North Carolina History Digital Textbook Project

Two worlds: Educator's guide

By Pauline S. Johnson

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

This lesson will help students think about the effects of the Columbian Exchange, particularly the exchange of disease as it affected the psychology of the Europeans and Native populations in the early settlement of the Americas. This lesson, in the form of a facilitated class discussion, should be done after students have read “The Columbian Exchange” and before they read “Disease and Catastrophe.”

Learning outcomes

  • Students will analyze the effects of the Columbian Exchange.
  • Students will use higher order thinking to imagine the psychological effects of disease on both native cultures and the Europeans.
  • Students will participate in an interactive discussion.

Teacher planning

Materials needed

  • Computer with internet access for each group of students OR one computer with an LCD projector so students can read “The Columbian Exchange.”

Time required for lesson

15 to 20 minutes


  1. Before conducting this discussion, students should have read “The Columbian Exchange,” but should not have read “Disease and Catastrophe.”
  2. Review with the students the meaning of the Columbian Exchange (an exchange of crops, animals, and disease between the Americas and Europe and Africa).
  3. Ask the students about the impact of disease on the Native Americans. (Diseases devastated the Native cultures — perhaps 90% of the indigenous population died in the years after the arrival of Europeans and Africans to the Americas.) This could involve a deeper discussion.
  4. Explain that during this period in human history people did not know the causes of diseases. Ask the students to put themselves in the place of people living in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. What do they think might have caused diseases? (Answers will vary. You may want to lead the discussion so students understand that many believed illness was a curse from an evil person or a punishment from God.)
  5. Next ask the students to consider how disease was actually transmitted to the native populations during the decades after 1492. (Disease was brought very early on by the sailors and early explorers. It would have been transmitted from them to the Indians during trade or other contact. The natives would have unwittingly brought the disease to their own peoples who had not been in contact with the Europeans.)
  6. Read the following excerpt from “Disease and Catastrophe“:

    Hit by wave after wave of multiple diseases to which they had utterly no resistance, they [the indigenous peoples] died by the millions. Disease spread from the paths of explorers and the sites of colonization like a stain from a drop of ink on a paper towel.

    In fact, in North America, disease spread faster than European colonization. When Hernando de Soto explored the Mississippi Valley in the early 1500s he found large, thriving cities connected by networks of trade. By the time Rene-Robert de La Salle followed de Soto’s footsteps in the 1680s, those cities had evaporated.

  7. Ask the students to again place themselves in the place of people from the time of exploration. First, have them imagine what the native cultures might have believed about the devastation. Allow the students to share some of their thoughts. (Answers will vary.)
  8. Have the students then imagine what the Europeans might have thought as they went into new areas only to find empty native villages and cities. (Answers will vary. However, you should lead the students to compare what they have already discussed about the causes and transmission of disease in the period when thinking about the interpretation that the Europeans may have taken — that God had removed the Indians so that the Europeans could spread throughout the New World.)
  9. Ask the students how this belief might have encouraged even more expansion and settlement by Europeans.
  10. You might want to finish this short lesson by reading a quotation from the Atlantic Monthly article “1491” (from the sidebar link on the “Disease and Catastrophe” page.) The “Bradford” mentioned in the article is William Bradford, the second governor of the Plymouth Colony. It sums up what many of the colonists believed about their divine duty to populate the New World:

    “The good hand of God favored our beginnings,” Bradford mused, by “sweeping away great multitudes of the natives … that he might make room for us.”


This activity is, in itself, an assessment of the progress of students in higher order thinking skills. Assess by participation in the discussion.

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Social Studies (2003)

Grade 8

  • Goal 1: The learner will analyze important geographic, political, economic, and social aspects of life in the region prior to the Revolutionary Period.
    • Objective 1.04: Evaluate the impact of the Columbian Exchange on the cultures of American Indians, Europeans, and Africans.

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Social Studies (2010)
      • Grade 7

        • 7.H.2 Understand the implications of global interactions. 7.H.2.1 Analyze the effects of social, economic, military and political conflict among nations, regions, and groups (e.g. war, genocide, imperialism and colonization). 7.H.2.2 Evaluate the effectiveness...
      • Grade 8

        • 8.C.1 Understand how different cultures influenced North Carolina and the United States. 8.C.1.1 Explain how exploration and colonization influenced Africa, Europe and the Americas (e.g. Columbian exchange, slavery and the decline of the American Indian populations)....
        • 8.H.1 Apply historical thinking to understand the creation and development of North Carolina and the United States. 8.H.1.1 Construct charts, graphs, and historical narratives to explain particular events or issues. 8.H.1.2 Summarize the literal meaning of...