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A Letter Home: The Reasons for and Realities of Colonial Life

Created by:
Michelle McDonald
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

TAH Teachers
Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District

History Detectives: Profiling People of the Past

Grade Level:
9 to 12


In the seventeenth century, hundreds of men, women, and children migrated from England to North America as indentured servants in search of a better life. In this classroom activity, students explore some of the reasons why people moved, what they hoped to find, and what life in Virginia was like based on two primary documents, a promotional tract to encourage immigration and an early seventeenth-century letter home.

Historical Context

By the early 1620s, Virginia planters discovered both that tobacco could save them financially and that growing it required the hard work of many hands. To meet the swelling demand for field labor, planters initially turned to Europe, where rapid population growth had left many people without employment or opportunities. Trading their misery in the Old World for the hope of a better life in a new one, many immigrants to America came as indentured servants.

In return for passage to the colonies, indentured servants agreed to work for between four and seven years. During this term, masters provided servants with food and shelter; at the end of the contract, masters agreed to give servants what were known as freedom dues, usually a piece of land and a few basic supplies.

Harsh conditions, however, meant that nearly one out of every two indentured servants died before they won their freedom. Despite such bleak prospects, between one-half and two-thirds of the Europeans who came to Virginia by 1700 did so by selling themselves into servitude.


colonization, indentured labor, primary documents, communication

Goals and Objectives:

After completing this activity, students will be able to:

1) identify and summarize the reasons why English settlers would want to come to the North American colonies.

2) compare the notion of colonization as presented by its proponents with the first-hand account of an indentured servant in Virginia.

3) understand the nature of a primary document as a tool for the study of history.


Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

Richard Haklyt, Reasons for Colonization, 1585

Richard Frethorne, Letter to his Mother and Father, 1623

Both original texts and modern translations (designed for younger learners) appear at appendices at the end of this lesson plan.

Details of Activity

PART 1: Introduction (5 min.):

Distribute Richard Hakluyt's description of Virginia and Frethorne's letter before or at the beginning of class; give students the opportunity to read through both and then introduce the following definition of "primary document" and the authors of the two documents they are considering (you may want to divide students into small groups to read through the documents).

Historians use a wide variety of sources to answer questions about the past including both primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are actual records that have survived from the past, such as letters, photographs, articles of clothing. Secondary sources are accounts of the past created by people writing about events sometime after they happened. This activity asks students to compare two different primary documents about the same place--the first was a promotional pamphlet designed to encourage immigration, while the second was written by a teenaged boy who had moved to Virginia to his parents back in England. Encourage students to think about the biases of different kinds of sources:

How do sources compare?

What are the potential biases of different kinds of sources?

Which do students think is more reliable and why?

Few historical texts seem as familiar -- or as compelling to read -- as personal letters. They are plain-spoken, lively, and full of details and seem to emerge directly from the writer, fresh and intimate, bringing us close to who that person was. At the same time, letters reveal differences between times past and our own time. They make us curious to explore differences in language and expressive styles, in what people felt needed saying and what did not.

Advertisements, on the other hand, usually have a specific agenda--their role is to "sell" the reader on an idea or an object. Though they are intended to grab a reader's interest, they are rarely written for one person in particular.

Overall, then, letters and advertisements both represent specific points of view--either that of the author or the company he works for.

Richard Hakluyt the Elder was part of a family that promoted English settlement of North America during the sixteenth century. His pamphlet about Britain's Virginia colony contains almost three dozen reasons supporting colonization of the continent.

The Jamestown colony, however, suffered a casualty rate of almost 80% in the first half of its second decade as a colony. The letter of indentured servant Richard Frethorne, written in 1623, details the realities of life in the Jamestown settlement.

Since both texts retain the language of their respective authors, students should be made aware that sentence structure and spelling have changed in the English language since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

PART 2: Analyzing the Documents (15 min.):

Write on the blackboard the heading "Reasons Why Colonists Settled the New World." Based on the readings from Hakluyt and Frethorne, have students identify at least ten to twelve reasons for colonization.

Now draw a two-column chart titled "Colonization." The left-hand column should read "Reasons" and the right hand column should read "Realities." Ask students to think about their documents again and compare the "Reasons" given to encourage colonization with the "Reality" of life in Virginia itself ( to match them, in other words, as pairs).

Note that not all of Hakluyt's reasons have a corresponding "reality" in Frethorne's letter, but there should be enough contrasts to begin discussing why these two sources might have different points of view. Have students consider the following possible factors that shaped what each author chose to write:

Why was the author writing?

Who was the author's audience?

When was the author writing? Do the dates matter?

Had the author been to Virginia?

Does the form of the source (a letter or advertisement) matter?

PART 3: Applying the Lesson (15 min.):

Have students imagine themselves as colonists who came to the colonies. They could come for a variety of reasons: religious freedom, economic opportunity, meeting with family, etc. Have them write a letter back home telling how their lives have changed since their arrival. These letters should either try to convince family members to join them in the colonies, or warn family members to stay home (this could be a take-home activity is there is not enough time in class).

Practice and Reinforcement


Have students develop an advertising poster using information from the teacher's presentation about why people colonized the United States. This advertisement could include any combination of factors and should try to entice people to join the colonization efforts.


Encourage students to talk to family members about what they know about relatives who emigrated to the US; have them investigate their relatives' motivations. Have students complete a family tree using the flags of family members' countries-of-origin as the "leaves" on the tree.


Write a letter or an entry in a diary as if you were sailing to a new home in the American colonies. What are you feeling? What do you miss? What are you eating/wearing? What do you hope your new home is like?


This lesson plan combines ideas from activities originally developed by EDSITEment (http://edsitement.neh.gov), an educational resource funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and "Colonial House," a PBS-series on life in early America (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/colonialhouse/teachers/plan4b.html).

For more information about life in early North America, see Lorena Walsh and Lois Green Carr, Robert Cole's World: Agriculture and Society in Early America (University of North Carolina Press, 1991). For further resources on early journal writing, see the lesson plans of "Discovering Jamestown," An Electronic Classroom Adventure for Teachers and Students (http://www.whro.org/jamestown2007/index.html).

Supplementary Materials




For more information about the Teaching American History Program click here