Captain John Smith and The Virginia Expedition


Learn about the Virginia Expedition and Captain John Smith in this fascinating lesson plan. Discover how Smith’s strong leadership saved the colony from extinction. Explore the complexities of studying people, events and historical viewpoints.

Included with this lesson are some adjustments or additions that you can make if you’d like, found in the “Options for Lesson” section of the Classroom Procedure page. One of the optional additions to this lesson is to have your students review some of the current popular culture movies about John Smith and Pocahontas and compare them with history. 


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What our Captain John Smith and The Virginia Expedition lesson plan includes

Lesson Objectives and Overview: Captain John Smith and The Virginia Expedition allows students to research and analyze information about Captain John Smith and his expedition to Virginia in the 1600s. Students will learn about the people and events that made this time period so significant, and will be able to compare the ideas and culture of the past with present-day events. This lesson is for students in 4th grade, 5th grade, and 6th grade.

Classroom Procedure

Every lesson plan provides you with a classroom procedure page that outlines a step-by-step guide to follow. You do not have to follow the guide exactly. The guide helps you organize the lesson and details when to hand out worksheets. It also lists information in the orange box that you might find useful. You will find the lesson objectives, state standards, and number of class sessions the lesson should take to complete in this area. In addition, it describes the supplies you will need as well as what and how you need to prepare beforehand. The supplies you will need for this lesson include pencils, pens, highlighters, and the handouts.

Options for Lesson

Included with this lesson is an “Options for Lesson” section that lists a number of suggestions for activities to add to the lesson or substitutions for the ones already in the lesson. If you’d like to add an additional activity to this lesson, you can have your students review some of the current popular culture movies about John Smith and Pocahontas and compare them with history. You can also have your students take a virtual tour of historic Jamestown at the website listed in the Options for Lesson section of the Classroom Procedure page. Finally, you could use other Clarendon learning resources to supplement or introduce this lesson.

Teacher Notes

The teacher notes page includes a paragraph with additional guidelines and things to think about as you begin to plan your lesson. This page also includes lines that you can use to add your own notes as you’re preparing for this lesson.


Early Life

The Captain John Smith and The Virginia Expedition lesson plan includes six content pages. John Smith was born in Lincolnshire, England in 1580. He was a restless and adventurous child who learned to read, write, do math, and speak Latin in grammar school. His family were farmers, like many people from this time, but John did not want to be a farmer. He ran away from home at 13 to become a sailor but his father stopped him. His father then sent him to become a local merchant’s apprentice. Apprentices learn a trade, skill, or job by training with a professional. Many people during this time worked as apprentices because schools during that time did not teach you how to do work.

John’s father died in 1596, and John took that opportunity to join the English army and sail to France to fight the Spanish. The war ended in 1598 and John returned to England. Because of his time as a soldier, he decided that he never wanted to be a merchant or a farmer.

After returning home, he secluded himself in a shelter that he made from tree branches to teach himself how to live off the land. He also read books about war, strategy, politics, native plants, and maps. He also employed a horseman to help him improve his horse riding skills. John joined the Holy Roman Empire in 1600 and fought the Ottoman Turks in Austria. This allowed him to use the skills that he had taught himself and learned from others.

John traveled on a pirate ship on his way to join the Holy Roman Empire. He earned 500 gold pieces as a pirate, which allowed him to pay for the rest of his trip. He earned the rank of Captain while in battle. However, in one battle, the other side captured him and forced him to walk over 600 miles and work as a Turkish slave.

A man named Tymore owned John as a slave and treated him very poorly. He placed an iron ring around his neck, beat him, and starved him. John eventually overpowered and killed Tymore. John escaped by wearing Tymore’s clothes and riding his horse. He then spent two years traveling around Russia, France, Spain, Germany, Morocco, and Ukraine. He finally returned to England in 1604.

Captain John Smith and the Virginia Colony

Smith’s military experience and other skills gave him an advantage in the eyes of the companies who wanted to establish colonies in Americas at this time. King James I issued a charter to establish a colony in Virginia in 1606, and John Smith sailed to America with 104 other settlers and supplies to start the colony that same year. They were going to call the new settlement Jamestown.

During the journey, they arrested and charged Smith with mutiny. Smith said that a small group of wealthy passengers didn’t like him. They accused him of planning to take over the expedition. This meant that he spent most of the journey in the ship’s brig wearing irons. They even planned to hang him at one point!

The trip took almost four months. They anchored the ship and discovered that the voyage’s proprietors, the people who paid for the expedition, had placed a locked box on board with instructions to not open it until they landed. Once they opened it, they found a paper that named the new colony’s leadership council. John Smith was one of them! Because of this, they freed him from the brig and threw out the charges against him.

Because of his skills, Smith was in charge of finding food, establishing relations with the native population, and creating trade agreements. The colonists did not realize how hard life would be in the new colony at Jamestown. They found the harsh weather conditions and hard work that it took to survive surprising. Smith was one of the people who was most prepared due to his time as a soldier.

Captain John Smith and Jamestown

The colonists arrived in the Chesapeake Bay area in April 1607, after a long and treacherous voyage. They turned south and followed the coastline until they found a peninsula at the mouth of the James River. Here, they unloaded their ship onto a marshy piece of land surrounded by water.

They thought that this was a great location because the back of the property extended into deep water, which meant that ships could dock for unloading. They also thought it would be easy to defend the colony from enemy attacks, because attackers would have to cross the water by boat or try to attack from the narrow path leading to the settlement. Enemies would also be easy targets for rifles, pistols, and cannons. They would face the consequences of this choice on May 21, 1607.

Some colonists left the site to explore. Some local native tribes took this opportunity to attack. The colonists fought the attack with cannons from their ships. They discovered that they had made a mistake choosing their location. The ground was marshy. The hot, humid weather also led to many disease-carrying mosquitoes. The water from the outlet of the James River was dirty and brackish with disease-carrying organisms. Many of the colonists became ill from the mosquitoes and water.

The colonists also had another concern: they did not have enough food. The local tribe, the Powhatan tribe, traded with them when they first arrived. The colonists traded some of their metal pans, pots, tools, and trinkets for food. This trading relationship broke down quickly. The Powhatans stopped trading and blocked the land bridge, meaning the colonists could not hunt for food on the mainland. The tribe wanted the colonists to return to England.

The colonists had to eat the animals they brought, including horses, dogs, and cats, for food. The colonists ate rats, mice, and even the leather from their belts and shoes once the animals ran out. The survival of the colony was in danger.

They had no clean water, no food, and diseases like dysentery and cholera. Many of the colonists died, and others abandoned the colony to try to find gold. Most of the settlers were not farmers, so they did not know how to grow their own food. They finally received new food and supplies via ships that arrived in January 1608. By this time, only 38 of 104 original settlers were still alive.

To make things worse, their fort caught fire. The fort and most of their supplies burned. The colonists now faced the possibility of freezing to death during the winter.

Captain John Smith and Pocahontas

Captain John Smith became the leader of the colony after the deaths of many of the original leaders. Smith knew that they needed to improve their relationship with the Powhatan tribe in order to survive. When they first arrived, the Powhatans traveled to the settlement to trade. Matoaka, the Chief’s daughter, also known as Pocahontas, came with the tribe. At this time, she was likely no more than ten or eleven years old. She occasionally came to the settlement alone to deliver messages to Smith and the other leaders.

We have several different legends about John Smith and Pocahontas. Smith wrote that, in 1607, the Powhatan people captured him and brought him to their camp. He thought his life was in danger, as members of the tribe surrounded him holding clubs. Pocahontas then stepped in between him and the people with the clubs. She explained that they were friends and Smith believed that she saved his life. In 1609, Pocahontas also told Smith about a plot to kill him while he met with the chief, saving his life again. Historians don’t know if either of these events actually happened, as they only have the one account from Smith. These accounts are very different from the modern legends about Smith and Pocahontas’ relationship.

Captain John Smith Returns to England

An explosion at the fort severely injured Smith in the fall of 1609, forcing him to return to England. Smith planned to return to the Jamestown colony, but the proprietors denied his requests. Instead, in 1614, Smith sailed to what we now call New England. While traveling to the area he had mapped in 1615, pirates captured him again. These pirates were French. Smith escaped and returned to England again. In 1620, the Pilgrims almost chose him to lead them. However, they ultimately decided to hire Miles Standish instead. The group used Smith’s map of the New England coast as a guide.

Smith spent the last years of his life writing about his adventures. He died in London in 1631. We remember him to this day as a great explorer.


The Captain John Smith and The Virginia Expedition lesson plan includes three worksheets: an activity worksheet, a practice worksheet, and a homework assignment. You can refer to the guide on the classroom procedure page to determine when to hand out each worksheet.


For the activity worksheet, students will read a quote from Captain John Smith and will explain what they think it means. They’ll also answer several reading comprehension questions about the quote using what they learned from the lesson material.


Students will work with a partner to complete the practice worksheet. Each pair will use the provided list of settlers and their occupations to complete the chart on the worksheet and the accompanying questions.


For the homework assignment, students will use the list of settlers and their occupations from the practice worksheet to complete another chart where they’ll list the number of deaths for each year listed. They will also answer a question about the causes of these deaths.

Worksheet Answer Keys

This lesson plan includes answer keys for the practice worksheet and the homework assignment. If you choose to administer the lesson pages to your students via PDF, you will need to save a new file that omits these pages. Otherwise, you can simply print out the applicable pages and keep these as reference for yourself when grading assignments.

Additional information


4th Grade, 5th Grade, 6th Grade


Biography, Social Studies

State Educational Standards

NCSS.D2.HIS.4.6-8, NCSS.D2.HIS.3.6-8, & NSSS.D2.HIS.14.3-5

Lessons are aligned to meet the education objectives and goals of most states. For more information on your state objectives, contact your local Board of Education or Department of Education in your state.