts)
Interesting Facts: Home of the Savannah College of Art and Design; the famous bench from Forrest Gump is in Chippewa Square; the book and movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is based in Savannah; General Sherman had a hand in keeping Savannah from being burned during the Civil War; largest St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the country
Adventures/Tours: Take a ghost tour, a haunted pub crawl, an historical walking or bus tour, take a food tour, or even a photography tour!


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Vocabulary for The General History of Virginia


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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that use vocabulary from The General History of Virginia. Here is a list of a few vocabulary words commonly taught with the narrative, and an example of a visual vocabulary board.


The General History of Virginia Vocabulary

  • entreaty
  • mollify
  • pilfer
  • peril
  • recompense
  • depose
  • industry
  • interim
  • provision
  • contend

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in The General History of Virginia by creating visualizations.


  1. Choose three vocabulary words from the text and type them in the title boxes.
  2. Find the definition in a print or online dictionary.
  3. Write a sentence that uses the vocabulary word.
  4. Illustrate the meaning of the word in the cell using a combination of scenes, characters, and items.
    • Alternatively, use Photos for Class to show the meaning of the words with the search bar.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.



(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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•   (English) The General History of Virginia   •   (Español) La Historia General de Virginia   •   (Français) Histoire Générale de la Virginie   •   (Deutsch) Die Allgemeine Geschichte von Virginia   •   (Italiana) La Storia Generale Della Virginia   •   (Nederlands) De Algemene Geschiedenis van Virginia   •   (Português) A História Geral da Virgínia   •   (עברית) ההיסטוריה הכללית של וירג'יניה   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) التاريخ العام فرجينيا   •   (हिन्दी) वर्जीनिया के जनरल इतिहास   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Общая История Вирджинии   •   (Dansk) Den Generelle Historie Virginia   •   (Svenska) Den Allmänna History of Virginia   •   (Suomi) General History of Virginia   •   (Norsk) General History of Virginia   •   (Türkçe) Virginia Genel Geçmişi   •   (Polski) Historia Generalna Wirginii   •   (Româna) Istoria Generală din Virginia   •   (Ceština) Generální History of Virginia   •   (Slovenský) Všeobecná Dejiny vo Virgínii   •   (Magyar) A General History of Virginia   •   (Hrvatski) Opća Povijest Virginije   •   (български) Общата История на Вирджиния   •   (Lietuvos) Generalinis Istorija Virginia   •   (Slovenščina) Generalni Zgodovina Virginia   •   (Latvijas) Vispārējā Vēsture Virginia   •   (eesti) Üldine Ajalugu Virginia