Pocahontas: Lesson One


Students compare portraits of Pocahontas, assessing the reliability and validity of primary and secondary sources.

Materials Subject

U.S. History


Primary source
Secondary source


Day One

  1. Before the lesson, create a viewing frame. Using a 3 x 5 index card, cut a rectangular opening (2 x 3). Use this to focus students’ attention on small details in the paintings by isolating sections of the painting.
  2. If possible, enlarge the three portraits and print onto transparencies for an overhead projector.
  3. Model the ways to analyze a portrait by using the John Smith portrait on the overhead projector. Do not tell students that the subject of the portrait is John Smith. Using the index-card viewing frame, isolate the hand on the sword handle, the buttons on the waistcoat front, the head and neck, etc. Ask students to describe each isolated area in detail. Point out both the obvious and not so obvious. For example: the subject is well-groomed (hair), clothing is of the highest quality (note the neck ruff), waistcoat has button closings (perhaps metal, which indicates that they were manufactured in Europe), subject is holding what appears to be a sword handle (military connections). Ask students to predict the subject’s identity. Give them the answer if they have trouble coming up with John Smith.
  4. On the overhead, show the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery portrait of Pocahontas. (Students might also receive individual copies.) Do not identify the subject. Ask students to work in pairs to analyze the portrait, and to note observations on the Pocahontas comparison chart. This is Portrait One.
  5. Ask students to read the accompanying narrative and to note important information in the Narrative Number One box on the comparison chart.
  6. Group discussion:
    1. What observations did you make?
    2. What additional information does the accompanying text provide?
    3. Who is credited with painting this portrait?
    4. Is this a primary or secondary source?
    5. How reliable is this portrait?

Day Two

  1. View the second Pocahontas portrait. Ask students to work in pairs to note details on the comparison chart. Read the accompanying text and note important information.
  2. Have the same group discussion as on Day One. This portrait is a secondary source. It was painted by Thomas Sully in the 1800s. Note that Pocahontas’s clothing is probably what was fashionable when Sully painted this portrait.
  3. Discuss the difference between primary and secondary sources. Which is probably more accurate? Which is more reliable? Why?
  4. Conduct secondary discussion (could be done on Day Three).
  5. How do the texts that accompany each portrait differ? How can we verify any of the information as accurate and true? (A list of electronic and print texts is available at the end of the lesson.)