Lesson Plan--Historical Empathy: Columbus and the Indians

Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the New World in 1492 brought him and his crew into contact with the indigenous peoples of the Americas. This voyage led to more expeditions on the part of Columbus and other Europeans, and because these expeditions led to violence and genocide inflicted on the indigenous peoples. Because of this, some modern interpretations cast Columbus in a negative light, even to the point of advocating for the replacing of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Many people no longer consider Columbus the hero who “discovered” America. Historical empathy is a historical thinking skill that calls on students to understand why people in the past acted and thought in certain ways—particularly in ways that are hard for us to understand today because we are so opposed to them. It tries to look at people and events in the larger context of their time period to make sense of their motivations and causes.

Standards & Objectives

Academic standards
Analyze why European countries were motivated to explore including religion, political rivalry, and economic gain.
Analyze what a text says explicitly and draw logical inferences; cite several pieces of textual evidence to support conclusions.
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Learning objectives: 

Students will:

  • Complete a close reading of a primary source text.
  • Analyze and synthesize primary source maps and texts.
  • Learn and exercise the skill of historical empathy.
  • Evaluate Columbus’s actions based on primary sources created during his time period.
Essential and guiding questions: 

Why did Columbus act towards/think of the New World Indians the way he did? How do these actions/attitudes make sense in the context of his time?

Lesson Variations

Blooms taxonomy level: 
Extension suggestions: 

There are several useful resources on different aspects of Columbus’s voyages available through the TPS-MTSU Web Site and the Library of Congress:

  • Culture Clash: Three Views of Columbus (lesson plan)
  • A Matter of Perspective: Columbus in the New World (lesson plan)
  • 1492: An Ongoing Voyage (exhibition)
  • Waldseemüller’s Map: World 1507 (lesson plan)
  • Hispanic Exploration in America (primary source set)
  • Exploring the Early Americas (exhibition)

Helpful Hints


  • PowerPoint in which images are hyperlinked to their locations on the Web
  • Columbus and the Indians worksheet, taken from the English translation of Columbus’s letter
  • Primary source text excerpts which includes all three texts in question