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Jamestown: The Starving Time

Students analyze a variety of primary and secondary sources to determine the cause of the Jamestown starving time during the winter of 1609–1610.

Chromolithograph, Pocahontas saving the life of John Smith, 1870, LOC

This lesson provides a great opportunity for students to engage in real historical inquiry with prepared sources. The lesson is displayed in three locations on the site: the student view, which guides the student through the activity; the teacher view, which provides additional background information; and a PDF file that contains scripted instructions for the lesson.

Students first read a textbook passage about the Jamestown colony in 1609 and 1610. They then discuss how the writers of the textbook might have obtained their information, and go on to analyze primary source documents that expand upon the textbook account. Students essentially "do history" as they use a variety of sources to answer a clear, concise historical question—one that can be answered in multiple ways with the given data.

Another strength of this lesson is the document collection itself. A wide variety of primary sources offer greater insight into the reasons for the food shortage that resulted in the death of over 400 colonists in Jamestown during the winter of 1609–1610. Particularly helpful to teachers with struggling readers is the fact that the lesson includes not only the original documents, but also "modern" versions of the documents, written in language much more accessible to students.

While the detective log graphic organizer included in the lesson provides space for students to record source information, and the lesson itself provides a great exercise in sourcing, the documents themselves contain little source information. We recommend that teachers support students in using the available information about each document to understand its perspective and meaning. In general, the lesson provides good opportunities to engage in historical inquiry, to open up and go beyond the textbook, and to use primary sources to analyze the causes of an event.

Teachinghistory.org Lesson Plan Rubric
Field Criteria Comments
Historical Content Is historically accurate?


Includes historical background?

A passage from Joy Hakim's Making Thirteen Colonies is included in both the student view and the teacher view of the lesson.

Requires students to read and write?


Analytic Thinking Requires students to analyze or construct interpretations using evidence


Requires close reading and attention to source information?

Teachers will want to support students in using information about the perspective of the various sources as they interpret each document's significance and meaning.

Scaffolding Is appropriate for stated audience?


Includes materials and strategies for scaffolding and supporting student thinking?

Documents are included both in their original form, and in an adapted "modern version" that will be more easily accessible to most students.

Lesson Structure Includes assessment criteria and strategies that focus on historical understanding?

No assessment criteria are included, but the final writing assignment provides a great assessment of students' understanding and historical thinking.

Defines clear learning goals and progresses logically?


Includes clear directions and is realistic in normal classroom settings?