Early Encounters between Native Americans and Europeans

by Steven Schwartz

Background

Early European explorers to the Americas likely experienced emotions including awe at the vast “new” environment, amazement at meeting “others,” the thrill of the unknown, concern for personal safety, desire for personal reward, and longing for their homeland and those left behind. Written and pictorial records attributed to Europeans provide the bulk of the records of these early travels. Impressions of natives as well as Native impressions of Europeans are frequently framed in the narratives of the explorers. Examination of these records indicates the cautious and curious nature of first encounters.

Significance

Centuries of ignorance, prejudice, and opinions lacking evidence or scholarly research have tainted traditional views of the earliest meetings between Native Americans (First Nations in Canada) and Europeans. Students may come to recognize how the later period of continued exploration, settlement, and interaction was influenced by these early encounters from the St. Lawrence River to Georgia.

Essential Question

Did early contact between Native Americans and Europeans set the stage for their future relations?

Materials / Documents

Perceptions of Native Americans Worksheet

Students Will Be Able To

  • Explain the content of first-person written accounts of early encounters
  • Interpret and evaluate the historical accuracy of artistic images
  • Compare modern scholarship and evidence with traditional views of early encounters
  • Contrast first impressions of Europeans and Native Americans
  • Correlate data from a chart with recent historical research
  • Write a short opinion piece

Motivation (Do Now, the “Hook”)

  1. Divide the class, depending on enrollment, into two, four, or six groups. Assign a reader, a facilitator, and a recorder to each group. 
  2. Distribute copies of Document #1 and Document #2 (from the Perceptions of Native Americans Worksheet) to alternating groups.
  3. Have each group listen to and follow along as the reader proceeds through the document.
  4. Ask the facilitator to obtain from the group the major ideas in the document and any questions about the content or meaning of the document. This information is listed by the recorder.
  5. The teacher reconvenes the class as a whole. The reader from each group reports and the teacher makes a list on a white board, overlay, computer projection, or chalk board.
  6. The teacher then summarizes by asking the students to indicate the similarities and differences expressed in both documents.

Questions and Activities

  • Students view Document #3, the image “Indian in Body Paint.” Students are asked their impressions of the sketch and to imagine the point of view of the artist, John White.   
  • Students read Document #4, “Roanoke Counterfeited According to the Truth” and view Document #5 of a woodcut image based on John White’s drawing. The students are asked how the historian debunks the information in the two illustrations.
  • How does the Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation (Document #6) help us understand the relations between the settlers and the Narragansett?
  • Read and examine Documents #7, 8, and 9. How do each of these documents illustrate the complexity and confusion of early encounters? How did Native Americans and Europeans attempt to resolve their confusion and differences?
  • Contrast the message in the 1622 illustration, Document #10, by Matthaeus Merian with the earlier images by John White.

Closure

  • Read the first page only of Document #11. Make a list of the exchanges that took place between Native Americans and Europeans. 
  • Summarize Professor Richter’s opinions of the impact of these early encounters.
  • Read the second page of Document #11 and at the same time review the information in Document #12. Write a one paragraph opinion on the statement: The “face of North America” was drastically altered as a result of the early encounters between Native Americans and Europeans. Cite evidence from the documents.

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