Exploring. The area that would become New England was claimed by England on the basis of voyages of discovery by John Cabot in 1497. By 1502 fishermen exploiting the great cod banks off Labrador and New England had brought their catch to the port of Bristol, England. As early as 1508–1509 Sebastian Cabot had explored the coast, but England’s attention was elsewhere, and aside from the fisheries nothing much happened until almost one hundred years later. In 1602 the English were again ready to look west. Bartholomew Gosnold left Falmouth with thirty-two men who intended to colonize in New England. They eventually settled on an island which separated Buzzards Bay from Vineyard Sound (Massachusetts), but like so many others who made early colonizing attempts, they were unprepared to live where they landed. As foodstuffs ran out they decided to return home, but the reports of the venture that were eventually published spoke of “the goodliest continent that ever we saw, promising more by farre than we any way did expect.” The description of such bounty led to the formation of business ventures that hoped to exploit it. In 1606 James I chartered the Virginia Company, whose wealthy investors hoped to establish colonies along the coast north of the Spanish. The Virginia Company divided into a northern division, the Plymouth Company, and a southern, the London Company. In 1607 the Plymouth Company outfitted an expedition to Sagadahoc, Maine, which had been described in the most glowing terms by an earlier voyage whose men had seen the place only in summer. Most of this group managed to survive the Maine winter, but one of its leaders died, and when the other was called back to England the settlement broke up. It was not until 1620 that the English established a permanent foothold in New England.
Religious Origins. Protestantism began in England in 1531 when Henry VIII, heretofore a staunch supporter of Roman Catholicism, wished the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry again and father a son and heir. Catherine was a Spanish princess, and the Pope was dependent upon Spain for the monies he needed to fight Protestantism in Europe. He could not afford to alienate the Spanish so
did not grant an annulment to Henry. The English king broke with Rome, declared himself the head of the Church of England, closed the monasteries, and confiscated church lands. But Henry’s quarrel with Roman Catholicism was political, not religious. He did not want to change the church all that much, and he kept some of the ceremony and especially the pomp and fancy vestments (clothing). His daughter Elizabeth I continued her father’s lead. She loved the grand processions and ritual of the church. Her successor, James I, also proved unwilling to make major changes. Other English Protestants chafed under what they considered to be too much Catholicism. They wanted a simpler church with less wealth. Under James I some ministers and their congregations refused to organize their worship as the Church of England required. Most of these felt that what was needed was a purification of the national church, not a separation from it. They became known as Puritans. A few dissenters felt that the Church of England was too corrupt to be saved, and they wanted to get away from it entirely. Unfortunately, since the church and the state were linked and the king headed both, such an action was considered a crime against the state. In the small town of Scrooby in northern England, a congregation became separatist. In 1607 the persecutions against some of Scrooby’s leaders began, and the congregation resolved to leave England and go to the Netherlands, the most tolerant of the European states.
Exiles. While life in Holland was pleasant and there was religious freedom, the Scrooby congregation became uneasy. The children were becoming Dutch rather than English; economic opportunities were limited; and the twelve-year truce between Spain and the Netherlands was ending, causing great concern that war might erupt. Many decided to move again, not to England and not to New Netherland where they were urged to go, but to a place in America where they might bring up their children in the English language with their own understanding of the kingdom of God.
Finances. The Leyden separatists were not wealthy, and they certainly had nowhere near the wherewithal to finance a migration from Holland to America, much less pay the costs of founding a colony once they arrived. There was already one English colony in America which, if not thriving, was at least surviving, and that was Virginia. They decided to settle at the northernmost end of the land granted to the Virginia Company. In 1619 they found financing through a consortium of investors, Thomas Weston and Associates. In 1620 a small group of the religious separatists left Holland to emigrate. Stopping in England first, they found that only one of their ships, the Mayflower, was seaworthy. One hundred and two men, women, and children boarded the ship for America, but not all of these were Pilgrims. Many represented Thomas Weston and Associates and did not share the Pilgrims’ religious outlook. No minister sailed with them, nor did one come for some years after. The Mayflower took eleven weeks to cross the Atlantic, only to arrive north of the intended destination and beyond the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company. Technically, they had no right to be there and were outside any charter. Fearing that some among them might take advantage of the fact that they were beyond the law and under no civil authority, the free adult males drew up what has become known as the Mayflower Compact, in which they promised to create a new government and obey it. Plymouth, like Virginia, would disappoint its investors. Its first ship home with goods intended to provide its backers with some profit—clapboards and beaver and otter skins—was seized by the French. Thomas Weston pulled out of the company in 1622. In 1627 the colony reached an agreement with the remaining investors to buy out their interest. To pay for this some of the colony’s leaders personally assumed the debt in return for a monopoly of the fur trade. This economic scheme would prove expensive, and it was not until 1642 that debts were liquidated, partly through the colony’s wealthier men selling land they still owned in England. They did better than most since they had the satisfaction of seeing Plymouth, born out of religious necessity, survive.
THE FIRST THANKSGIVING
One of England’s celebratory traditions was for a village to come together in feasts of thanksgiving when it seemed that God had been especially merciful. Good harvests, a year without major epidemics, the end of a war, or the birth of an heir to the throne called for a day in which God could be thanked for care and kindness. The Plymouth thanksgiving in 1621 comes down to us through a letter that Edward Winslow, one of the colony’s leaders, sent back to England:
Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. The four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the Company [inhabitants] almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms [weapons], many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king, Massasoit with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And they went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation [Plymouth] and bestowed on our Governor and upon the Captain and others.
Given the sources, we cannot know when the Pilgrims actually celebrated this feast of plenty. It would not become a regular American fall harvest festival until the nineteenth century. What we can see from this letter is the richness of the environment, at least in the autumn months, since birds and deer were readily available. It also shows that Indian-European relations were friendly enough in 1621 that they could sit down one with the other, each side still keeping its weapons.
Source: William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation 1620–1647, edited by Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: New Modern Library, 1967), p. 90n.
First Settlement. Aside from landing too far north, the Mayflower settlers arrived in winter, and nearly half of them died—the fate also of the earliest settlers in Virginia. However, some things worked out right for them. Unlike many ships bringing settlers, the Mayflower remained with the Pilgrims, furnishing housing until they could create shelters on their own. The first houses were small one-room dwellings made of boards (not logs). While the weather worked against them, the careful selection of a settlement site did not. Rather than facing a “howling wilderness” they settled on a hillside where the Indians had once lived. Good water was close by, and they would utilize the fields cleared by the Indians before epidemics killed most of them. They also ate the stored ears of corn—a new food to them—that the Indians had put away for winter. Those who survived were helped in the spring by the Patuxet Indian Squanto, who years earlier had been kidnapped and taken to England. He was returned to America only to find that his entire people had died of disease. Squanto taught the colonists how to grow corn. The next fall was a time of plenty, and the settlers and Indians joined together to help celebrate what we call the first Thanksgiving, although thanksgiving celebrations were common in England. After the initial problems of food and shelter had been solved, Plymouth turned out to be remarkably healthy but a backwater. There were few fur-bearing animals, and the soils were poor. The Pilgrims had come to America to practice religion the way they thought God wanted. They did not extend this right to others so Plymouth was not a haven for those who were persecuted for their religious beliefs. Few emigrants, almost all from England, settled there, but families were large and mortality rates low. The population grew slowly but steadily, reaching seven thousand persons when the colony was absorbed by Massachusetts in 1691.
Benjamin W. Labaree, Colonial Massachusetts: A History (Millwood, N.Y.: KTO Press, 1979);
George D. Langdon Jr., Pilgrim Colony: A History of New Plymouth 1620–1691 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966).
J. A. Cannon
PLYMOUTH , port and naval base in Devon, S.W. England. One of the earliest provincial Jewish communities after the Resettlement was established there and the beautiful synagogue, dating from 1761, is the oldest in England outside London. In the 18th century, Plymouth's Jewish inhabitants, mainly Ashkenazim from Poland and Germany, included silversmiths, merchants, petty traders, old-clothes men, opticians, and pen cutters. Jews were also active as suppliers of stores and clothing for the navy and a subsidiary congregation was formed at Plymouth Dock (Devonport). By the end of the Napoleonic Wars there were about 30 Jewish licensed navy agents. The community was one of the four most prominent in Britain until 1815, when its importance declined. In the early 20th century the Jewish population numbered 300 and in 1969 it was 225 (out of a total population of 212,000). The 2002 British census found the declared Jewish population to be 181. There was an Orthodox synagogue.
D. Black, The Plymouth Synagogue (1961); C. Roth, The Rise of Provincial Jewry (1950), 91–93; Roth, England 230–1, 241; jyb.
[Vivian David Lipman]