Leadership at Jamestown


Elementary, Middle


Students will make decisions about qualities of leadership needed at Jamestown during the early colonial period.

Standards of Learning:

VA SOLs: VS 1 g, h; VS 3 f; VS 3 g<
National Standards for History: Historical Analysis and Decision-Making; Historical Analysis & Making Interpretation; Historical Research Capabilities

Materials Needed for Activity:

Leadership Worksheet

Other Helpful Resources:

The Life of John Smith – Biography
Life at Jamestown – Essay
Powhatan’s Challenge and Opechancanough’s Action – Essay

Teacher Background:

The success of the Jamestown experiment depended on having strong leadership. While conflict between the various councilors in Virginia erupted almost immediately, several men exhibited the leadership skills needed to help the colony survive. See The Life of John Smith and Life at Jamestown essays for background information. At the same time, several members of the Powhatan Indian tribes demonstrated their leadership ability in dealing with the English colonists. See Powhatan’s Challenge and Opechancanough’s Action for more information.

This lesson asks students to consider characteristics of leadership and to identify several individuals from Jamestown’s history who exhibited these characteristics. Some leaders who might be considered by students include the following:

Chief Powhatan: The supreme ruler of most of the indigenous tribes in the Chesapeake Bay area, from the Rappahannock River to the lands south of the James River. Chief Powhatan was the highest authority the colonists met when dealing with the Indians. Captain John Smith wrote: He is of parsonage a tall well proportioned man…his head somewhat gray… His age neare 60; of a very able and hardy body to endure any labour. What he commandeth they dare not disobey in the least thing. It is strange to see with what great feare and adoration all these people doe obay this Powhatan. For at his feet, they present whatsoever he commandeth, and at the least frowne of his browe, their greatest spirits will tremble with feare: and no marvell, for he is very terrible and tyrannous in punishing such as offend him.

Christopher Newport: In 1606, the Virginia Council gave Captain Christopher Newport “sole charge and command” of all the persons aboard the three ships that set sail from England in December 1606 for Virginia. Newport was a seasoned mariner and had made several trips to the West Indies before accepting command of the Jamestown voyage. He made several trips back and forth from England to the colony bringing supplies. He also visited the paramount Indian chief Powhatan and his half-brother Opecancanough in order to negotiate for provisions for the colony. Before departing each time, the settlers cut trees in order to make ship masts and clapboard that could be sold in England. Newport was always mindful of the fact that they were in Virginia to make money for the company so he also sent the men digging for gold ore.

Captain John Smith: Smith was a soldier of fortune who had fought in many wars in Europe prior to coming to Virginia. He was not born of the gentry and was not considered a “gentleman” as the other leaders of the Council had been. Because he had been to many different places and was an adventurer of the first order, he had a great deal of confidence and a “no-nonsense” attitude about him. During his brief tenure at Jamestown from May 1607 to the fall of 1609, Smith successfully traded for food with the Indians, explored the Chesapeake Bay, wrote about and mapped Virginia and restored order to quarreling fellow settlers. After he became president in 1608, he instituted a policy of tight discipline, encouraged farming, strengthened defenses and pronounced that, “He who does not work, will not eat.”

Lord de la Warr (Thomas West): In 1609 he was appointed the first governor of Virginia, arriving in Virginia in June of 1610 with new settlers and provisions for the colony. His timely arrival saved abandonment of Jamestown which was in dire straits from the “starving time.” He encouraged the settlers to remain at Jamestown and, during his short tenure, (ill-health forced him to return to England in March 1611) he set about strengthening and rebuilding the colony. This included building two new forts at Kecoughtan and new houses in and about Jamestown. He sent settlers to attack the Powhatan Indians. They raided Indian villages, burned houses, confiscated provisions, and torched cornfields. Though he was at Jamestown only a short time, some credit his actions with allowing Jamestown to survive.

Opecancanough: Opecancanough was a powerful and aggressive werowance whose land centered around present-day West Point, Virginia, at the headwaters of the York River. He has been identified as a half-brother of Chief Powhatan. Opecancanough believed that the Jamestown settlement was just the beginning of the English invasion and felt duty-bound to do something about it. His time came on March 22, 1622, when his well-organized attack began on plantations up and down the James River. The English had been lulled into complacency after years of relative peace with the Indians. The Powhatan people were free to come and go in the English settlements and were even free to borrow tools and boats. The attack was well-coordinated and deadly. Within just a few hours, Opecancanough and his warriors had killed 347 English settlers. In addition, they killed livestock and destroyed houses, hoping to leave the plantations useless to any survivors. Colonists from outlying areas were ordered into fortified settlements such as Jamestown. Severe food shortages resulted and contagious diseases spread. The settlers retaliated, burning Indian villages, taking their corn and killing the inhabitants. A decade of open warfare followed that included intermittent raids, kidnappings and ambush by both sides. This was followed by a decade of tenuous peace, while Opechancanough bided his time. But in 1644 his warriors struck the colony again. This time, however, the English far outnumbered the Powhatans, and the Indians were defeated. Opechancanough, now an old man, was captured and killed at Jamestown in 1646.


Step 1: Share with students that they will be participating in an activity designed to identify what qualities of leadership they believe were needed at Jamestown. Tell them they will try to award gold, silver and bronze medals for leadership at the end of this activity. Ask the class to think of some people they consider good leaders today. It may be a scout leader, a student government representative, a team captain, or a friend with whom they interact frequently.

Step 2: Ask the class to name one quality the above people possess which they feel qualified them as a good leader. Write these on the board as they suggest them. It may be necessary to begin the process with some examples such as confidence, communication and ability to motivate. Others students might mention knowledge, initiative, and experience. Discuss the meaning of each of the qualities they volunteer.

Step 3: Pass out the Leadership Worksheet. Review the leadership qualities listed on the sheet. Ask students to think of three people at Jamestown they feel possessed at least some of these qualities of leadership. Encourage them to consider Powhatan Indian leaders as well as English. Share background information on the leaders listed above. You may also wish to have students to do their own research before forming their opinions.

Step 4: Have students list the names they have chosen along the left side of the worksheet. In the chart matrix, have students identify briefly instances when their individual demonstrated that characteristic. Note: One example is given on the chart.

Step 5: Divide the class into groups of four or five each. Have each student share their choices from the chart along with reasons for the choices. Encourage them to defend their selections. Have each group try to reach consensus on three people they believe to be strong leaders and then report these to the entire class. Write their names on the board.Summary Activity: Tell the class they will vote upon the three people from this list whom they feel should receive the gold medal, the bronze medal and the silver medal for leadership. Ask students if it were difficult for them to decide on three names. Why or why not?

Lesson plans made possible by Archibald Andrews Marks.