In the year 1620, a band of separatists packed themselves onto a tiny ship and traversed the ocean in hopes of attaining religious freedom. These pilgrims were not the first Europeans to settle on the coast of the Americas, yet we celebrate their accomplishments much more than those of Jamestown, or other areas of Virginia. Although the childhood story we learn of Pilgrims and Indians cooperating in peace was not as simple as we were told, the real story is just as interesting and perhaps even more inspiring.
A host of political reasons drove the colony from England, and finally to the new world. They were not the first to traverse the wide sea, nor were they the first settlers on the continent. Still, they were the first to create a permanent settlement in New England, and the first Englishmen to have friendly relationships with a native tribe. They also pioneered a model religious community that was immensely important to the development of America as a whole. Their very human mistakes along the way do nothing to detract from their ultimate successes.
Most of the Saints, as they called themselves, who settled Plymouth Colony were originally from the county around Scrooby, England. Although Scrooby was not as small as many historians have claimed it was, the county was still a farming community with an agrarian way of life. Many in this area were Puritans, believing that the church of England needed to be purified of its sinful catholic trappings. Puritanism, although frowned upon, was tolerated in England. As long as members were paying lip-service to the church and attending services every Sunday, they were largely left alone. It was the Separatist sect of Puritanism, the sect that believed that the Church of England could never be purified and advocated separating from the church to form a new, that was considered toxic in English society. When a small group of people, led by the minister John Robinson, stopped attending Sunday church services, they were instantly persecuted. With its members constantly jailed, fined, and the community refusing to give them work, the group felt they needed to leave England.
The most logical place for them seemed to be Holland, a country known for its religious tolerance. Slowly and secretly, the group began to sell their farms and immigrate to Holland. Caling themselves the Saints, they eventually settled in the town of Leyden. Leyden was nothing like the home they had left in England. It was a highly industrialized city, famous for the manufacture of a fashionable lightweight wool called Say. The Saints immediately sought jobs in the textile factories, but were never able to attain economic security. They often worked incredibly long hours for little pay, and many of their children also worked long days in the factories alongside their parents. Most families lived in hastily constructed, tiny tenements that were put up by the Dutch government. And then, the Spanish occupation of Leyden happened. Not only was the specter of popish religion looming over their adopted country, but so was the threat of war. It became clear that Holland was not the place for the Saints.
At first, the group looked into traveling to the new world on a charter from the Dutch government. This was not their ideal situation. Most of them still considered themselves Englishmen, and did not want to officially become a colony of a foreign government. When it looked possible to attain a charter from England, the Saints jumped at the chance. They would be able to keep their English heritage and still practice their religion.
In reality, the Saints never actually received an official charter to settle their colony. They applied to the King with a settlement site in northern Virginia, and heard nothing. Eventually, they assumed that no news was good news and proceeded with their plans, receiving funding from the newly formed Virginia Company. This may seem like a significant jump in reasoning, but in reality it was not. Separatism had been punished to the full extent of the law in England for decades. When investors of the colony were not bothered, and members of the community who had been jailed were allowed to return to England for provisions, it looked as if the King was giving tactic permission while still saving face. Their leader, John Robinson, declined to go with them, intending to join them later. When the Saints set out, it was without a leader.
The deal these Saints made with the Virginia Company was quite simple, and did not favor the colonists at all. Robert Cushman, the main negotiator for the saints, was too eager to make a deal. He agreed to harsh provisions and signed all the papers before the rest of the group could weigh in. The company would fund the Saint’s trip to the new world and pay for all the supplies they would need. The Saints would pay back their debt by loading supply ships with saleable goods. Profit from all seven days of the week would belong to the Virginia Company. Once the debt was paid, the Plymouth colony would be free to trade as they wished. Until the debt was paid, everything they owned, including the houses they lived in, belonged to the Virginia Company and its investors. Other colonies had been able to negotiate deals where the settlers owned their houses and property, and were able to work a few days of the week for their own personal profit. Because of Cushman’s eagerness, this type of deal had not been possible for the Saints.
Edward Winslow, Robert Cushman, and Thomas Moore, the leader of the Virginia Company, were in charge of making all the preparations for the voyage. They purchased a medium sized 3-masted ship called the Speedwell to take them to the new world from Holland, and hired a small 2-masted ship called the Mayflower to bring families from England who hadn’t been able to make their way to Leyden yet. Along with these few Separatist families, the investors found several other non-separatists with useful skills to accompany the group on the Mayflower. Some, like Miles Standish, had extensive military training. Others had building or farming skills that would be useful to the colony, and still others were seeking to relocate their whole families. The Saints referred to these people as “Strangers”. The Saints planned to keep the Speedwell with them in the new world so they could travel up and down the coast and trade with others, reducing their debt faster, while the Mayflower would return to England.
In early July of 1620, both the Speedwell and the Mayflower set out from their individual ports, planning to rendezvous in Southampton, England before continuing together to the new world. Unfortunately, the Speedwell began to leak badly, and the group waited 2 weeks for the ship to be repaired before setting off again. Within a few hours of resuming their journey, the Speedwell was leaking again, and they had to pull into port for repairs a second time, and then a third. It finally seemed as if the Speedwell was fixed when they left from Plymouth, England, in late August. 300 yards out to sea, it again started to take on water badly. The demoralized group had no other choice but to turn around and land in Plymouth again. They left Speedwell in Plymouth, and packed everyone they could into the Mayflower. As the Mayflower was so much smaller than the Speedwell, they packed it well over capacity before several families, convinced that the voyage was cursed, decided to just go home.
Because the Mayflower had left so much later than originally planned, winter storms buffeted the small ship the entire way to the new world. A voyage that could take as little as thirteen days took the pilgrims almost two months to complete. At one point, storms were so violent as to crack the central support beam of the ship. If the group had not been able to stabilize the beam with a winch they had brought to aid in building houses, they may never have seen the new world at all. When the pilgrims reached the new world, they were not in northern Virginia, where they had told the King they would be settling, but in an entirely new landscape far north of their original destination.
The group did not know what to do. At first, they tried to sail south, but they quickly ran into dangerous rapids. In the snowy and icy landscapes they encountered, winter was obviously arriving quickly. The group began to divide into factions. The Saints were worried that by settling here, they would be accused of misleading the King, and that they would be accused of secession and sedition. The Strangers didn’t care about this. They had already made a failed attempt to sail south, and they felt the need to establish some kind of permanent settlement before the ground froze solid and it was impossible to build anything. At first, it looked as if there would be a complete schism within the community.
This is where the Mayflower Compact comes in. The Mayflower Compact is often cited as being the first democratic document of the new world, a tiny precursor to the government Americans live under today. It is also notable as a governing document because it makes no reference to religion at all. Leaders of both groups knew that they would not be able to survive without the other members of the group. This document, still proclaiming their sovereignty to King James, asserts that decisions will be made democratically and adhered to by the entire population. At this meeting, when the compact was adopted, they decided to settle in their current location, but send back information to the King on where they had settled and the cause of it. They proclaimed John Carver their governor, a Puritan, but not a Separatist and not officially a “Saint”. He seemed the ideal choice because he could bridge the gap between both groups.
The group explored their immediate area and found an excellent site for a settlement. It was on a small hill, and the land had already been cleared around it. Later, the pilgrims found out that an epidemic, probably of Small Pox, had wiped out the native village that had been built on that very spot. To the pilgrims, it seemed providential. They immediately built a fort on the top of the hill, and started some construction on 3 small houses. Men took turns sleeping in and defending the fort through the winter. The women and children were still living on the Mayflower, moored in the harbor until better weather made it easier to oust its passengers and sail back to England.
Even before the fort was completed, massive disease set in. Fully one half of the group died in the first six months of the landing. The sick were taken off the Mayflower and housed in the Fort in an attempt to keep the sickness from spreading, but no family was immune from it. Even John Carver, the newly elected governor, and his wife passed away that first winter. His wife was one of the first to die, but Carver hung on until a heart attack finished him in late March. As soon as it was able, the Mayflower left for England with what was left of its crew.
In Carver’s place, William Bradford, was elected as the second governor of the colony. Bradford was one of the original members of the congregation at Scrooby. He had attended a year of college before dropping out to take over his father’s farming business and was eventually jailed for Separatist sympathies. When the Separatists immigrated to Leyden, he followed them and was one of the few to achieve economic independence in Leyden. He apprenticed himself out to a printer, and set up a shop himself as soon as he was trained, where he printed many pamphlets and books about Separatism that were eventually smuggled back into Britain.
By the time Bradford left for the Americas, he had been able to purchase a small house in a lower middle class neighborhood in Leyden. Bradford had left a lot back in Holland, but his vision of a model religious community spurred him to make the trip across the ocean. When John Robinson died in Holland only five years after the pilgrims had sailed, Bradford also became the spiritual leader of his community. He remained the governor for over thirty years.
As winter receded, so did the sickness. As soon as they were able, survivors continued building houses. A pen and ink diagram of the colony was drawn up, showing two parallel streets with nineteen lots straddling either side. The fort had been built on the top of the hill, and the houses gradually sloped down and away from the fort. The pilgrims also created a small fence to surround the village, which was beefed up two years later to fend off possible Indian attacks.
Outside the fence was farmland. The first year the group planted several fields of Oats, Barley and other English crops they had brought over, and practiced collective farming. The pilgrims’ main objective was not to expend any more resources than they absolutely had to. Anything they could send back to England to pay their debt would be sent. In this spirit, single members of the community did not receive their own homes, but were portioned out to live with a family. In addition, the houses themselves were of extremely simple construction. The houses were all constructed under the same layout. The inside of the houses were comprised of Wattle and Daub, where small sticks were woven together to create walls and then covered over with a mixture of mud and pig dung to make a plaster. The floors were left as dirt, and the chimneys were wooden. Even by 1600’s standards, these homes were crude and basic. As the houses did not technically belong to the pilgrims, but to the Virginia Company, colonists felt little desire to improve them.
The fort at the top of the hill immediately became the cultural center of the community. It was not only used as a defensive structure, but also as the colony’s meeting house and church. Puritan services, even for non-saints, were compulsory. Those who declined to attend could face fines, and radical religious opinions were not tolerated. Later, religious dissenters such as Roger Williams were even turned out of the community completely.
The group did not have much early contact with native tribes in their first six months. Their experiences had been limited to only a few incidents: one in which several women ran from them as they approached a beach while searching for a settlement location, another conflict in which they were shot at on a beach, and their continuous finds of native graves dotting the area.
Six months after their landing, a native man walked into the village and announced, “Welcome Englishmen!” in perfect English. The pilgrims were shocked. This Indian’s name was Samoset, or Somerset, and he had been sent from the Wampanoag leader, Massasoit, to see if the pilgrims would make an alliance with their tribe. Samoset also told the group about an Indian who spoke even better English than he did, named Tisquantum. This name was immediately shortened by the English to Squanto. Later, they learned that the reason these men spoke such excellent English was because they had both been taken by English ships, trolling the coasts for natives to take back to England as slaves. Squanto had spent several years in England before escaping back to his tribe. Samoset had escaped somewhere near Canada, before the English ship that seized him had reached its final destination. He had perfected his English by trading with ships pulling into the harbors.
The pilgrims immediately understood that they would need to have peaceful relations with the native tribes in order for their settlement to survive. They put together a small delegation and traveled to the Wampanoag village. The delegation was treated well, staying several days with the Wampanoags while their alliance was solidified. The deal they hammered out was basic: the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims agreed to peaceful relations between groups. In addition, the Pilgrims would provide military support to the Wampanoags if they were ever attacked by other tribes, and the Wampanoags would do the same for the Pilgrims. This alliance, although shaky at times, survived for over 50 years.
Samoset and Squanto both started spending large amounts of time in the colony. They taught the group how to plant native corn crops, how to catch eels in the nearby river, and how to catch beaver. These efforts completely saved the colony from extinction, as their early years were extremely difficult.
The first year, many of the English crops the group planted didn’t grow, or didn’t produce. The only truly successful crop was the corn Samoset and Squanto taught them to plant, and they had only devoted a small segment of their land to it. In addition, arguments arose around their collective farming system. Some men complained that their wives should not have to labor to feed other men, and others refused to work the fields at all. Collective farming wasn’t working. Labor was extra difficult because so many of the group had died during the winter, and many who had survived were still weakened by the disease. When the supply ship pulled into the harbor, the group only had a few barrels of eels to send back to pay their debt. To add insult to injury, that Fall a different ship wrecked on the coast. The colony had no choice but to take in dozens more. Rations were extremely slim throughout the winter, and everyone starved together.
In the years following, conditions improved significantly. Still, it took a full three years before the colony was able to feed itself. It took eight more before it was able to pay for itself.
By 1628, other settlements were arising in the area, most comprised of separatists like the pilgrims. Plymouth investors, under the difficult terms of the deal the group had signed, insisted that everyone living in the town be responsible for the debt. Because of this, other colonies settled nearby. This way, they could benefit from Plymouth experience without being burdened by Plymouth debt. Most of these new settlements also had official charters from the English King. Thus, they were able to command more resources and funding than the original Plymouth colony had been able to. With supply ships more common, the colony was also no longer as dependent on their own crops to subsist year after year.
Beaver fur had been a mark of royalty and status in England since the middle ages, but had eventually become extinct due to over hunting. When beaver were discovered in huge numbers populating the New England wilderness, the fad for beaver-fur hats arose again in full force. With Plymouth Colony prospering, its members were able to expend more resources in the capturing and exporting of these furs. Plymouth was able to pay its debts and offer an excellent return on investment in relatively short order. The colony was able to purchase a ship and travel up the coast, eventually building a fort in modern-day Castine, Maine. They held this outpost for almost ten years, sending massive amounts of beaver pellets back to the colony, and then to England.
As soon as their debt was paid off, colonists began to build sturdy, English-style homes for themselves. These homes usually featured four rooms downstairs with a small entryway and another four upstairs, all built around a large central chimney for warmth. The central chimney often opened up into several fireplaces throughout the house. Walls were still made of crude plaster, but chimneys were made of brick, while the floors were made of wood. Wealthier colonists could send to England for glass panes to put in their small windows. These houses were constructed well and many still stand today. As these dwellings no longer belonged to the Virginia Company, the colonists felt they could invest in nicer houses.
With all the new colonists settling the area and attempting to set up farms, pressures increased on tribes such as the Wampanoags to sell more and more land to the colonists. By 1675, both Bradford and Massasoit had died and the alliance between the two groups came to a boiling conclusion. King Philip, also known by his Wampanoag name Metacomet, had taken over leadership of the Wampanoag tribe after his brother’s death.
Metacomet was the youngest son of Massasoit, and originally had excellent relations with the English tribe. His brother ruled under the name King Alexander, and Metacomet also took an English name, Philip. He took a great interest in English trade, especially beaver, and spearheaded much trading between the Wampanoag and the English. Philip was also known for buying many of his clothes in Boston. Unfortunately, he was a weak king, and was eventually pressured into ceding much of the Wampanoag land to Plymouth Colony.
Upset that the colonists were taking so much land away from him, and facing political pressure from his people, Philip led his tribe to attack several outlying settlements that were part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The tribe then retreated into the marshes, hoping to blend in with the Narragansetts and escape reprisals. This tactic did not work well. Instead, colonists led by Plymouth colony attacked Narragansett settlements. Then, the Narragansett tribe rose up and attacked Plymouth colony itself. The colony was able to withstand the attack, and a few months afterward they tracked down Philip with the help of the local Mohawk tribe. When the Mohawks declined to join Philip, citing their neutrality, Philip made the mistake of attacking them and trying to blame it on the English. This decision ultimately cost him his life. Philip’s severed head could be seen in the colony for several decades following the conflict. Known as King Philip’s War, it is tragic that the grand alliance of the original colonists ended with such violence.
Shortly after King Philip’s War ended, so did Plymouth colony as an individual entity. The British government was paying more attention to the colonies and how they were organized, and the colony without a charter did not fit the model Britain wanted. Seventy years after Plymouth Colony sent back word with the battered Mayflower that they had not settled in their originally intended location, their requested charter came. Unfortunately, it folded the colony in with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, New Hampshire, and parts of modern-day Maine. The new colony, entitled Dominion, eventually failed because the massive territory it encompassed was just too difficult for a single governor to manage. Still, the forming of this new colony marked the end of Plymouth as a solitary identity.
Although this marked the end of Plymouth itself, the experiences of the people living there quickly became part of American legend. A hundred years after the settlement was established, the legend of Plymouth Rock began to circulate. In reality, there is no evidence that the pilgrims landed their boat on anything but the sand. Still, a pavilion housing a deceptively tiny rock carved with the date 1620, stands on the beach in Plymouth to this day. Much of the rock is said to have been chipped off for souvenirs before the pavilion was built, and more than two-thirds of the rock is buried in the sand.
The Pilgrim Myth gained greater steam when, in 1863, Lincoln first declared a National day of Thanksgiving, citing a harvest dinner held by the Plymouth Colony as the precursor. This, too, has very little basis in fact. If the ceremony was religious, as we think of it today, it was likely not accompanied by a feast with games and native guests. Days of Thanksgiving were common in the Puritan faith, but they were nearly always comprised of a full day of attending church services and praying. If a feast like the one we think of did take place, it was certainly a secular entertainment and not for the purpose of thanking God for getting them through the first winter.
Despite the many misconceptions modern society harbors about the pilgrims and their famous first year, the true story is still compelling. They were a very human, very uncertain band of people determined to achieve religious autonomy. The alliances they made with the local Wampanoag tribe are unprecedented. Perhaps this is the reason why the Plymouth colony is remembered as being the founders of America. They represent everything Americans wish to be: peaceful, determined, and courageous in the face of adversity. Although the pilgrims did not always live up to these standards, they still provide us with an inspiring story of their quest to make a home in the new world, and their story will be part of the American mythos for centuries to come.
Bradford, William, Of Plimoth Plantation, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1908), http://mith.umd.edu//eada/html/display.php?docs=bradford_history.xml (accessed 23 April 2012)
Bunker, Nick, Making Haste From Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History, (Knopf, 2010 )
Miller, Perry, The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry, (:Columbia University Press , 1982)
Philbrick, Nathaniel, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War, (New York Penguin Books, 2007)
Winslow, Edward, Good Newes from New England, (London: William Bladen and John Bellamie, 1624)