American Portraits

John Smith and Diligence

In this lesson, students will review John Smith’s diligent actions as an adventurer and in establishing the Jamestown colony. They will achieve the following objectives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.


On the raw and chilly winter morning of December 20, 1606, gentleman-adventurer John Smith made his way down to the wharves along the Thames River in London. He was one of just over 100 passengers who were boarding three ships: the Discovery, the Godspeed, and the Susan Constant, which were all bound for Virginia in the New World. Smith went aboard the latter, where he knew several of the gentlemen on the ship as well as its captain, Christopher Newport. These Englishmen were traversing the broad Atlantic to attempt to colonize Virginia and challenge the Spanish Empire’s dominance in the New World. They knew that it would take hard work, perseverance, and diligence just to survive, let alone confront their imperial rivals….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

Why is diligence essential for achieving worthy goals?

Virtue Defined

Diligence is intrinsic energy for completing good work.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will review John Smith’s diligent actions as an adventurer and in establishing the Jamestown colony. They will achieve the following objectives.


  • Students will analyze John Smith’s character as a leader and his diligent actions in leading his settlers against overwhelming obstacles to contribute to the survival of Jamestown.
  • Students will examine Smith’s demonstration of diligence.
  • Students will understand why diligence is an essential virtue in their own lives.
  • Students will act diligently in their own lives to protect freedom.


During the reign of Elizabeth I, England started to challenge the dominance of the Spanish Empire in the New World. English adventurers were especially interested in the thousands of tons of gold and silver that the Spanish shipped from their colonies. In the 1570s and 1580s, Elizabeth sent out “Sea Dogs” (or privateers) to plunder not only the Spanish vessels carrying their wealth but also Spanish garrisons on the Caribbean Islands. When Elizabeth died in 1603, James I ascended the throne and continued her imperial mission. In 1606, James granted a patent to the Virginia Company to found a colony in Virginia as a private joint-stock company that would keep most of the profits earned in the venture. The Crown would receive a portion of the wealth and imperial glory.

John Smith was born in 1580, the son of a small-scale independent farmer. He sought adventure as a young man and traveled to the Netherlands to aid in the Dutch Revolt against Spain. When he returned to England, he studied books on war and learned skills such as the use of new types of weapons and horsemanship. Smith then traveled to battle the Ottoman Turks, who were expanding from the Middle East into Eastern Europe.

During his colorful travels, Smith was thrown overboard from a ship because Catholics on the ship blamed the Protestant Smith for storms that nearly wrecked their vessel. He was picked up by another boat, but the two ships exchanged cannon fire that left dozens dead. Smith was left a wealthy man when the victorious crew plundered the defeated enemy. After a brief stop in Italy, he made his way to the battlefield and distinguished himself in battle, winning a promotion and a coat of arms. In a successive battle, he was gravely wounded and forced into slavery. He eventually killed his master and escaped from slavery. He returned to England in 1604 as a wealthy gentleman-adventurer and quickly joined forces with several merchants and other investors. Together, they formulated a plan to start a joint-stock company that would settle a colony in Virginia and hopefully reap great rewards while patriotically serving England against the Spanish enemy. Within two years, they received a patent and Smith was on his way to Virginia for a grand but dangerous adventure that would test his mettle and leadership skills.


  • New World
  • Sea Dogs
  • Privateers
  • Plunder
  • Ascended
  • Imperial
  • Patent
  • Joint stock company
  • Martial
  • Mettle
  • Auspiciously
  • Contentious
  • Pugnacious
  • Scurvy
  • Typhus
  • Factious
  • Tenuous

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • In what ways did John Smith exercise diligence to enhance life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for himself and others?
  • What did John Smith understand his identity to be and how did that affect his contribution to the establishment of the Virginia colony?
  • What did John Smith understand his purpose to be in the events of the early 1600s?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Barbour, Philip L. The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964.
  • Halile, Edward Wright, ed. Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony, the First Decade, 1607-1617. Champlain, VA: RoundHouse Press, 1988.
  • Horn, James. A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America. New York: Basic Books, 2005.
  • Horn, James, ed. Captain John Smith: Writings with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement in America. New York: Library of America, 2007.
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. The Jamestown Project. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.
  • Williams, Tony. The Jamestown Experiment: The Remarkable Story of the Enterprising Colony and the Unexpected Results that Shaped America. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2011.

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