Property Rights and U.S. History: Jamestown Simulation

Lesson Overview

In this lesson the class will simulate the experience at Jamestown before and after the arrival of Sir Thomas Dale.  The students will become colonists who are expected to work to pay the price of their passage to America.  The game is played over several rounds, each of which can last up to two minutes.  In the early rounds of the game, (1 – 3) students are not rewarded for working hard.  Instead, three student managers are rewarded for whatever the students create.  In the later rounds of the game, students are rewarded for what they create – and so will get involved in creating more.

Video Demonstration

Content Standards Addressed:

National Voluntary Content Standards in Economics

Standard 4:  People respond predictably to positive and negative incentives

  • Acting as consumers, producers, workers, savers investors, and citizens, people respond to incentives in order to allocate their scarce resources in ways that provide the highest possible returns to them.

Standard 10:  Institutions evolve in market economies to help individuals and groups accomplish their goals.  Banks, labor unions, corporations, legal systems, and non-for-profit organizations are examples of important institutions.  A different kind of institution, clearly defined and well-enforced property rights, is essential to a market economy.

  • Property rights, contract enforcement, standards for weights and measures, and liability rules affect incentives for people to produce and exchange goods and services.

 Standard 15:  Investment in factories, machinery, new technology, and the health, education and training of people can raise future standards of living.  

  • Economic growth is a sustained rise in a nation's production of goods and services.  It results from investments in human and physical capital, research and development, technological change and improved institutional arrangements and incentives.

Standard 16:  There is an economic role for government to play in a market economy whenever the benefits of a government policy outweigh its costs.  Governments often provide for national defense, address environmental concerns, define and protect property rights and attempt to make markets more competitive.

  • An important role for government in the economy is to define, establish, and enforce property rights.  A property right to a good or service includes the right to exclude others from using the good or service and the right to transfer the ownership or use of the resource to others.

Introduction and Lesson Theme

Property rights have long been seen as essential to the successful operation of markets. They are defined in many ways, perhaps most succinctly as rules that govern who owns what under what circumstances.[1]  The three most essential property rights are the right to use one's possessions, to exclude others from using them and to transfer ownership of them freely.[2] The National Voluntary Content Standards in Economics also recognize the importance of property rights in creating incentives that work to the benefit of all members of society (see standard 10 above). 

Legal scholars distinguish three main varieties of property rights: private, common and collective.  In private property rights individuals own and control the productive resources of a given society.  They exercise the rights of use, exclusion and transfer in whatever way maximizes their own personal benefit while minimizing costs.  Common property rights, by contrast, exist in societies that have decided that resources should be held by some or all of the members and decisions about the property must be made by the group.  Collective property rights exist whenever the community owns, operates or manages productive resources for the benefit of the people.   Each system of property rights, when consistently enforced, creates its own set of incentives.  As standard four indicates above, peoples' behavior will shift to match the incentives provided by society.

The lesson which follows addresses a fundamental feature of private property rights: when private property rights are denied by government, the absence of productive incentives can threaten the existence of the society.

Historical Background

Most teachers of American History know at least some of the chronology of the Jamestown colony.  The Virginia Company was originally founded in 1606 in London.  It was capitalized using the newly developed joint-stock strategy, and its owners were keen to develop the wealth of the New World as quickly as possible.  In 1607 the company made its first voyage to the New World, sending one hundred and four colonists to settle in Virginia.[3]

As every student of the American colonies knows, things didn't go well in Jamestown.  Within six months, only 38 of the 104 who left London were still alive.  It's true that the settlers had trouble with Indians and that disease took a toll on the company, but according to George Percy who chronicled these events at the time, most of the settlers who died succumbed to famine.[4]  Percy also describes the countryside as being full of different kinds of food.  There were "turkey nests and many Egges," "Strawberries, Mulberries, Raspberries and Fruits unknown" and "great store of Deere both Red and Fallow."[5] 

Undeterred, the Virginia Company sent new ships in 1609.  These carried five hundred recruits bound for Jamestown.  Some ended up in the Bahamas instead due to a shipwreck, but most of these new colonists made it to their destination.  Within six months the population of the village went from nearly 500 to 60 in what has been since called "the starving time."[6]  One eyewitness, after describing an act of cannibalism among the "poorer sorte" went on to lay blame on the colonists themselves:

It were too vile to say, and scarce to be beleeved, what we endured: but the occasion was our own, for want of providence, industrie and government, and not the barenness and defect of the Countrie, as is generally supposed."[7]

The survivors decided to leave in the spring and were already on their way when they met a ship coming up the James River with the governor, Lord De La Warr (Delaware), and the survivors agreed to stay after all.

The story of Jamestown raises a perplexing question: How could so many have starved to death in a land full of food?  Winters in Virginia can be cold, but certainly no colder than many parts of Great Britain. Could hunting and fishing in the New World have been so different from what they'd experienced in England?  Were the Indian tribes that fierce?[8]

The answer to this question appears in both the conditions of government in Jamestown and its eventual success as a colony.  Most of the colonists who volunteered to be part of the Virginia Company's first and second voyages were indentured servants who would have to work for seven years before they could own any land. Everything the colonists produced went into the "common store" over which they had no control.  The result of this system was predictable: most of the colonists stopped working.  Instead they were known to "idle over their tasks, or to avoid the performance of these tasks altogether, and it was observed that those who were most honest and energetic by nature, were comparatively indolent and indifferent in attending to their duties in the field."[9]

One event led Jamestown to become a viable colony: the arrival of Sir Thomas Dale in 1611.  He understood the problem at Jamestown and, as High Marshall, was in a position to address it.  He instituted a system of private property in which every man was to receive three acres of farmland, which he was allowed to cultivate.  The Virginia Company could compel labor from the settlers for only one month a year, and that month could not be during harvest or planting.[10]  In economic terms Dale introduced private property, which brought with it the right set of incentives. 

The effects of this change were dramatic.  The reforms went into effect in 1612 or 1613, and Dale left the colony permanently in 1616.  By the time he left the colony contemporary observers were describing Jamestown as a place where the colonists were "well victualled by their own industie".  Sir Edwyn Sandys, treasurer of the Virginia Company, wrote that "[Dale] has reclaimed almost miraculously those idle and disordered people, and reduced them to labor and an honest fashion of life."[11]  Perhaps most telling were the words of John Rolfe in 1616:  "Whereas heretofore we were constrayned yearly to go to the Indians and intreate them to sell us corne, which made them estemme verie basedly of us - now the case is altered; they seeke to us - come to our townes, sell their skin from their shoulders, which is their best garments, to buy corne, - yea, some of their petite Kings have this last year borrowed four or five hundred bushels of wheate, for payment whereof, this harvest they have mortgaged their whole countries, some of them not much less in quantitie than a shire in England."[12]

The introduction of private property rights transformed Jamestown from a failing settlement to a viable colonial town.   The lesson which follows simulates this episode in American history.


Anderson, Terry L. and Huggins, Laura E.  Property Rights A Practical Guide to Freedom and Prosperity.  Hoover Press, Stanford: 2003.

Bethell, Tom.  The Noblest Triumph Property and Prosperity Through the Ages.  St Martin's Press, New York.  1998.

 Heyne, Paul.  The Economic Way of Thinking.  Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: 1997.

Activity Guide 


45 minutes, including debriefing

 Key Terms and Concepts


Property Rights          




  1.  Introduce the simulation using the Scenario visual or handout. This simulation works best when you do very little to introduce it.  Simply tell the class that they'll be doing a simulation and there will be candy involved. 
    • Hand out the scenario and/or put the scenario on the overhead projector so that everyone can see it
    • Review the scenario with the class, emphasizing the instructions for the work they must complete to earn candy. (Encourage students to listen intently to the part about work.  They must meet the standard for work to be acceptable.)
  2.  Play rounds 1-3 using the following payment arrangement.  (Don’t announce the payment arrangement ahead of time. Play 2-3 rounds as necessary to get a dramatic drop off in production. Make sure that the M&Ms or other candy “payment” is visible on the table in the front of the room, but don’t entertain questions about how much they’re paid, etc.  Get them started working quickly.) 
    • Select four students to be game “managers” (for a class or 30 or more – only 3 needed with fewer than 30 students). Have them hand out worksheets to every student - 5 or 6 per student is plenty. (It helps the flow of the game if worksheets are counted out into stacks of five before managers are selected.)  
      • Tell the class that the managers will be checking quality of the drawings.   
      • Make sure everyone is ready to begin.
    • Start the round by announcing that the workers can now start working to pay for their passage to the New World.
    • Encourage the students to write up as many of the work slips as possible.  Circulate around the room as they do so.
    • End the round after two minutes.  Have managers collect the finished papers from the students. (Note that it’s not important who produced what under this payment arrangement, but if students want to put their names on their papers, let them. If managers ask, it’s not important to keep individual workers’ production separate.)
    • Instruct managers to sort and count the number of papers collected.  They are quality controllers as well as helpers – they should reject (throw in the trash) figures that are poorly drawn.  The managers should only count the acceptable drawings. Record the data on the board or an overhead transparency.
    • Once you have good data on how many papers were collected, pay the company manager and the colonists
      • Count out 1 M&M for each “unit” produced.
      • Instruct managers to "pay" every colonist 3 M&Ms apiece.  It's important NOT to pay the more productive workers more; every worker/colonist gets the same amount regardless of how much he or she produced.  Instruct the managers to keep the remaining M&Ms for themselves.
      • When the workers complain, remind them that this is the deal they signed up for: work for seven years for the company before they get anything for themselves.  This will come up in the debriefing also.
    • Repeat the procedures for round 2 and perhaps round 3.  As production drops off pay both the workers and the managers less. (The managers will still get more than the workers, but their “pay” will also drop as production drops.)
      • During these early rounds frustration should be evident in the students as they realize that under these rules they have no incentive to create more or to work very hard.  In fact, they have no property right to what they produce.
  3. Reflect on What's Going Wrong
    • Announce that the colony's production is so low that two bad things have happened:  1)  the company is not happy and 2) the colonists / workers are starving. 
    • Ask students what would solve this problem.  Take some suggestions and note them on the board or overhead, saying that you’ll send them to the company in England. (Do this quickly.) 
    • Announce that the company is sending a new manager who has new rules.  At this point you can replace your manager / helper or keep the same one.
    • Display the new rules overhead on the overhead projector.  Explain the new rules so everyone understands that colonists must still pay their debt, but from now on they can earn rewards based on what they produce.
    • Leave the new rules up on the overhead as you go forward.
  4. New Rules - Private Property Rights
    • If needed, have managers hand out worksheets again, one or two per student.
    • Start the round, encouraging students to work.
    • End the round after two to three minutes.
    • Reward each student individually.
      • Tell each worker / colonist to count up the number of drawings completed.
      • Go around the room to each worker and "buy" his drawings for the appropriate number of M&Ms or other candy.  Be sure to check for quality, as kids go faster they tend to get a bit sloppy!
      • Have your manager tally the total production in the round.  Put this number on the board.
    • Total the production for the whole class and compare to production in earlier rounds under the old rules.
    • OPTIONAL STEP - Repeat this step for a round or two more.  Students may begin to break the work into assembly lines or adopt other creative ways to increase production.
  5. Debriefing
    • Display the debriefing transparency on the projector.
    • Spend time on the crucial difference between the earliest and later years at Jamestown: property rights.  When the settlers of Jamestown worked only for the company with no ownership of what they produced, people starved.  When they were allowed to work for themselves, the colony grew and thrived.


[1] Paul Heyne, The Economic Way of  Thinking, p. 14.

[2] Terry L. Anderson & Laura E. Huggins, Property Rights, p2.

[3] Tom Bethell, The Noblest Triumph, p. 33.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid p. 34

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

Debriefing:  Teacher Guide

1.     When you draw something for your own enjoyment or for art class, who owns it?  Why?  What was different about this game  Normally we own whatever we produce.  This gives us the right to use it or sell it or give it away.  In the simulation the Virginia Company owned whatever the colonists produced before they even produced it.

2.     Why did production decrease in the early rounds?There was no incentive to work hard because whatever the students produced already belonged to the company.  People were all paid the same no matter how hard they worked and what they created already belonged to someone else.

3.     Were the colonists lazy?  Were they stupid?No - the colonists were smart enough to see that working to help the company meant they would never help themselves.  Here is where the teacher can introduce the idea of incentives.  There was no real incentive for the colonists to work in the early rounds.

4.  In the actual Jamestown colony the colonists could not own land and had to give whatever they made to the company to pay for their passage.  Hundreds of people died of starvation.  Those who did survive often did so by begging from the Indians.  Read the following quotation and compare it to what happened in our simulation.

"It were too vile to say, and scarce to be beleeved, what we endured: but the occasion was our own, for want of providence, industrie and government, and not the barenness and defect of the Countrie, as is generally supposed."[1] 

Students should see that the starving time was driven by bad incentives - people had no reason to work hard just as the students had no reason to work hard in the early rounds of our simulation.  The big difference is that in our simulation all that was at stake was candy; the colonists were producing food for the winter.

5.  What changed in the later rounds of the game?  The rules of the game changed to allow colonists to own what they made.  Because they owned it they could sell it and make a profit for themselves rather than the company.  In other words, the creation of private property rights created a new set of incentives that made working hard worth the effort.

6.  In the actual Jamestown colony a new manager, Sir Thomas Dale, was sent in 1611.  He introduced new rules that were so successful that by 1615 one colonist said:

"Whereas heretofore we were constrayned yearly to go to the Indians and intreate them to sell us corne, which made them estemme verie basedly of us - now the case is altered; they seeke to us - come to our townes, sell their skin from their shoulders, which is their best garments, to buy corne, - yea, some of their petite Kings have this last year borrowed four or five hundred bushels of wheate, for payment whereof, this harvest they have mortgaged their whole countries, some of them not much less in quantitie than a shire in England."[2]

What do you think Sir Thomas Dale's new rules included?  Students will provide many answers, but focus on just two:  first, Dale allowed every colonist to own and cultivate three acres of land for himself.  Second, he said that the cost of passage still had to be paid but that the colonists could do so by working for the company one month a year, so long as it wasn't during planting or harvest time.

7.  How do you think the changes introduced by Dale worked for the colonists?  How about for the Virginia company?  The colonists loved the changes, of course.  The Virginia company, however, never realized the big profits they had hoped to get from Jamestown.

8.  If you had to design your own colony, would you allow colonists to own their own land?  Why or why not?  Answers will vary, of course, but the main point here is that private ownership of land creates incentives for people to work hard and make the colony succeed.

[1] Ibid p. 34

[2] Ibid