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Perspectives on the Gunpowder Incident


On the evening of April 20, 1775, Lord Dunmore, Governor of Virginia, sent twenty British sailors under the command of Lieutenant Henry Collins to remove all of the gunpowder from the public magazine in Williamsburg. The townspeople sounded the alarm, but not before Collins and his sailors got away with 15 barrels of gunpowder. An angry mob threatened to burn down the palace, but was talked down by Peyton Randolph. Dunmore explained that he confiscated the powder because of fears of a slave uprising; however, colonists suspected that he wanted to put down a potential rebellion against the British colonial government. Soon after this incident, Dunmore issued a proclamation promising to free all slaves who were owned by rebels and were willing to take up arms for the British.

In this lesson, students will examine the Gunpowder Incident from the perspectives of five different historical characters. They will work in small discussion groups to consider and defend their characters' actions during the episode. Students will then present their characters' point of view to the class and take notes on each others' presentations. Those notes will be used to help students as they draw comic strips depicting what they think really motivated the Gunpowder Incident.


    Download Lesson Materials (PDF)

  • Feature article: Mary Miley Theobald, "The Monstrous Absurdity," Colonial Williamsburg Journal, (Summer 2006) 1-5
  • Biographies sheet
  • Note taking handout
  • Blank sheets of paper
  • Colored pencils
  • Magazine Exterior Image (for lesson extension)
  • Magazine Diagram (for lesson extension)


  1. Read the introduction describing the Gunpowder Incident out loud to the class. Provide additional information from the feature article as needed.
  2. Divide the students into five groups. Provide each group with a brief biography of one of the five individuals involved in the Gunpowder Incident: Lord Dunmore, Governor of Virginia, Peyton Randolph, Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Patrick Henry, a Patriot leader, Joseph, a slave, and Robert Mackey, a townsperson from Williamsburg (Joseph and Robert's characters are fictional).
  3. Have students review the descriptions of their characters to gain knowledge about their backgrounds, motives, perspectives, and actions during the Gunpowder Incident. (You may need to define "motive" and "perspective" for students.) Discussing their character in small groups will help students draw conclusions and enable them to better share their findings with the class.
  4. Explain to the class that not all of the answers to the questions will be in the biography cards. They will have to make inferences—guesses based on facts—about what their character was thinking or feeling at the time.
  5. Each group is to present their character to the class. They should speak in character and explain what actions the individual took and why he felt it was the best course of action considering his background, motives, and perspective.
  6. As each group makes its presentation, the remaining students should take notes on the information presented.
  7. Have students draw a comic strip titled "What I Think Happened at the Gunpowder Incident." They can draw their strip from the perspective of any of the characters discussed in class, and should use their notes to inform their choices.
  8. Post the completed comic strips around the room so students can see each other's work.
  9. Once students have had a chance to view the comic strips, summarize the incident with the class and discuss the outcome of the affair.

Lesson Extensions

  1. Provide students with information about the Lexington and Concord gunpowder incident. Have students complete a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting the two incidents.
  2. Project the Magazine Exterior Image and the Magazine Diagram for the class. Point out the following features, and ask the class to come up with reasons why each of these is beneficial for a powder magazine:
    1. surrounded by a wall
    2. far from adjacent buildings
    3. made of brick
    4. weapons on upper floors of a tall, thin structure
    5. narrow stairs
    6. guardhouse
    7. few windows

This lesson was written by Marinanne Esposito, Key West, FL, and Kim O'Neil, Liverpool, NY.