Role Plays: Jamestown Colony Leader

NOTEThis teaching exercise allows the teacher to employ role playing as a way to engage students in the learning process. Suggestions are included in the sections on “Casting Instructions.” Teachers may designate monologues, two or more student participants, or student to class exchanges.  Teachers are also free to depart from these suggestions and use the historical material as they wish to create their own learning strategies.

NAME:  John Smith  

TITLE:  Captain, President of the Colony


Captain John Smith is a popular but controversial figure in American History, best known for his role in the founding of Jamestown, England’s first permanent colony in North America. Before coming to Virginia, he made his reputation as a mercenary soldier and left elaborate accounts of his military conquests in Europe before joining the Virginia Company of London in the expedition of 1606-1607 to Jamestown. There he served on the local council, explored and mapped the Chesapeake Bay, battled with Chief Powhatan, and presided as president of the colony from September 1609 to September 1610. He got involved in a dispute on the way across the Atlantic, was placed in chains, and threatened with execution upon arrival. When the leaders opened a secret file of those the Virginia Company had nominated to lead the colony, Smith’s name appeared on the list and he was released. He famously challenged the settlers in 1609, as they were near starvation, with the statement: “he who does not work shall not eat.” In popular culture, he is known for being saved by Pocahontas after a confrontation with Powhatan, Most historians doubt this self-reported account of the incident. After suffering an injury in a gunpowder accident in 1610, he returned to England, never to visit Virginia again. He did return to the northeast coast of North America, mapped a portion of it, and gave the area the name New England; he published A Description of New England in 1616. During his remaining years in England, he published eight books. He compiled an extensive account of his experiences in Virginia, in a book entitled A General Historie of Virginia and the Sommer Isles (1624). Arguably, his greatest legacy was his Map of Virginia, first printed in Oxford, England in 1612, that located over 200 Indian tribes. Nearly all printed Virginia maps for the next sixty years were derived from this extraordinary map. Captain John Smith died in London on June 21, 1631. He is buried in St. Sepulchre's Church in London.

John Smith was baptized in Willoughby by Alford, England, on January 9, 1579. He was the eldest son of George Smith and Alice Rickards. George Smith was a yeoman farmer who most probably worked for Peregrine Bertie (Lord Willoughby). Smith was educated in Alford and later he attended a boarding school in nearby Louth. He also served briefly as an apprentice to Thomas Sewell, a local merchant, but his formal education ended in 1596 when his father died. Smith's mother remarried soon after the death of her husband.

Although Smith inherited land from his father, he opted for a more adventurous life abroad. In 1596 or 1597 he joined a group of English volunteers and for the next four years he fought for Dutch independence from the Spanish King Phillip II. Smith returned to England briefly in 1599 and then set off again to France and Italy. He toured the Mediterranean on board a merchant ship and joined the Austrian forces in their battles against the Turks. One notable incident occurred in the battle against the Turks. Smith contends that he was captured by the Turks in Transylvania and was then transferred to Constantinople as a present for the Pasha's wife. She in turn fell in love with him and managed (with the help of her brother) to smuggle Smith to "safety." Evidently Smith wanted complete freedom, he killed the brother and returned to Transylvania. Smith continued his wanderings, eventually returning to England in 1604.

In England Smith soon developed an interest in the plans to colonize the “New World.” The Virginia Company received its charter from King James I on April 10, 1606. In December of the same year, three ships set sail for Virginia; Smith was one of the 144 colonists on board. The colonists landed at Jamestown on May 13, 1607 and Smith served as one of the seven councilors of the colony.


Captain Smith was a soldier, a writer, and a cock-sure braggart. Undoubtedly many accounts of his adventurous life were embellished, need to be scrutinized carefully, and compared to other existing accounts of life in Jamestown’s early years. Much of what is known about him comes from his own writings where he undoubtedly exaggerates his accomplishments and contributions. Nevertheless, he also provides some of the best insights into English and Indian life in the formative years of the Virginia Colony.


The early years of the Jamestown settlement were marked by great hardship, suffering, and death. The colonists suffered from disease, malnutrition, and frequent Indian attacks. Within the first seven months two-thirds of the colonists died. Smith stepped forward as the leader of the colony when it became apparent that the council of seven was ineffective. He led expeditions into the interior and traded with the Indians for corn. In December 1607, Smith and several other colonists left the fort to explore the local area. Unfortunately they ran into an Indian hunting party and were promptly captured by Opechancanough, Powhatan’s brother. . Although the other Englishmen were killed outright, the Indians took Smith before Chief Powhatan. According to his account in his General Historie, the Indians conducted a "trial" in which Smith was condemned to death. Smith claims that his life was spared due to the intervention of Powhatan's eleven- or twelve-year-old daughter, Pocahontas. Since he reports being saved by beautiful women on three other occasions during his life, historians doubt this account. Also adding to the doubt, is his own report that Powhatan offered to make the English part of his own paramount chieftaincy by settling them at Capahowosick, leading some historians to conclude  that what was really taking place was a ritual adoption.

Smith was not well received in Jamestown. Captain Christopher Newport and Gabriel Archer had assumed leadership during Smith's temporary absences and the colonists still suffered from a lack of food and proper shelter. Smith soon escaped from the tension of the fort and proceeded to explore the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers and the Chesapeake Bay during the summer of 1608. His explorations of Virginia were later compiled in his Map of Virginia. Captain Newport returned to England in the fall of 1608 and John Smith was elected to the council once again in September.

Smith proved to be an able and efficient administrator and he quickly emerged as the leader of the settlement. He pressured Powhatan to provide corn for the colonists and he threatened to banish any colonist who was unwilling to work. Smith's discipline helped to sustain the colony through the winter of 1608-1609. However, Smith's prominent role in the colony was short-lived; Captain Newport returned to Jamestown in 1609, bringing new settlers and supplies and armed with a new charter for the Virginia Company. A power struggle ensued and Smith eventually lost his position as the president of the colony. Smith also injured himself in a gunpowder explosion in the fall of the year. He went back to England in October, 1609 and never returned to Virginia.

Smith did not abandon his commitment to the success of the Virginia settlement. Instead, he continued his efforts to promote Jamestown (if not the Virginia Company) in England, producing numerous narratives and maps of the new colony. In 1614 Smith, backed by London merchants, sailed to New England and returned to England with furs and fish. He published A Description of New England in 1616. During his remaining years in England, he published eight books. Captain John Smith died in London on June 21, 1631. He is buried in St. Sepulchre's Church in London.

The best way to approach an understanding of this complex character and his role in the Jamestown colony is to pose a few questions:

These are difficult questions to answer, but easier if you present him as a man of his time and not try to judge him according to today’s values. Try to interpret him in terms of both his foibles and strengths and as a victim of his own understanding and ignorance of English and Indian cultures. For example, there are indications at times that he admired Powhatan and his people; at other times he seems totally deaf to Indian ideals. Look for nuances in his attitudes towards Indians and how they might differ from other Englishmen around him. Strive for a balanced interpretation that avoids extremes of Smith as a liar and braggart or a savior of the colony.


Karen Ordahl Kupperman, ed., Captain John Smith: A Select Edition of His Writings(1988), especially the “Introduction.”

Enyclopedia of Virginia History

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