Plymouth Colony

views updated Jun 08 2018


PLYMOUTH COLONY (or Plantation), the second permanent English settlement in North America, was founded in 1620 by settlers including a group of religious dissenters commonly referred to as the Pilgrims. Though theologically very similar to the Puritans who later founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Pilgrims believed that the Church of England could not be reformed. Rather than attempting to purify the church, the Pilgrims desired a total separation.

Settlement, Founding, and Growth

One hundred and twenty-five Pilgrims, some of whom founded Plymouth, first departed England in 1608. English authorities had forced the Pilgrims to halt Separatist worship at Scrooby Manor (their residence in Nottinghamshire, England). Thus, seeking freedom of worship, they left for Holland, first passing through Amsterdam and then settling in Leyden. The Pilgrims did indeed enjoy freedom of worship in Leyden but found Holland an imperfect refuge. Most being farmers, the Pilgrims had difficulty prospering in urban Holland. More importantly, the Pilgrims feared their children were growing up in a morally degenerate atmosphere and were adopting Dutch customs and language. Seeing little chance for establishing a separate, godly society in Holland, and fearing the country's conquest by Catholic Spain, which would surely bring the horrors of the Inquisition, the Pilgrims needed a place where they would be left to worship and live as they chose.

Virginia offered such an opportunity. By 1620 the Virginia Company was in deep financial difficulty. One of many measures designed to shore up the company's financial situation was selling special patents to settlers who desired to establish private plantations within Virginia. Though under Virginia's general domain, the Pilgrims would be allowed to govern themselves. Thomas Weston and a group of London merchants who wanted to enter the colonial trade financed the Pilgrims' expedition. The two parties came to agreement in July 1620, with the Pilgrims and merchants being equal partners.

The Pilgrims sold most of their possessions in Leyden and purchased a ship—the Speedwell—to take them to Southampton, England. Weston hired another ship—the Mayflower—to join the Speedwell on the voyage to America. On 22 July 1620 a group of about thirty Pilgrims left Delfshaven, Holland, and arrived in Southampton by month's end. They met the Mayflower, which carried about seventy non-Separatists hired by Weston to journey to America as laborers. After a great deal of trouble with the Speedwell, the ship had to be abandoned, and only the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, for America on 16 September 1620. The overcrowded and poorly provisioned ship carried 101 people (35 from Leyden, 66 from London/Southampton) on a sixty-five day passage. The travelers sighted Cape Cod in November and quickly realized they were not arriving in Virginia. Prevented from turning south by the rocky coast and failing winds, the voyagers agreed to settle in the north. Exploring parties were sent into Plymouth harbor in the first weeks of December, and the Mayflower finally dropped anchor there on 26 December 1620. The weary, sickly passengers gradually came ashore to build what would become Plymouth Colony.

The winter was not particularly harsh, but the voyage left the passengers malnourished and susceptible to disease. Half of the passengers died during the first winter, but the surviving colonists, greatly aided by a plundered supply of Indian corn, were still able to establish a stable settlement. The 1617–1619 contagion brought by English fishermen and traders had greatly weakened the local Indian populace, so the Pilgrims initially faced little threat from native peoples. Plymouth town was, in fact, conveniently built on cleared area that had once been an Indian cornfield. The colonists built two rows of plank houses with enclosed gardens on "Leyden Street." Eventually the governor's house and a wooden stockade were erected. At the hill's summit, the settlers built a flat house to serve as the meeting or worship house.

Migration from England allowed the colony to grow, albeit slowly. In 1624 Plymouth Colony's population stood at 124. By 1637 it reached 549. By 1643 settlers had founded nine additional towns. Compared to its neighbor Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth Colony grew very modestly, reaching a population of only about 7,000 by 1691.

Government and Politics

Since the Pilgrims did not settle in Virginia, their patent was worthless, and they established Plymouth without any legal underpinning. Needing to formulate some kind of legal frame for the colony's government, the Pilgrims crafted the Mayflower Compact, in which the signers agreed to institute colonial self-government. The ship's free adult men signed the compact on 11 November 1620 before the settlers went ashore. They agreed to establish a civil government based upon congregational church compact government, in which freemen elected the governor and his assistants, just as congregational church members chose their own ministers.

As the colonists spread out and founded new towns, the system needed modification. Having meetings of all freemen (most adult men) in Plymouth town to elect officials became impractical. Starting in 1638, assemblies of freemen in individual towns chose deputies for a "General Court." William Bradford dominated political life in Plymouth for a generation, being elected thirty times between 1621 and 1656, but the governor's power lessened as the General Court became a true representative assembly. The General Court became a powerful legislature, with sole authority to levy taxes, declare war, and define voter qualifications. Plymouth, however, never received a legal charter from the crown, and based its existence as a self-governing entity entirely on the Mayflower Compact and the two patents issued by the Council for New England in 1621 and 1630, the latter defining the colony's physical boundaries.

Economy and Society

Plymouth was intended for family settlement and commerce, not staple production or resource extraction like many other colonies. The Pilgrims, bound together by their faith and social covenant, envisioned building a self-sustaining agricultural community that would be a refuge for Separatist dissenters. Thus life in Plymouth revolved around family and religion. Every person had a place and set of duties according to his or her position within the colony and family, and was expected to live according to God's law. Those who did not, or those who openly challenged Separatist religious doctrine, were severely punished or driven from the colony entirely.

Small, family farms remained at the heart of Plymouth's economy throughout its history. Land was divided fairly evenly, with each colonist initially receiving 100 acres of land, with 1,500 acres reserved for common use. Apart from home plots, acreage was initially assigned on a yearly basis. When Pilgrim leaders broke with their London merchant partners in 1627, every man was assigned a permanent, private allotment. The venture's assets and debts were divided among the Pilgrim colonists, with single men receiving one share (twenty acres and livestock) and heads of families receiving one share per family member. Farming proved productive enough to make the colony essentially self-sufficient in food production by 1624. The fur trade (initially run by government monopoly) proved very profitable, and allowed the colony to pay off its debt to the London merchants.

Indian Relations

The colonists were extremely vulnerable during the first winter, and could have been annihilated had the Indians attacked. The first face-to-face meeting, however, was peaceful. In March 1620 an English-speaking Wampanoag—Samoset—approached Plymouth, and provided useful information about local geography and peoples. On 22 March 1621 Pilgrim leaders met with the Wampanoag chief Massasoit, who was in need of allies, and agreed to a mutual defense treaty. By the late 1630s, however,

the New England colonies (especially Massachusetts) were rapidly expanding, and Indian tribes were increasingly encroached upon. English encroachments in the Connecticut River valley led to the bloody Pequot War in 1637. Plymouth officially condemned Massachusetts's harsh actions against the Pequots, but still joined with that colony and Connecticut in forming the New England Confederation in 1643. The three colonies allied for mutual defense in the wake of massive, rumored Indian conspiracies, but were undoubtedly defending their often aggressive expansion at the Indians' expense.

The last great Indian war in seventeenth-century New England—King Philip's or Metacom's War—was a terrible, bloody affair, resulting in attacks on fifty-two English towns. Metacom (called King Philip by the English) was Massasoit's son, and formed a confederation of Indians to destroy English power. His efforts became intensely focused after he was forced to sign a humiliating treaty with Plymouth in 1671. Plymouth's execution of three Wampanoag Indians in 1675 sparked the war, which started with an attack on several Plymouth villages on 25 June 1675. Intercolonial military cooperation prevented Metacom's immediate victory, but disease and food shortages ultimately prevented him from winning a war of attrition. By the summer of 1676, English forces had rounded up and executed the Indian leaders, selling hundreds more into slavery in the West Indies.

Plymouth's Demise

Metacom's War piqued the crown's already growing interest in the New England colonies, and thereafter it set out to bring them directly under royal control. Massachusetts's charter was revoked in 1684, and in 1686 James II consolidated all of New England, plus New York and New Jersey, into one viceroyalty known as the "Dominion of New England." Assemblies were abolished, the mercantile Navigation Acts enforced, and Puritan domination was broken. Hope for self-government was revived in 1688–1689, when Protestant English parliamentarians drove the Catholic James II from power. William III and Mary II (both Protestants) succeeded James by act of Parliament. Massachusetts's leaders followed suit and ousted the Dominion's governor. The new monarchs had no great interest in consolidating the colonies, and thus left the Dominion for dead. The crown issued a new charter for Massachusetts in 1691, but denied the Puritans exclusive government control. Plymouth, by now wholly over-shadowed by Massachusetts, failed to obtain its own charter, and was absorbed by Massachusetts in 1691, thus ending the colony's seventy-year history as an independent province.


Bradford, William. History of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647. Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison. New York: Russell and Russell, 1968.

Deetz, James, and Patricia Scott Deetz. The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony. New York: W. H. Freeman, 2000.

Demos, John. A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Johnson, Richard R. Adjustment to Empire: The New England Colonies, 1675–1715. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1981.

Langdon, George D. Pilgrim Colony: A History of New Plymouth, 1620–1691. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966.

Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954.

Nash, Gary. Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early North America. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Shurtleff, Nathaniel B., and David Pulsifer, eds. Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England. 12 vols. 1855. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1968.

Vaughan, Alden T. New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, a1620–1675. 3d ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

Aaron J.Palmer

See alsoDominion of New England ; King Philip's War ; New England Confederation ; Pequot War ; Puritans and Puritanism ; Separatists, Puritan Pilgrims ; andvol. 9:The Mayflower Compact .

Plymouth Colony

views updated May 23 2018

Plymouth Colony

In 1620, a group of nearly one hundred English colonists arrived along the coast of New England aboard the Mayflower . Although they intended to settle farther south, they established a settlement off the rocky coast of what became Massachusetts . The colony of Plymouth was the first European settlement in New England.

Many of the passengers aboard the Mayflower were inspired to come to the New World in search of religious freedom. They were part of a group of Puritans known as Separatists . As Puritans, they sought to simplify the traditions and organization of the Church of England. However, unlike many of the Puritans, they decided to leave the Church of England entirely to establish an independent church. As Separatists, they were inspired to lead a fully Christian life purely according to the Bible's rules, rather than those of a church. Coming to the New World, they sought to build a community built on their Puritan values.

The Puritans aboard the Mayflower were part of a group that had first moved from their homes in England to Leiden, Amsterdam, to establish the English Separatist Church. Although their church was thriving, limited economic opportunities and fears of losing their English heritage prompted many of them to seek their own community in the New World. The Virginia Company of Plymouth (known as the Plymouth Company) provided the charter for lands in the New World as well as funding for passage. In return, the Puritans would work for the company by establishing trade and harvesting natural resources of the New World.

In September 1620, the Puritans joined other passengers, mostly investors in the Plymouth Company, to set sail for the New World. These Puritan settlers would eventually come to be called the Pilgrims . Their arrival in December was 200 miles north of where the charter established a right to settle. The passengers decided to settle in the area anyway. Since the laws of the charter were not valid in the new area, the freemen of the voyage signed an agreement, the Mayflower Compact, to establish a common government acceptable to all.

The first winter was challenging for the colonists, and nearly half of them died. The survivors were fortunate, however, to find the lands of a local Native American tribe that had recently been devastated by disease. The dead Native Americans left behind cleared fields for farming and stores of corn. By the following autumn, the colonists had established a good supply of their own food and trade with other local Native Americans for shipping back to England.

Valid titles to the Plymouth Colony's lands were obtained in 1621 and 1630. In 1627, the merchants sold their interests in the settlement to the Pilgrims and withdrew from the venture. Although Plymouth was the only settlement in the area for a decade, others were soon established, and the colony widened into the colony of New Plymouth. In 1691, it was absorbed by the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony .

Plymouth Colony

views updated May 14 2018

Plymouth Colony First colonial settlement in New England (founded 1620). The settlers were a group of about 100 Puritan Separatist Pilgrims, who sailed on the Mayflower and settled on what is now Cape Cod bay, Massachusetts. They named the first town after their port of departure. Lacking a royal charter, government was established by the ‘Mayflower Compact’. During the first winter nearly half the settlers died. Plymouth Colony became part of the province of Massachusetts in 1691.