The Virginia Colony


In presenting to students documents dating from the earliest European contact with the Americas, teachers are faced with problems of accessibility. The language is often daunting, and the relevance for students of American history sometimes seems remote. An examination of the history of the Virginia Colony can help students and teachers overcome these obstacles. Documents provide students with an account of the earliest history of the colony that is unparalleled in its depiction of desperate brutality in the colony’s founding. In addition, the spelling, language, grammar, and usage are similar enough to modern English to be read in their original and to provide students with valuable lessons concerning orthography and the evolution of Standard American English. Students will demonstrate competence through an ability to derive meaning from unfamiliar vocabulary and an analysis of the causes and explanations for the failures of the Virginia Colony.


One of the most heartbreaking episodes in American colonial history occurred during the winter of 1609–1610 as the Virginia Colony faced extinction. Disease, famine, and harsh weather reduced the population from almost 500 persons to fewer than 60. Captain John Smith described these conditions in his General History of Virginia as "The Starving Time." The passages used in this lesson provide students with a visceral recounting of the hardships faced by the Virginia colonists as well as moral and ethical questions surrounding the treatment of Native Americans and the issue of cannibalism.



The vocabulary opportunities for a lesson are limitless. Students are confronted with archaic usage and spelling, and comparisons with modern English will engage students beyond the compelling narrative of "The Starving Time."


  1. Begin by placing the documents in a proper historical context: the goals, objectives, and conditions of the Virginia Colony should be outlined with special emphasis on the events that exacerbated the brutal conditions of the winter of 1609–1610.
  2. Students can begin with a close reading of the documents, and since the readings are relatively short, they can list words that have archaic spellings and divergent meanings (i.e., the use of "Salvage" for "Savage" in reference to Native Americans).
  3. After students have mastered the vocabulary and usage in these short documents, they can begin to consider some of the larger questions that emerge from this analysis. In considering these questions, they must cite evidence directly from the three texts to support their arguments.
  1. How do the Virginia colonists evaluate their situation?
  2. On whom do they cast blame for their situation?
  3. How do they justify their actions against Native Americans and toward their own dead?