Plymouth Colony (officially New Plymouth Colony; sometimes called The Old Colony) was an English colony in North America from 1620 until 1691, when it was absorbed by its much larger neighbor, Massachusetts. At its height, the colony occupied most of the southeastern portion of the modern state of Massachusetts.
Founded by a group of separatists who later came to be known as the Pilgrims, Plymouth Colony was, along with Jamestown, Virginia, one of the earliest colonies to be founded by the English in North America and the first sizable permanent English settlement in New England. The colony agreed on a treaty with Chief Massasoit which helped to ensure the colony's success. The colony played a central role in King Phillip's War, one of the earliest and bloodiest of the Indian Wars.
Plymouth holds a unique role in American history as the beginnings of the nation's democratic culture through the Mayflower Compact. Rather than a commercial venture like Jamestown, its citizens sought freedom from religious persecution and a place to settle and worship God in a way they saw fit. The social and legal systems of the colony were closely tied to strong religious beliefs.
Many of the anecdotes and events surrounding Plymouth Colony have become part of American identity, including the tradition of Thanksgiving and the monument at Plymouth Rock. Despite the colony's relatively short history, it has become an important clue to what is "American."
Plymouth Colony was founded by permanent settlers who later came to be known as the "Pilgrims". The core group — roughly 40% of the adults and 56% of the family groupings was a congregation of religious separatists led by pastor John Robinson, church elder William Brewster, and William Bradford (1590-1657). While still in the town of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, England, the congregation began to feel the pressures of religious persecution. In the Hampton Court Conference, King James I declared Puritans and Protestant Separatists to be undesirables, and in 1607, the Bishop of York raided the homes of and imprisoned several members of the congregation in a prison in Boston, Lincolnshire. The congregation left England and settled the Netherlands, first in Amsterdam, and finally in Leiden in 1609.
In Leiden, the congregation found the freedom to worship as it chose, but Dutch society was unfamiliar to these immigrants. Scrooby had been an agricultural village, whereas Leiden was a thriving industrial center. More serious was their children began adopting Dutch customs and language. Finally, the Pilgrims were not free from the persecutions of the English Crown; after William Brewster in 1618 published comments highly critical of the King of England and the Anglican Church, English authorities came to Leiden to arrest him. Though Brewster escaped arrest, the events motivated the congregation to move even further from England.
In 1619, the Pilgrims obtained a land patent from the London Virginia Company, allowing them to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River. They obtained financing -- a loan--through the "Merchant Adventurers," a group of Puritan businessmen who viewed colonization as a means of both spreading their religion and making a profit. Upon arrival in America, the Pilgrims would then work to repay their debts. Using the money from the Merchant Adventurers, the Pilgrims bought provisions and obtained passage on two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. After some delays the Pilgrims finally boarded the Speedwell in July 1620 from the Dutch port of Delfshaven.
The Mayflower arrived in Southampton, England to rendezvous with the Speedwell and to pick up supplies and additional passengers. Among the passengers to join the group in Southampton were several Pilgrims including William Brewster, who had been in hiding for the better part of a year, and a group of passengers known to the Pilgrims as "The Strangers". This group was largely made up of passengers recruited by the Merchant Adventurers to provide governance for the colony as well as additional hands to work for the colony's ventures. Among the Strangers were Miles Standish (1584-1656), who became the colony's military leader. Characterized in Longfellow's poem as a shy and diffident person and suitor, Standish in reality was a pugnacious, touchy, short-tempered, and aggressive professional soldier.  Also included were Christopher Martin, who had been designated by the Merchant Adventurers to act as Governor for the duration of the trans-Atlantic trip, and Stephen Hopkins, a veteran of a failed colonial venture to Bermuda. 120 passengers, ninety on the Mayflower and thirty on the Speedwell, finally departed on August 15. The Speedwell proved unseaworthy; some passengers went home; most crowded onto the "Mayflower." With 102 settlers, it left Plymouth on September 6, 1620. The voyage took almost two months as it was drawn out by strong westerly winds and by the Gulf Stream. Land was sighted on November 9 off the coast of Cape Cod and with winter approaching and provisions running dangerously low, the passengers decided to return north and abandon their original plans to land at the mouth of the Hudson River.
Prior exploration and death of Indians
The Pilgrims were not the first people in the area. Besides the Indians there had been nearly a century of exploration, fishing, and settlement by European people. Captain John Smith (of Jamestown fame) had explored the area in 1614, and is credited with naming the region of New England. He named many locations using approximations of Native American words. The future site of the Pilgrim's first settlement was originally named "Accomack" by Smith but he changed it to New Plymouth. A map published in his 1616 work A Description of New England clearly shows the site of the future Pilgrim settlement as named "New Plimouth" [sic].
European fisherman had been plying the waters off New England coast for much of the 16th and 17th centuries. Historians believe these fisherman accidentally brought either smallpox, chicken pox, or the measles to the Native Americans. It caused the 1615 epidemic that killed most of the Indians before the arrival of the Pilgrims.
The “Mayflower Compact” was a written agreement signed on Nov. 11, 1620, by the male settlers before coming ashore. It created a "civil Body Politick" whose purpose was to frame just and equal laws for the general good of the colony. It bound the men to form a government and submit to the will of the majority in whatever laws were passed. Its purpose, according to William Bradford, was to hold in check the strangers who said they did not have to obey anyone because there was no government here. That was because the Pilgrims’ patent from the Virginia Company granted rights of local self-government, but it did not apply to a settlement in New England. Some new compact was needed. The Mayflower Compact was thus an agreement to establish a local government that, although having no official legal status until a patent could be obtained, would at least have the strength of common consent. Its importance in American history comes from its premise that government rests on the consent of the governed, and that decisions should be made democratically rather than imposed by an authority figure. It was a social compact of the sort John Locke imagined years later. John Quincy Adams hailed the Mayflower Compact as "perhaps the only instance, in human history, of that positive, original, social compact, which speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate source of government."
In actual practice, Plymouth Colony, though less theocratic than neighboring Massachusetts, nevertheless leaned more toward theocracy than toward democracy.
Landings at Provincetown and Plymouth
The Mayflower anchored at Provincetown Harbor on November 11, 1620. The Pilgrims did not have a patent to settle this area, and thus some passengers began to question their right to land; they complained that there was no legal authority to establish a colony. In response, a group of colonists, still aboard the ship as it lay off-shore, drafted and ratified the first governing document of the colony, the Mayflower Compact, the intent of which was to establish a means of governing the colony. Though it did little more than confirm that the colony would be governed like any English town, it did relieve the concerns of many settlers.
The group remained onboard the ship through the next day, a Sunday, for prayer and worship. The immigrants finally set foot on land at what would become Provincetown on November 13. The first task was to rebuild a shallop, a shallow draft boat that had been built in England and disassembled for transport aboard the Mayflower. It remained with the Pilgrims while the Mayflower returned to England. The Mayflower left Provincetown Harbor and set sail for Plymouth Harbor.
The colonists dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor on December 17 and spent three days surveying for a settlement site, eventually choosing an abandoned Native-American settlement named 'Patuxet',largely for its defensive position. The settlement would be centered on two hills: Cole's Hill, where the village would be built, and Fort Hill, where a defensive cannon would be stationed. Also important in choosing the site, the prior Indian villagers had cleared much of the land, making agriculture relatively easy. Although there are no contemporary accounts to verify the legend, Plymouth Rock is often hailed as the point where the colonists first set foot on their new homeland.
On December 21, 1620, the first landing party arrived at the site of what would become the settlement of Plymouth. Work crews started building houses while the women, children, and the infirm remained on board the Mayflower; many had not left the ship for six months. The first structure, a "common house" of wattle and daub, took two weeks to complete in the harsh New England winter. In the following weeks, the rest of the village slowly took shape. The living and working structures were built on the relatively flat top of Cole's Hill, and a wooden platform was constructed to support the cannon that would defend the settlement from nearby Fort Hill. Many of the able-bodied men were too infirm to work, and some died of their illnesses. Thus, only seven residences (of a planned nineteen) and four common houses were constructed during the first winter.
By the end of January, enough of the settlement had been built to begin unloading provisions from the Mayflower. In mid-February, after several tense encounters with local Native-Americans, the male residents of the settlement organized themselves into military orders; Miles Standish was designated as the commanding officer. By the end of the month, five cannon had been defensively positioned on Fort Hill. John Carver was elected governor to replace Governor Martin.
On March 16, 1621, the first formal contact with the Native-Americans occurred. A Native-American named Samoset, originally from Pemaquid Point in modern Maine, walked boldly into the midst of the settlement and proclaimed, "Welcome, Englishmen!" He had learned some English from fishermen who worked off the coast of Maine and gave them a brief introduction to the region's history and geography. Pilgrims learned that the supreme leader of the region was a Wampanoag Native American sachem (chief) by the name of Massasoit; and they learned of the existence of Squanto (also known by his full Massachusetts name of Tisquantum), a Native American originally from Patuxet. Squanto had spent time in Europe and spoke English quite well. Samoset spent the night in Plymouth and agreed to arrange a meeting with some of Massasoit's men.
Massasoit and Squanto were apprehensive about the Pilgrims. In Massasoit's first contact with the English, several men of his tribe had been killed in an unprovoked attack by English sailors. He also knew of the Pilgrims' theft of the corn stores and grave robbing. Squanto had been abducted in 1614 by the English explorer Thomas Hunt and had spent five years in Europe, first as a slave for a group of Spanish Monks, then in England. He had returned to New England in 1619, acting as a guide to the explorer Ferdinando Gorges. Massasoit and his men had massacred the crew of the ship, and had taken in Squanto. Samoset returned to Plymouth on March 22 with a delegation from Massasoit that included Squanto; Massasoit himself joined them shortly thereafter. After an exchange of gifts, Massasoit and Governor Martin established a formal treaty of peace, which among other promises, ensured that each people would not bring harm to the other, that Massasoit would send his allies to make peaceful negotiations with Plymouth, and that they would come to each other's aid in a time of war.
On April ], 1621, after being anchored for almost four months in Plymouth Harbour, the Mayflower set sail for England. Nearly half of the original 102 passengers died during the first winter.As William Bradford wrote, "of these one hundred persons who came over in this first ship together, the greatest half died in the general mortality, and most of them in two or three months' time". Several of the graves on Cole's Hill were uncovered in 1855; their bodies were disinterred and moved to a site near Plymouth Rock.
Early relations with the Native Americans
After the departure of Massasoit and his men, Squanto remained in Plymouth to teach the Pilgrims how to survive in New England, for example using dead fish to fertilize the soil. Shortly after the departure of the Mayflower, Governor Carver suddenly died. William Bradford was elected to replace him and would go on to lead the colony through much of its formative years.
Throughout the summer, as promised by Massasoit, numerous Native Americans arrived at Plymouth with pledges of peace. On July 2, a party of Pilgrims, led by Edward Winslow (who would himself become the chief diplomat of the colony), set out to continue negotiations with the chief. The delegation also included Squanto, who acted as a translator. Massasoit agreed to an exclusive trading pact with the English; thus the French, who were also frequent traders in the area, were no longer welcome. Squanto remained behind and travelled the area to establish trading relations with several tribes in the area.
Humins' (1987) review of the role of Squanto in the relations between the Pilgrims and Indians during the early 1620s reveals that Squanto was not so much the primary facilitator of Pilgrim survival but was instead a power-hungry intermediary whose actions jeopardized the safety of the Plymouth Colony. Squanto's contribution to Pilgrim survival was significant as he had lived among Englishmen since 1614 and become a skilled and valuable communicator, but he consistently exceeded his authority as envoy to the Pilgrims on behalf of Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag Confederacy by whose grace the Pilgrims established their colony. As Squanto encouraged the Pilgrims to enter into trade relationships with the Massachusetts Indians who did not belong to the Wampanoag Confederacy, Squanto challenged Massasoit's leadership and offered dubious advice to the Pilgrims designed only to aid his own position among his people.
In May 1622 ships arrived from the Merchant Adventurers seeking a site for a new settlement in the area. They briefly settled Wessagussett (now near Weymouth, Massachusetts), then moved to Plymouth. Attacks back and forth caused the fur trade to end, which meant the Pilgrims lost revenue to pay off their debts to the Merchant Adventurers.
Growth of Plymouth
In November 1621, a second ship sent by the Merchant Adventurers arrived. It also carried a letter from the Merchant Adventurers chastising the colony for failure to return goods with the Mayflower that had been promised in return for their support. The Fortune began its return to England laden with ₤500 worth of goods, more than enough to keep the colonists on schedule for repayment of their debt, however the Fortune was captured by the French before she could deliver her cargo to England, creating an even larger deficit for the colony.
In July 1623, two more ships arrived, carrying 90 new settlers, among them Leideners, including William Bradford's future wife, Alice. Some of the settlers were unprepared for frontier life and returned to England the next year. In September 1623, another ship carrying settlers destined to refound the failed colony at Weymouth arrived and temporarily stayed at Plymouth. In March 1624, a ship bearing a few additional settlers and the first cattle arrived. In 1627 the settlers bought out the Merchant Adventurers in London, who lost money on their investment. A 1627 division of cattle lists 156 colonists divided into twelve lots of thirteen colonists each. Another ship also named the Mayflower arrived in August 1629 with 35 additional members of the Leiden congregation. Ships arrived periodically throughout 1629-1630 carrying numbers of passengers. By January 1630, the colony had almost 300 people. By 1643 the colony had an estimated 600 males fit for military service, implying a total population of about 1500-2000. By 1690, the estimated total population of Plymouth County, the most populous, was 3055 people, and around 7000 in all. For comparison it is estimated that between 1630-1640, a period known as the "Great Migration," over 20,000 settlers had arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony alone, and by 1678 the English population of all of New England was estimated to be in the range of 60,000. Plymouth was the first colony in the region but by 1690 was much smaller than Massachusetts Bay Colony in terms of population.
From the beginning, Miles Standish had been intended to be the military leader of Plymouth Colony. He organized and led the first party to set foot in New England, an exploratory expedition of Cape Cod upon arrival in Provincetown Harbor. On the third expedition, which he also led, Standish fired the first recorded shot by the Pilgrim settlers, in an event known as the First Encounter. When the finally arrived at the Plymouth, it was Standish, with training in military engineering, who decided the layout of the settlement for its defensibility. Standish also organized the able bodied men into military orders in February of the first winter. During the second winter, he helped design and organize the construction of a large palisade wall surrounding the settlement. Standish led two early military raids on Indian villages.
Conflicts started to accumulate with Wampanoag after Massasoit died in 1662; the new Indian leaders, especially Metacom, or Philip, the new sachem, rejected friendship with the English, ignored the fate of the Pequot, and were suspected of conspiring against the settlers and the Indians allied to the settlers. By 1660 the settlers no longer needed furs or food provided by trading with Indians. Conversely, Indians suspected English motives, chafed under English laws, and resented missionary efforts. The proximate cause of the conflict was the murder in 1675 of an Indian convert to Christianity (a "Praying Indian") named John Sassamon. Accused in the murder of Sassamon were some of Philip's most senior lieutenants. A jury of twelve Englishmen and six Praying Indians found the Indians guilty of murder and sentenced them to death.
Philip had already begun war preparations at his home base near Mount Hope where he started raiding English farms and pillaging their property. In response, Governor Josiah Winslow called out the militia, and they organized and began to move on Philip's position. The war had started.
King Philip systematically attacked unarmed women and children. One such attack resulted in the capture of Mary Rowlandson and the murder of her small children. The memoirs of her capture would provide historians with much information on Indian culture during this time period.
The war continued through the rest of 1675 and into the next year. The English were constantly frustrated by the Indians refusal to meet them in pitched battle. The Indians employed a form of guerrilla warfare that confounded the English. Benjamin Church continuously campaigned to enlist the help of friendly Indians to help learn how to fight on even footing with Philip's troops, he was constantly rebuffed by the Plymouth leadership, who mistrusted all Indians as potential enemies. Eventually, faced with difficulty in meeting the Indians on their terms, Governor Winslow and Plymouth military commander Major William Bradford (son of the late Governor William Bradford) relented and gave Church permission to organize a combined force of English and Indians. After securing the alliance of the Sakonnet Indians, he led his combined force in pursuit of Philip, who had thus far avoided any major battles in the war that bears his name. Throughout July, 1676, Church's band of Englishmen and Indians would capture hundreds of Indian troops, often without much of a fight, though Philip eluded him. After Church was given permission to grant amnesty to any captured Indians who would agree to join the English side his force grew immensely. Philip was killed by a Pocasset Indian; the war soon ended as an overwhelming English victory.
Eight percent of the English adult male population is estimated to have died during the war, a rather large percentage by most standards. The impact on the Indian population was far higher, however. So many were killed, fled, or shipped off as slaves that their population fell by 60-80 percent.
The last years
In 1686, the entire region was reorganized under a single government known as the Dominion of New England, including the colonies of Plymouth, Rhode Island, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. New York, West Jersey, East Jersey were added in 1688. The President of the Dominion, Edmund Andros was highly unpopular, and the union did not last. Plymouth Colony revolted, and withdrew from the Dominion in April, 1688; the entire union was removed during the Glorious Revolution of 1689.
The return of self-rule for Plymouth Colony was short lived, however. A delegation of New Englanders, led by Increase Mather, went to England to negotiate for a return of the colonial charters that had been nullified during the Dominion years. The situation was particularly problematic for Plymouth Colony, as they existed without a formal charter since their founding. Plymouth did not get their wish for a formal charter, instead a new charter was issued, annexing Plymouth Colony to Massachusetts Bay Colony. The official date of the proclamation ending the existence of Plymouth Colony was October 17, 1691, though it was not put into force until the arrival of William Phips on May 14, 1692 with the new charter. The last official meeting of the Plymouth General Court occurred on June 8, 1692.
Government and laws
|Governors of Plymouth Colony|
Plymouth Colony did not have a royal charter authorizing them to form any government. Still, some means of government was needed, and the first document to establish one was the Mayflower Compact, signed by the 41 able-bodied men aboard the Mayflower upon their arrival in Provincetown Harbor on November 21, 1620. It stayed in effect as the primary governing document until the first formal codification of laws in 1636. Before that time, and indeed for the life of the colony, the laws of Plymouth were based on a hybrid form of English Common Law and religious law as laid out in the Bible.
The colony recognized all "freemen" as full male citizens of the colony with full rights and privileges in voting and holding office. The original group of freemen were the original adult male settlers from the Mayflower. Later adult males were made freemen by sponsorship of an existing freemen and acceptance by the General Court. Later restriction enabled a one-year waiting period between nomination and acceptance of freemen status, and also placed religious restrictions, specifically preventing Quakers from becoming freemen. Freemen status was also restricted by age; while the official minimum age was 21, in practical terms most men were elevated to freemen status between the ages of 25 and 40, averaging somewhere in the early thirties.
The colony's main executive was the Governor, who originally was elected by the freemen, but later was appointed by the General Court in an annual election. The General Court also elected 7 "Assistants" to form a cabinet. The Governor and Assistants then appointed "Constables", who would serve as the chief administrators for the towns, and "Messengers", who were the main civil servants of the colony. They were responsible for publishing announcements, performing land surveys, carrying out executions, and a host of other duties.
The General Court was both the chief legislative and judicial body of the colony. It was elected from the freemen from among their own number, and met regularly in Plymouth, the capital town of the colony.
In acting in its judicial duties, it would periodically call a "Grand Enquest", which was a grand jury of sorts, elected from the freemen, who would hear complaints and swear out indictments for credible accusations. The General Court, and later lesser town and county courts, would preside over trials of accused criminals and over civil matters, with the decisions made by a jury of freemen.
As a legislative body, the General Court would make proclamations of law periodically as needed. In the early years, these laws were not formally compiled anywhere. In 1636 the first organization of these laws was realized in the 1636 Book of Laws. The book was reissued in 1658, 1672, and 1685. Among these laws included the right to levy "rates", or taxes, and distribution of colony lands. Control of land distribution was of particular concern. It established townships as a means of providing local government over settlements, but reserved for itself the right to control specific distribution of land to individuals within those towns. When new land was granted to a freeman, it was directed that only the person to whom the land was granted was allowed to settle it.. As well, it was forbidden for individual settlers to purchase land from Indians without formal permission from the General Court.
The laws also set out crimes and associated punishments. There were several crimes that mandated the death penalty: treason, murder, witchcraft, arson, sodomy, rape, buggery, adultery, and cursing or smiting one's parents.. The actual exercise of the death penalty was fairly rare. Only one sex-related crime, a 1642 incidence of buggery (sex with animals) by Thomas Granger, resulted in death. One person, Edward Bumpus, was sentenced to death for "striking and abusing his parents" in 1679, but his sentence was commuted to a severe whipping, for reason of insanity.. Perhaps the most notable use of the death penalty was in the execution of the Indians convicted of the murder of John Sassamon, the direct cause of King Philip's War.
Adultery was usually dealt with by public humiliation. The standard punishment was for the convicted adulterers to wear the letters "A.D." sewn into their garments, much in the manner of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter.
Boundaries of Plymouth Colony
Without a clear land patent for the area they landed in, and without a charter to form a government, it was often, in the early years, unclear as to what land was under their jurisdiction. The issue was partially resolved in 1630, in a document known as the "Warwick Patent", which granted William Bradford sole proprietorship of the entire territory of Plymouth Colony. While it made it clear that Bradford (and by extension Plymouth Colony) now had official jurisdiction over its own territory, it was unclear as to exactly what territory that included. The two significant borders of Plymouth Colony over the coming years would be its northern border (that with Massachusetts Bay Colony) and its western border (that with Rhode Island). Bradford could have used the new patent to claim complete ownership of the entire colony; he prudently did not. However, he did reserve all rights to three tracts of land along the eastern shore of the Narragansett Bay, which would in the future bring Plymouth into conflict with Rhode Island over the governance of these lands.
In 1639 and 1640, Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth worked out their differences on their mutual boundary with the exception of the Narragansett Bay region. As Bradford maintained personal ownership of the region, it was largely unavailable for settling by Plymouth residents, as paradoxically by allowing Plymouth Settlers free reign to settle the area would imply that he had relinquished his title to it. Since Massachusetts Bay claimed this area, this would give them the legal ability to enforce its claim (since the area would be free and clear without any patent). As part of a deal to resolve the issue, Bradford surrendered his patent rights to the area to the Plymouth Colony, and Massachusetts Bay agreed to recognize the rights of Plymouth Colony to include the area along the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay and along the east side of the Pawtucket River for a mile or so. In 1644, "The Old Colony Line", which had been surveyed in 1639, was formally accepted as the boundary between Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth.
The situation became further complicated with the arrival of Roger Williams, who in 1636 settled near modern Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He was forcibly evicted to maintain Plymouth's claim to the area. As various settlers from both Rhode Island and Plymouth began to settle along the area, the exact nature of the western boundary of Plymouth became more and more confused and was not fully resolved until 1740.
The English in Plymouth Colony fit broadly into three categories. The Pilgrims were a group of religious separatists. Like the Puritans that would later found Massachusetts Bay Colony to the north, they were a Protestant group that closely followed the teachings of John Calvin. However, unlike the Puritans, who wished to reform the Anglican church from within, the Pilgrims saw it as a morally defunct organization, and sought to remove themselves from it.
The name "Pilgrims" was actually not used by the Separatists themselves. Though William Bradford used the term "pilgrims" to describe the group, he was using the term generically, to define the group as travelers on a religious mission. The term used by the people we now call the Pilgrims to define themselves was the "Saints".
Besides the Pilgrims, or "Saints", the rest of the Mayflower settlers were known as the "Strangers". This group included the non-Pilgrim settlers placed on the Mayflower by the Merchant Adventurers, as well as later settlers who would come for a host of reasons throughout the history of the colony, and who did not necessarily adhere to the Pilgrim religious ideal.</ref>. A third group, known as the "Particulars", consisted of a group of later settlers that paid their own "particular" way to America, and thus were not part of the collective responsibility to pay the colony's debts. The presence of the Strangers and the Particulars was a considerable annoyance to the Pilgrims, and would continue to be for many years to come. As early as 1623, a conflict between the two groups broke out over the celebration of Christmas, a day the Pilgrims attached no particular significance. As well, when a group of Strangers arrived to found the nearby settlement of Wessagusset, the Pilgrims were highly strained, both emotionally and in terms of resources, by the perceived lack of discipline that they displayed. They looked at the eventual failure of the Wessagusset settlement as Divine Providence against a sinful people.
The first generation of settlers, generally thought to be those that arrived before 1627, called themselves the "Old Comers" or "Planters". Later generations of Plymouth residents would refer to this group as the "Forefathers".
The most important religious figure in the colony was John Robinson, the original pastor of the Scrooby congregation and leader throughout the Leiden years. Though he never actually set foot in New England, much of his theological pronouncements, later collected in 1853 by Robert Ashton as The Works of John Robinson, were important to establishing the nature and character of the Plymouth church. Among Robinson's pronouncements were on the roles of women and men. It was in the natural order that women and men have differing roles in the household, though neither was lesser in the eyes of God. Robinson's views were not purely egalitarian, as he frequently assigned inferior characteristics to the feminine roles, and noted that they should be under the "subjection" of their husbands. Robinson also made pronouncements on the proper methods of child rearing, and prescribed a strict upbringing with a strong emphasis on corporal punishment. Robinson clearly believed that a child's natural inclination towards independence was a manifestation of the original sin, and thus was to be repressed at all costs.
The Pilgrims themselves were a subset of an English religious movement known as Puritanism, which sought to "purify" the Anglican Church of its secular trappings. The movement sought to return the church to a more primitive state, and to practice Christianity as was done by the earliest Church Fathers. It held that the Bible was the only source of religious teaching, and that any additions made to Christianity since the Bible, especially with regard to church hierarchy, had no place in Christian practice. The Pilgrims distinguished themselves from the Puritans in that they sought to "separate" themselves from the Anglican Church, rather than reform it from within. It was this desire to worship from outside of the Anglican Communion that led them first to the Netherlands and ultimately to New England.
Each town in the colony was also considered a single church congregation; in later years some of the larger towns split into two or three congregations. While church attendance was mandatory for all residents of the colony, church membership was restricted to those that received God's grace through a personal conversion event. In Plymouth Colony, it seems that a simple profession of faith was all that was required for acceptance. This was a rather more liberal than other Puritan congregations, such as those of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where it was common to subject those seeking formal membership to strict and detailed cross-examination. Individual congregations were left to their own affairs. There was no central governing body for the churches. Each church was left to determine its own standards of membership, hire its own ministers, and conduct its own business.
The church was undoubtedly the most important social institution in the colony. Not only was the bible the primary religious document of the society, it served as a primary legal document as well.. Church attendance was mandatory, and church membership was socially vital. Education was carried out for almost purely religious purposes. The laws of the colony specifically asked parents to provide for the education of their children, to "at least to be able duly to read the Scriptures" and to understand "the main Grounds and Principles of Christian Religion". It was expected that the male head of the household was primarily responsible for the religious well being of all members of his household, children and servants alike.
Most churches utilized two acts to sanction its members: censure and excommunication. Censure was a formal reprimand for behavior that was not in line with accepted religious and social norms, while excommunication included full removal from church membership. Many social evils, from fornication to public drunkenness, were dealt with in the confines of church sanction, and many church sanctions had no official recognition outside of the confines of church membership. While often no civil or criminal proceedings would result from these sanctions, it was still a powerful tool of social control.
The Pilgrims practiced infant baptism. The public baptism ceremony was usually performed within six months of birth. Marriage was considered a civil, rather than religious ceremony. In the one case, such an arrangement may have been a habit that had been picked up during the Leiden years, for civil marriage was common in the Netherlands. Additionally, the Pilgrims cited a theological argument for such an arrangement, for there is no evidence in Scripture that a minister should preside over a wedding.
Besides the Puritan theology espoused by their religious leaders, the people of Plymouth Colony had a strong belief in the supernatural. Richard Greenham, a Puritan theologian whose works were known to the Plymouth residents, counseled extensively against turning to magic or wizardry to solve ones problems. The Pilgrims saw Satan's work in nearly every calamity that befell them; the dark magical arts were very real and present for them. They believed in the presence of malevolent spirits who brought misfortune to people. In 1660, an court inquest into the drowning death of Jeremiah Burroughs determined that a possessed canoe was to blame.
While Massachusetts Bay colony experienced the famous Salem witchcraft outbreak, there were no reported witches in Plymouth Colony. The court records only show two formal accusations of witchcraft. The first, of Goodwife Holmes in 1661, never went to trial. The second, of Mary Ingram in 1677, did result in an indictment, but the accused witch was acquitted at trial.
Marriage and family life
Edward Winslow and Susanna White, each of who lost their spouses during the harsh winter of 1620-1621, became the first couple to be married in Plymouth. Governor Bradford presided over the civil ceremony.
Marriage was considered the normal state for all adult residents of the colony. Most males first married in their mid-twenties, for women it was about five years earlier.. Second marriages were not uncommon, and widows and widowers did not remain so for long. On average, most widows and widowers remarried within six months to a year. As most adults who reached marriageable age often lived into their sixties, two-thirds of a person's life was spent in a state of matrimony.
Within the confines of the marriage, women and men were certainly not equal, either from a legal or social standpoint. However, it should be noted that, compared to 17th century European norms, women in Plymouth Colony had quite extensive legal and social rights. From the perspective of the Church, women were considered equal to men before God. The entire family worshiped together, and God's grace was available equally to all professed Christians. Women were expected to take traditionally feminine roles in the families; involved in child-rearing and maintaining the household.
Unlike in Europe, however, where women had no legal rights, and were represented in all dealings as a subject of her husband, Plymouth women enjoyed extensive property and legal rights. Widows in Plymouth could not be legally "written out" of her husband's will, and were guaranteed a full third of the families property upon his death. Women were parties to contracts in Plymouth; most notably prenuptual agreements. It was common for brides-to-be (and not, notably, their fathers) to enter into contractual agreements on the consolidation of property upon marriage. In some cases, especially in second marriages, women were given exclusive right to retain control of their property separately from their husbands.
Women would occasionally sit on juries in Plymouth, a remarkable circumstance in seventeenth century legal practice. Historians James and Patricia Scott Deetz cite a 1678 inquest into the death of Anne Batson's child, where the jury was composed of five women and seven men.
Family size was large by modern standards. Demos (1970) reports that the size of the average household size grew as time passed in Plymouth colony, with the average of 7.8 children per family for first-generation families, 8.6 children for second-generation families, and 9.3 for third-generation families. Child mortality also decreased over this time, with 7.2 children born to first-generation families living until their 21st birthday. The number increased to 7.9 children by the third generation. Childbirth was often spaced out, with an average of two years between children. Most families averaged five to six children living under the same roof, though it would not be uncommon one family to have grown children moving out before the mother had finished giving birth. One birth in thirty resulted in the death of the mother, resulting in one in five women dying in childbirth.
Most households followed the nuclear family model of parents and minor children living under the same roof, and while extended families may have lived nearby, it was expected that upon reaching the age of maturity, older children would move out and establish their own households. In addition to parents and birth children living in the same household, many families took in children from other families, or hired indentured servants. Some of the more wealthy families owned slaves.
Children generally remained in the direct care of their mothers until the age of about eight years old, after which time it was not uncommon for the child to be placed in the foster care of another family. There can be any number of reasons for a child to be "put-out" in this manner. Some children were placed into households to learn a trade; others to be taught to read and write. It seems that there was, as with almost every decision, a theological reason for fostering children. It was assumed that a child's own parents would "love" them too much, and would not discipline them in a proper way. By placing a child in the care of another family, there was little danger of a child being "spoiled" and thus would grow up with a proper obedient mind.
Adolescence was not a recognized phase of life in Plymouth colony, and there was not a single right of passage that marked transition from youth to adulthood. Several important transitions occurred at various ages, but none marked a single "coming of age" event. As early as eight years old, children were expected to begin learning their adult roles in life, by taking on some of the family work, or by being placed in foster homes to learn a trade. Most children experienced religious conversion around the age of eight as well, making them church members at this age. Orphaned children were given the right to choose their own guardians at age fourteen. At sixteen, males became eligible for military duty, and were also considered adults for legal purposes, such as standing trial for crimes. Twenty-one was the youngest at which a male could become a freeman, though for practical purposes this occurred sometime in ones mid-twenties. Though twenty-one was the assumed age of inheritance as well, the law respected the rights of the deceased to name an earlier age in his will.
Life expectancy was higher for men than for women. Of the men who survived until the age of 21, the average life expectancy was 69.2 years. Over 55 percent of these men lived past 70, less than 15 percent died before the age of 50. For women, the numbers are much lower, owing to the difficulties inherent in childbirth. The average life expectancy of women at the age of 21 was only 62.4 years. Of these women, less than 45 percent lived past 70, and about 30 percent died before the age of 50.
The first school was founded 40 years after the foundation of the colony. The General Court first authorized colony-wide funding for formal public schooling in 1673, only one town, Plymouth, made use of these funds at that time. By 1683, five additional towns received this funding.
Education of the young was the responsibility of the family more than the school. While formal apprenticeships were not the norm, it was expected that a foster family would teach the children whatever trades they themselves practiced. The church, as well, played a central role in a child's education. The primary purpose of teaching a child to read was so they could read the Bible for themselves.
Customs and daily life
Samuel Fuller was a deacon when he left for America on the Mayflower in 1620, and he intended to become a fisherman when he arrived, but by 1629 he was working in a medical capacity despite his lack of formal qualifications. In New English Canaan (1637), Thomas Morton condemned Fuller's lack of education, his inappropriate appearance, his seemingly disreputable method of diagnosis, and his possibly injurious treatment of patients. However, Fuller was trusted, dedicated, and had studied the available texts; his dress may have been idiosyncratic but was not outlandish; Morton's report of his diagnostic methods has been discredited; and his treatments were those of many formally trained physicians in similar cases. Morton's charges probably stemmed more from his desire to discredit the colony than from anything about Fuller himself.
Separatists in late-16th- and 17th-century London, Amsterdam, and Plymouth Colony were embroiled in controversy over the bounds of decent womanly apparel, speech, and actions. George Johnson criticized his sister-in-law Thomasine Johnson for pride and immodesty in her attire and demeanor. George's criticisms reflected Separatist beliefs in "visible sainthood," which located morality in the soul and linked it with the body's appearance and conduct. The controversy that swirled around Thomasine Johnson and her apparel raged from 1594 to 1599, when Francis Johnson excommunicated George and their father, John, over this issue. The controversy continued to agitate Separatist congregations in Amsterdam and Plymouth Colony well into the 17th century, when William Bradford included the story in his 1648 Dialogue.
Donegan (2002) examines William Bradford's classic account Of Plymouth Plantation (1630-48) to show how coloniality emerged from times of catastrophe and bodily unsettlement. Bradford used the suffering body "as a vehicle for talking about what it meant to be colonial." The body, which had been a way to understand and give meaning to the material world, was shaken by colonial dislocation and became a site of fragmentation and confusion while still serving as a central mediator between interior and exterior.
The "First Thanksgiving"
What is called "The First Thanksgiving" was not known as such to the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims did recognize a celebration known as a "Thanksgiving", which was a solemn ceremony of praise and thanks to God for a congregation's good fortune. The first such Thanksgiving as the Pilgrims would have called it did not occur until 1623, in response to the good news of the arrival of additional colonists and supplies. That event probably occurred in July and consisted of a full day of prayer and worship and probably very little reverie.
The event now commemorated at the end of November each year is more properly termed a "harvest festival". The event was held probably in early October and was celebrated by the 51 surviving Pilgrims, along with Massasoit and 90 of his men. Two contemporary accounts of the event survive: Of Plimoth Plantation by William Bradford as well as Mourt's Relation by Edward Winslow. The celebration lasted three days and featured a feast that included numerous types of waterfowl, wild turkeys and fish procured by the colonists, as well as five deer brought by the Native Americans.
A few of the wealthier families in Plymouth Colony owned black slaves, which unlike the white indentured servants, were considered the property of their owners, and passed on to heirs like any other property. Slave ownership was not widespread, very few families possessed the wealth necessary to own slaves. In 1674, the inventory of Capt. Thomas Willet of Marshfield includes "8 Negroes" at a value of ₤200. Other inventories of the time valued slaves at ₤24-25 each, well out of the financial ability of most families. A 1689 census of the town of Bristol shows that of the 70 families that lived there, only one had a black slave.
The largest source of wealth for Plymouth Colony was the fur trade. The disruption of this trade caused by Miles Standish's raid at Wessagusset created great hardship for the colonists for many years to come, and was directly cited by William Bradford as a contributing factor to the colonists economic difficulties in their early years. The colonists attempted to supplement their income by fishing; the waters in Cape Cod bay were known to be excellent fisheries. However, they lacked any skill in this endeavor, and it made little impact on their economic situation The colony traded throughout the region, establishing trading posts as far away as Penobscot, Maine. They also were frequent trading partners with the Dutch at New Amsterdam.
The economic situation improved with the arrival of cattle in the colony. It is unknown when the first cattle arrived, but the division of land for the grazing of cattle in 1627 represented one of the first moves towards private land ownership in the colony.. Cattle became an important source of wealth in the colony; the average cow was selling for ₤20-28 apiece in 1638. However, the flood of immigrants during the Great Migration drove the price of cattle down, causing a collapse of the Plymouth economy. The same cows selling for up to ₤28 in 1638 were valued at only ₤5 in 1640. Besides cattle, there were also pigs, sheep, and goats raised in the colony.
Agriculture also made up an important part of the Plymouth economy. The colonists wisely adopted Native American agricultural practices and crops. They planted corn, squash, pumpkin, beans, and potato. Besides the crops themselves, the Pilgrims learned valuable farming techniques from the Native Americans, such as proper crop rotation, and the use of dead fish to fertilize the soil. Besides the native crops, the colonists also successfully planted Old World crops such as turnips, carrots, peas, wheat, barley, and oats.
Overall, there was very little cash in Plymouth Colony, so most wealth was accumulated in the form of possessions. As seen above, trade goods such as furs, fish, and livestock were subject to fluctuations in price, and so were unreliable repositories of wealth. Most Plymouth residents accumulated fine wares as a means of holding their wealth. Goods such as clothes and furnishings represented an important source of economic stability for the residents.
In the early years, sea travel between Duxbury and Marshfield proved to be hazardous and slow. In 1633 John Shaw (1596-1668) and his partners made an agreement with the General Court to build an inland water route from Plymouth to the town of Hanover. A great success, it was enlarged four years later and is still in existence.
Much of William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation (1630-48) treats the financial affairs of the Puritan colonists, especially in relation to the English investors who backed the colony. Bradford's views on finances and economics are central to his work because they indicate his attitudes toward the burgeoning culture of colonial commerce in which Plymouth Colony was deeply enmeshed, but that clashed with some aspects of Puritan values. The "plain style" Bradford used in his work reflects a Puritan emphasis on truthful uses of language, but it also demonstrates his familiarity with a set of beliefs common throughout English colonial and domestic culture that identified complex uses of language with the deceptive business practices of merchants.
Despite its short history, less than 72 years, the events surrounding the founding and history of Plymouth Colony have had a lasting effect on the art, traditions, and self identity of America. When Chrysler was looking for a name for its democratic low-cost automobile, it chose Plymouth.
Samuel Eliot Morison asked why American have paid so much attention to little Plymouth. He answered:
- "Here is a story of simple people impelled by an ardent faith in God to a dauntless courage in danger, a boundless resourcefulness in face of difficulty, an impregnable fortitude in adversity. It strengthens and inspires us still, after more than three centuries, in this age of change and uncertainty....The story of their patience and fortitude, and the workings of that unseen force which bears up heroic souls in the doing of mighty errands, as often as it is read or told, quickens the spiritual forces in American life, strengthens faith in God, and confidence in human nature. Thus the Pilgrims in a sense have become the spiritual ancestors of all Americans, whatever their stock, race, or creed."
Art, literature and film
The earliest artistic depiction of the Pilgrims was actually done before their arrival in America, as Dutch painter Adam Willaerts painted a portrait of their departure from Delfshaven in 1620. The same scene was recreated by Robert Walter Weir in 1844, and hangs in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol building. Numerous other paintings have been created memorializing various scenes from the life of Pilgrim Colony, including their landing and the "First Thanksgiving", many of which have been collected by Pilgrim Hall, a museum and historical society founded in 1824 to preserve the history of Plymouth Colony.
Several contemporary accounts of life in Plymouth Colony have become both vital primary historical documents and literary classics. Of Plimoth Plantation by William Bradford and Mourt's Relation by Bradford, Edward Winslow, and others and published by George Morton are both accounts written by Mayflower passengers which provide much of the information we have today regarding the trans-Atlantic voyage and early years of the settlement. Benjamin Church wrote several accounts of King Philip's War, including Entertaining Passages Relating to Philip's War, which remained popular for a century; one edition was illustrated by Paul Revere in 1772. One of the most famous memoirs in American letters is Mary Rowlandson's A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, or The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1677), a penetrating and deeply religious account of how she was captured, her children murdered and herself held hostage by Indians as part of their warfare against the whites during of King Philip's War. Later works, such as "The Courtship of Miles Standish" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, have provided a romantic and partially fictionalized account of life in Plymouth Colony.
Films about the Pilgrims have also been numerous, including the several filmed versions of "The Courtship of Miles Standish", the 1952 film Plymouth Adventure starring Spencer Tracy, and the 2006 History Channel produced television documentary Desperate Crossings: The Untold Story of the Mayflower.
The "First Thanksgiving", was a harvest feast held in Plymouth in 1621. The modern holiday is largely the work of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Boston's Ladies' Magazine, who in 1827 wrote her first in a series of editorials calling for a national, annual day of Thanksgiving to commemorate the Pilgrim's first harvest feast.
One of the enduring symbols of the landing of the Pilgrims is Plymouth Rock, a large granite outcropping of rock that was near their landing site at Plymouth, and which would have certainly been a significant landmark in the area. However, none of the contemporary accounts of the actual landing makes any mention that the Rock was the specific place of landing. The Pilgrims chose the site for their landing not for the rock, but for a small brook nearby that was a source of fresh water and fish.
The first identification of Plymouth Rock as the actual landing site was in 1741 by 90-year old Thomas Faunce, himself the son of a settler who had arrived in Plymouth in 1623, three years after the supposed event. The rock was later covered by a solid-fill pier. In 1774, an attempt was made to excavate the Rock, but it broke in two. The severed piece was placed in the Town Square at the center of Plymouth. In 1880, the intact half of the rock was excavated from the pier, and the broken piece was reattached to it. Over the years, souvenir hunters have removed chunks from the rock, but the remains are now protected as part of the complex of living museums that includes the Mayflower II, a recreation of the original ship, Plimoth Plantation, an historical reenactment of the original 1620 settlement, and the Wampanoag Homesite, which recreates a 17th century Indian village.
- Philbrick (2006) pp 7-13; Addison (1911), pp xiii-xiv
- The debt was finally paid off in 1648. Philbrick (2006), pp 19-20, 169
- David Standish, "Myles and Me," Smithsonian 2000 30(12): 126-128, 130-140. ISSN: 0037-7333 Fulltext: at Ebsco
- Deetz and Deetz (2000), pp 69-71
- Diana Muir, Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England, 2000 excerpt
- see text at 
- Michael P. Zuckert, The Natural Rights Republic: Studies in the Foundation of the American Political Tradition (1996) p 126
- Philbrick (2006) pp 41
- Philbrick (2006), pp 88-91
- Massasoit was specifically the sachem of a single tribe of Wampanoag Indians known as the Pokanoket, though he was recognized as the founder and leader of the entire confederation. Philbrick (2006), pp 93, 155
- Philbrick (2006) pp 100-101
- Patricia Scott Deetz; James F. Deetz (2000). Mayflower Passenger Deaths, 1620-1621. The Plymouth Colony Archive Project. Retrieved on 2007-04-19.
- Philbrick (2006), pp 102-103
- John H. Humins, "Squanto and Massasoit: a Struggle for Power." New England Quarterly 1987 60(1): 54-70. Fulltext in Jstor
- Timeline of Plymouth Colony 1620-1692. Plimoth Plantation (2007). Retrieved on 2007-04-02.
- Demos (1970), pp 17
- GOVERNORS OF PLYMOUTH COLONY. Pilgrim Hall Museum (1998). Retrieved on 2007-04-02.
- Deetz and Deetz (2000), pp 133 cite the first eight examples (treason-adultery), Demos (1970) pp 100 mentions the last
- Demos (1970) pp 102. Bumpus's actual sentence was to be "whipt att the post", with the note that "hee was crasey brained, ortherwise hee had bine put to death."
- Bucklin, Leonard (1998). Rehobeth Area 1650 Rhode Island Massachusetts Boundaries. Bucklinsociety.net. Retrieved on 2007-04-03.
- Payne, Morse (2006). The Survey System of the Old Colony. Slade and Associates. Retrieved on 2007-04-03.
- Richard Howland Maxwell, "Pilgrim and Puritan : a Delicate Distinction" (2003) Pilgrim Hall Museum
- Fennell, Christopher (1998). Plymouth Colony Legal Structure. The Plymouth Colony Archive Project. Retrieved on 2007-04-02.
- Demos (1970), pp 66. Demos quotes a 1667 contract between John Phillips and Faith Doty which states "The said Faith Doty is to enjoy all of her house and land, goods and cattles, that she is now possessed of, to her owne proper use, to dispose of them at her owne free will..."
- John Demos A Little Commonwealth(1970), Appendices, pp 192-194
- Norman Gevitz, "Samuel Fuller of Plymouth Plantation: a 'Skillful Physician' or 'Quacksalver'?" Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 1992 47(1): 29-48. Issn: 0022-5045
- Kathleen Donegan, "'As Dying, Yet Behold We Live': Catastrophe and Interiority in Bradford's of Plymouth Plantation." Early American Literature 2002 37(1): 9-37. Issn: 0012-8163 Fulltext: at Project Muse, Swetswise and Ebsco
- Carolyn Freeman Travers, "Fast and Thanksgiving Days of Plymouth Colony," Plimoth Plantation
- See "Primary Sources for 'The First Thanksgiving' at Plymouth" (1998) at online
- Philbrick (2006), pp 136
- Deetz and Deetz (2000), pp 77-78. The first mention of cattle occurs with the arrival of "three heifers and a bull" in 1624, but there is some doubt as to whether this was the first cattle in the colony
- Chartier, Charles S.. Livestock in Plymouth Colony. Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project. Retrieved on 2007-05-03.
- Jonathan A. Shaw, "John Shaw of Plymouth Colony, Purchaser and Canal Builder." New England Historical and Genealogical Register 1997 151: 259-285. Issn: 0028-4785
- Michelle Burnham, "Merchants, Money, and the Economics of 'Plain Style' in William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation." American Literature 2000 72(4): 695-720. Issn: 0002-9831 Fulltext: in Project Muse, Swetswise and Ebsco
- History Paintings. Pilgrim Hall (1998). Retrieved on 2007-04-05.
- Philbrick (2006) pp 75, 288, 357-358; Mitchell Breitwieser, American Puritanism and the Defense of Mourning: Religion, Grief, and Ethnology in Mary White Rowlandson's Captivity Narrative (1990)
- The Courtship of Miles Standish (1923). American Film Institute. Retrieved on 3 October 2013.
- Plymouth Adventure (1952). American Film Institute. Retrieved on 3 October 2013.
- Desperate Crossings: The Untold Story of the Mayflower (2006). PR Newswire. Retrieved on 3 October 2013.