Plymouth Colony

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Plymouth Colony
British colony
1620 – 1691 Blank.png [[Province of Massachusetts Bay|]]

Seal of Plymouth Colony of Plymouth

Seal of Plymouth Colony

Location of Plymouth
Map of Plymouth Colony showing town locations
Capital Plymouth
Language(s) English
Religion Puritan, Separatist
Legislature General Court
 - Established 1620
 - First Thanksgiving 1621
 - Pequot War 1637
 - King Philip's War 1675–1676
 - Part of the Dominion of New England 1686–1688
 - Disestablished 1691

Plymouth Colony (sometimes New Plymouth or The Old Colony) was an English colonial venture in North America from 1620 until 1691. Founded by a group of separatists who later came to be known as the Pilgrim Fathers, Plymouth Colony was one of the earliest colonies to be founded by the English in North America. The citizens of Plymouth were fleeing religious persecution and searching for a place to worship God as they saw fit. The social and legal systems of the colony were thus closely tied to their religious beliefs. Many of the people and events surrounding Plymouth Colony have become part of American mythology, including the North American tradition known as Thanksgiving and the monument known as Plymouth Rock. The colonists believed that they were constructing a better society than the one they had left behind, one that would be characterized by caring, sharing and a concern for the common good. Their early collaboration with the indigenous people did not survive very long into the American experience. However, while it did last it was a significant aspect of the early settlement of the New World.


See also: Pilgrim Fathers

The village of Scrooby, England circa 1911, home to the Pilgrims until 1607


Plymouth Colony was founded by a group of people who later came to be known as the "Pilgrims." The core group—roughly 40 percent of the adults and 56 percent of the family groupings[1]—was part of a congregation of religious separatists led by pastor John Robinson (pastor), church elder William Brewster, and William Bradford. While still in the town of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, England, the congregation began to feel the pressures of religious persecution. During the Hampton Court Conference, King James I had declared the Puritans and Protestant Separatists to be undesirable and, in 1607, the Bishop of York raided the homes and imprisoned several members of the congregation.[2][3] The congregation thus left England and emigrated to the Netherlands, first to Amsterdam and finally to Leiden, in 1609.[4]

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 community, whereas Leiden was a thriving industrial center, and the pace of life was hard on the Pilgrims. Furthermore, though the community remained close-knit, their children began adopting the Dutch customs and language. The Pilgrims were also still 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 spurred the congregation to move even further from England.[5]

In June 1619, the Pilgrims obtained a land patent from the London Virginia Company, allowing them to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River. They then sought financing 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 arriving in America, the Pilgrims began working to repay their debts.[6]

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, thus some passengers began to question their right to land; they complained that there was no legal authority to establish a colony. In response to this, 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 serve the purpose of relieving the concerns of many of the settlers.[7]

The colonists dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor on December 17 and spent three days surveying for a settlement site. They rejected several sites, including one on Clark's Island and another at the mouth of the Jones River, in favor of the site of a recently abandoned, Native American settlement named Patuxet. The location was chosen 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.[8][9]

First winter

"The Landing of the Pilgrims." (1877) by Henry A. Bacon

On December 21, 1620, the first landing party arrived at the site of what would become the settlement of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Plans to immediately begin building houses, however, were delayed by inclement weather until December 23. As the building progressed, 20 men always remained ashore for security purposes, while the rest of the work crews returned each night to the Mayflower. 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 settlement 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 19) and four common houses were constructed during the first winter.[10]

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; Myles Standish was designated as the commanding officer. By the end of the month, five cannon had been defensively positioned on Fort Hill.[11] 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. It was during this meeting that the Pilgrims found out that the previous residents of the Native American village, Patuxet, had probably died of smallpox. They also discovered that the supreme leader of the region was a Wampanoag Native American sachem (chief) by the name of Massasoit;[12] and they learned of the existence of Squanto—also known by his full Massachusett 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.[13]

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.[14] 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 English explorer Ferdinando Gorges. Massasoit and his men had massacred the crew of the ship and had taken in Squanto.[15]

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. This treaty 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.[16]

On April 5, 1621, after being anchored for almost four months in Plymouth Harbor, the Mayflower set sail for England. Nearly half of the original 102 passengers died during the first winter.[17] 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".[18] Several of the graves on Cole's Hill were uncovered in 1855; their bodies were disinterred and moved to a site near Plymouth Rock.[19]

"First Thanksgiving"

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe

The autumn celebration in late 1621 that has become known as "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 revelry.[20]

The event now commemorated by the United States at the end of November each year is more properly termed a "harvest festival." The festival was probably held in early October 1621 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.[21]

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.[22]

As promised by Massasoit, numerous Native Americans arrived at Plymouth throughout the middle of 1621 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. After traveling for several days, they arrived at Massasoit's capital, the village of Sowams near Narragansett Bay. After meals and an exchange of gifts, Massasoit agreed to an exclusive trading pact with the English, and thus the French, who were also frequent traders in the area, were no longer welcome. Squanto remained behind and traveled the area to establish trading relations with several tribes in the area.[23]

In late July, a boy by the name of John Billington became lost for some time in the woods around the colony. It was reported he was found by the Nauset, the same group of Native Americans on Cape Cod from whom the Pilgrims had stolen corn seed the prior year upon their first explorations. The English organized a party to return Billington to Plymouth. The Pilgrims agreed to reimburse the Nauset for the stolen goods in return for the Billington boy. This negotiation would do much to secure further peace with the Native Americans in the area.[24]

During their dealings with the Nausets over the release of John Billington, the Pilgrims learned of troubles that Massasoit was experiencing. Massasoit, Squanto, and several other Wampanoags had been captured by Corbitant, sachem of the Narragansett tribe. A party of ten men, under the leadership of Myles Standish, set out to find and execute Corbitant. While hunting for Corbitant, they learned that Squanto had escaped and Massasoit was back in power. Several Native Americans had been injured by Standish and his men, and were offered medical attention in Plymouth. Though they had failed to capture Corbitant, the show of force by Standish had garnered respect for the Pilgrims and, as a result, nine of the most powerful sachems in the area, including Massasoit and Corbitant, signed a treaty in September that pledged their loyalty to King James.[25]

In May 1622, a vessel named the Sparrow arrived carrying seven men from the Merchant Adventurers whose purpose was to seek out a site for a new settlement in the area. Two ships followed shortly thereafter carrying sixty settlers, all men. They spent July and August in Plymouth before moving north to settle in modern Weymouth, Massachusetts at a settlement they named Wessagussett. Though short-lived, the settlement of Wessagussett would provide the spark for an event that would dramatically change the political landscape between the local Native American tribes and the English settlers. Responding to reports of a military threat to Wessagussett, Myles Standish organized a militia to defend Wessagussett. However, he found that there had been no attack. He therefore decided on a pre-emptive strike. In an event called "Standish's raid" by historian Nathanial Philbrick, he lured two prominent Massachusett military leaders into a house at Wessagussett under the pretense of sharing a meal and making negotiations. Standish and his men then stabbed and killed the two unsuspecting Native Americans. The local sachem, named Obtakiest, was pursued by Standish and his men but escaped with three English prisoners from Wessagusset, whom he then executed.[26] Within a short time, Wessagussett was disbanded and the survivors were integrated into the town of Plymouth.[27]

Word quickly spread among the Native American tribes of Standish's attack; many Native Americans abandoned their villages and fled the area. As noted by Philbrick: "Standish's raid had irreparably damaged the human ecology of the region…. It was some time before a new equilibrium came to the region."[28] Edward Winslow, in his 1624 memoirs Good News from New England, reports that "they forsook their houses, running to and fro like men distracted, living in swamps and other desert places, and so brought manifold diseases amongst themselves, whereof very many are dead".[29] Now lacking the trade in furs provided by the local tribes, the Pilgrims lost their main source of income for paying off their debts to the Merchant Adventurers. Rather than strengthening their position, Standish's raid had disastrous consequences for the colony, a fact noted by William Bradford, who in a letter to the Merchant Adventurers noted "We had much damaged our trade, for there where we had [the] most skins the Indians are run away from their habitations…."[28] The only positive effect of Standish's raid seemed to be the increased power of the Massasoit-led Wampanoag, the Pilgrims' closest ally in the region.[28]

Growth of Plymouth

In November 1621, almost exactly one year after the Pilgrims first set foot in New England, a second ship sent by the Merchant Adventurers arrived. Named the Fortune, it arrived with 37 new settlers for Plymouth. However, as the ship had arrived unexpectedly, and also without many supplies, the additional settlers put a strain on the resources of the colony. Among the passengers of the Fortune were several additional members of the original Leiden congregation, including William Brewster's son Jonathan, Edward Winslow's brother John, and Philip de la Noye (the family name was later changed to "Delano") whose descendants would include President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Fortune 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.[30]

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. A 1627 division of cattle lists 156 colonists divided into twelve lots of thirteen colonists each.[31] Another ship also named the Mayflower arrived in August 1629 with 35 additional members of the Leiden congregation. Ships arrived throughout the period between 1629 and 1630 carrying numbers of passengers; though the exact number is unknown, contemporary documents claimed that by January 1630 the colony had almost 300 people. In 1643 the colony had an estimated 600 males fit for military service, implying a total population of about 2000. By 1690, on the eve of the dissolution of the colony, the estimated total population of Plymouth County, the most populous, was 3055 people.[27] It is estimated that the entire population of the colony at the point of its dissolution was around 7000.[32] For comparison it is estimated that between 1630 and 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. Despite the fact that Plymouth was the first colony in the region, by the time of its absorption it was much smaller than Massachusetts Bay Colony.[33]

Military history

Pequot War

The first full scale war in New England was the Pequot War of 1637. The War's roots go back to 1632, when a dispute over control of the Connecticut River Valley near modern Hartford, Connecticut arose between Dutch fur traders and Plymouth officials. Representatives from the Dutch East India Company and Plymouth Colony both had deeds that claimed they had rightfully purchased the land from the Pequot. A sort of land rush occurred as settlers from Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies tried to beat the Dutch in settling the area; the influx of English settlers also threatened the Pequot. Other confederations in the area, including the Narragansett and Mohegan, were the natural enemies of the Pequot, and sided with the English. The event that sparked the start of formal hostilities was the capture of a boat and the murder of its captain, John Oldham, in 1636, an event blamed on allies of the Pequots. In April 1637, a raid on a Pequot village by John Endicott led to a retaliatory raid by Pequot warriors on the town of Wethersfield, Connecticut where some 30 English settlers were killed. This led to a further retaliation, where a raid led by Captain John Underhill and Captain John Mason burned a Pequot village to the ground near modern Mystic, Connecticut, killing 300 Pequots. Plymouth Colony had little to do with the actual fighting in the war.[34]

In the wake of the Pequot War, four of the New England colonies (Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, New Haven, and Plymouth) formed a defensive compact known as the United Colonies of New England. Edward Winslow, already known for his diplomatic skills, was the chief architect of the United Colonies. His experience in the United Provinces of the Netherlands during the Leiden years would be used in organizing the confederation. John Adams would later consider the United Colonies to be the prototype for the Articles of Confederation, which itself was the first attempt at a national government.[35]

King Philip's War

Portrait of King Philip, by Paul Revere, illustration from the 1772 edition of Benjamin Church's The Entertaining History of King Philip's War

Also known as Metacomet and other variations on that name, King Philip was the younger son of Massasoit, and the heir of Massasoit's position as sachem of the Wampanoag and supreme leader of the Wampanoag. He became sachem upon the sudden death of his older brother Wamsutta, also known as Alexander, in 1662.[36]

The roots of the war stem from the increasing numbers of English colonists and their demand for land. As more land was purchased from the Native Americans, they were restricted to smaller territories for themselves. Native American leaders such as King Philip resented the loss of land and looked for a means to slow or reverse it.[37] Of specific concern was the founding of the town of Swansea, which was located only a few miles from the Wampanoag capital at Mount Hope. The General Court of Plymouth began using military force to coerce the sale of Wampanoag land to the settlers of the town.[38] The proximate cause of the conflict was the death of a Praying Indian named John Sassamon in 1675. Sassamon had been an advisor and friend to King Philip; however Sassamon's conversion to Christianity had driven the two apart.[38] 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 Native Americans guilty of murder and sentenced them to death.[39] To this day, some debate exists whether or not King Philip's men actually committed the murder.[38]

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.[40]

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 Native American culture during this time period.[41]

The war continued through the rest of 1675 and into the next year. The English were constantly frustrated by the Native American's refusal to meet them in pitched battle. They employed a form of guerrilla warfare that confounded the English. Captain Benjamin Church continuously campaigned to enlist the help of friendly Native Americans to help learn how to fight on an even footing with Philip's troops, but he was constantly rebuffed by the Plymouth leadership, who mistrusted all Native Americans, thinking them potential enemies. Eventually, 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 Native Americans. After securing the alliance of the Sakonnet, 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 would capture hundreds of Native American troops, often without much of a fight, though Philip eluded him. After Church was given permission to grant amnesty to any captured Native Americans who would agree to join the English side, his force grew immensely.[42] Philip was killed by a Pocasset Indian; the war soon ended as an overwhelming English victory.[43]

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 Native Americans was far higher, however. So many were killed, fled, or shipped off as slaves that the entire Native American population of New England fell by 60–80 percent.[44]

Final years

In 1686, the entire region was reorganized under a single government known as the Dominion of New England; this included 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 dissolved during the Glorious Revolution of 1688.[45][46]

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 it had existed without a formal charter since its 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 the new charter on May 14, 1692, carried by William Phips. The last official meeting of the Plymouth General Court occurred on June 8, 1692.[45][47][48]

Social life


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. Puritans believed that the Bible was the only true source of religious teaching and that any additions made to Christianity, especially with regard to church traditions, 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.[49]

Each town in Plymouth colony was considered a single church congregation; in later years some of the larger towns split into two or three congregations. The church was undoubtedly the most important social institution in the colony. Not only was the Bible the primary religious document of the society, but it also served as the primary legal document as well.[50] Church attendance was not only mandatory, but 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."[51] It was expected that the male head of the household be responsible for the religious well-being of all its members, children and servants alike.[51]

Most churches utilized two acts to sanction its members: censure and excommunication. Censure was a formal reprimand for behavior that did not conform with accepted religious and social norms, while excommunication involved full removal from church membership. Many perceived social evils, from fornication to public drunkenness, were dealt with through church discipline rather than through civil punishment. Church sanctions seldom held official recognition outside church membership and seldom resulted in civil or criminal proceedings. Nevertheless, such sanctions were a powerful tool of social control.[52]

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 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. For example, in 1660, a court inquest into the drowning death of Jeremiah Burroughs determined that a possessed canoe was to blame.[53] While Massachusetts Bay Colony experienced an outbreak of witchcraft scares in the seventeenth century, there is little evidence that Plymouth was engulfed in anything similar. While witchcraft was listed as a capital crime in the 1636 codification of the laws by the Plymouth General Court, there were no actual convictions of 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, resulted in trial and acquittal.[54]

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.

Family size in the colony was large by modern American standards, [55] though 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 for one family to have grown children moving out before the mother had finished giving birth. Mortality rates were high for both mother and child; one birth in thirty resulted in the death of the mother, resulting in one in five women dying in childbirth.[56] Infant mortality rates were high, with 12 percent of children dying before their first birthday. By comparison, the infant mortality rate for the United States in 1995 was 0.76 percent.[57]

The nuclear family was the most common familial structure in the colony, and while close relatives 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.[58]

Childhood, adolescence, and education

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.[59] There were 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 in the colony, a theological reason for fostering children. It was assumed that a child's own parents would love them too much and would not properly discipline them. By placing a child in the care of another family, there was little danger of a child being spoiled.[60]

Adolescence was not a recognized phase of life in Plymouth colony, and there was not a single rite 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.[59] Most children experienced religious conversion around the age of eight as well, thus becoming church members.[61]Orphaned children were given the right to choose their own guardians at age 14. At 16, males became eligible for military duty and were also considered adults for legal purposes, such as standing trial for crimes. Age 21 was the youngest at which a male could become a freeman, though for practical purposes this occurred sometime in a man's mid-twenties. Though 21 was the assumed age of inheritance as well, the law respected the rights of the deceased to name an earlier age in his will.[62]

Actual schools were rare in Plymouth colony. The first true school was not founded until 40 years after the foundation of the colony. The General Court first authorized colony-wide funding for formal public schooling in 1673, but only one town, Plymouth, made use of these funds at that time. By 1683, though, five additional towns had received this funding.[63]

Education of the young was never considered to be the primary domain of schools, even after they had become more common. Most education was carried out by a child's parents or foster parents. While formal apprenticeships were not the norm in Plymouth, it was expected that a foster family would teach the children whatever trades they themselves practiced. The church also played a central role in a child's education.[64] As noted above, the primary purpose of teaching a child to read was so that they could read the Bible for themselves.[65]

Government and laws

The Book of the General Laws of the Inhabitants of the Jurisdiction of New-Plimouth. Boston: Samuel Green, 1685


Plymouth Colony did not have a royal charter authorizing it to form a government. Still, some means of governance was needed; the Mayflower Compact, signed by the 41 able-bodied men aboard the Mayflower upon their arrival in Provincetown Harbor on November 21, 1620, was the colony's first governing document. Formal laws were not codified until 1636. The colony's laws were based on a hybrid of English common law and religious law as laid out in the Bible.[50]

The colony offered nearly all adult males potential citizenship in the colony. Full citizens, or "freemen," were accorded full rights and privileges in areas such as voting and holding office. To be considered a freeman, adult males had to be sponsored by an existing freeman and accepted by the General Court. Later restrictions established a one-year waiting period between nominating and granting of freeman status and also placed religious restrictions on the colony's citizens, specifically preventing Quakers from becoming freemen.[50] Freeman status was also restricted by age; while the official minimum age was 21, in practice most men were elevated to freeman status between the ages of 25 and 40, averaging somewhere in their early thirties.[66]

Governors of Plymouth Colony[67]
Dates Governor
1620 John Carver
1621–1632 William Bradford
1633 Edward Winslow
1634 Thomas Prence
1635 William Bradford
1636 Edward Winslow
1637 William Bradford
1638 Thomas Prence
1639–1643 William Bradford
1644 Edward Winslow
1645–1656 William Bradford
1657–1672 Thomas Prence
1673–1679 Josiah Winslow
1680–1692 Thomas Hinckley

The colony's most powerful executive was its Governor, who was originally elected by the freemen, but was later appointed by the General Court in an annual election. The General Court also elected seven "Assistants" to form a cabinet to assist the governor. The Governor and Assistants then appointed "Constables" who served 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.[50]

The General Court was both the chief legislative and judicial body of the colony. It was elected by the freemen from among their own number and met regularly in Plymouth, the capital town of the colony. As part of 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, but the ultimate decisions were made by a jury of freemen.[50]


As a legislative body, the General Court could make proclamations of law as needed. In the early years of the colony, these laws were not formally compiled anywhere. In 1636 these laws were first organized and published in the 1636 Book of Laws. The book was reissued in 1658, 1672, and 1685.[50] Among these laws included the levying of "rates," or taxes, and the distribution of colony lands.[68] The General Court 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.[69] It was forbidden for individual settlers to purchase land from Native Americans without formal permission from the General Court.[70] The government recognized the precarious peace that existed with the Wampanoag, and wished to avoid antagonizing them by buying up all of their land.[71]

The laws also set out crimes and their associated punishments. There were several crimes that mandated the death penalty: treason, murder, witchcraft, arson, sodomy, rape, bestiality, adultery, and cursing or smiting one's parents.[72] The actual exercise of the death penalty was fairly rare; only one sex-related crime, a 1642 incidence of bestiality by Thomas Granger, resulted in execution.[73] 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 by reason of insanity.[74] Perhaps the most notable use of the death penalty was in the execution of the Native Americans convicted of the murder of John Sassamon; this helped lead to King Philip's War.[75] Though nominally a capital crime, adultery was usually dealt with by public humiliation. Convicted adulterers were often forced 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.[76][77]

Several laws dealt with indentured servitude, a legal status whereby a person would work off debts or be given training in exchange for a period of unrecompensed service. The law required that all indentured servants had to be registered by the Governor or one of the Assistants, and that no period of indenture could be less than six months. Further laws forbade a master from shortening the length of time of service required for his servant, and also confirmed that any indentured servants whose period of service began in England would still be required to complete their service while in Plymouth.[78]

Official Seal

Still used by the town of Plymouth, the seal of the Plymouth Colony was designed in 1629. It depicts four figures within a shield bearing Saint George's Cross, apparently in Native-American style clothing, each carrying the burning heart symbol of John Calvin. The seal was also used by the County of Plymouth until 1931.[79]


Without a clear land patent for the area, the settlers settled without a charter to form a government, and as a result, it was often unclear in the early years as to what land was under the colony's jurisdiction. In 1644, "The Old Colony Line"—which had been surveyed in 1639—was formally accepted as the boundary between Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth.[80]

1677 map of New England by William Hubbard showing the location of Plymouth Colony. The map is oriented with west at the top.

The situation was more complicated along the border with Rhode Island. Roger Williams in 1636 settled in the area of Rehoboth, near modern Pawtucket. He was forcibly evicted in order to maintain Plymouth's claim to the area. Williams would move to the west side of the Pawtucket River to found the settlement of Providence, the nucleus for the colony of Rhode Island, which was formally established with the "Providence Plantations Patent" of 1644. 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 unclear. The issue was not fully resolved until the 1740s, long after the dissolution of Plymouth Colony itself. Rhode Island had received a patent for the area in 1693, which had been disputed by Massachusetts Bay Colony. Rhode Island successfully defended the patent, and in 1746, a royal decree transferred the land along the eastern shore of the Narragansett Bay to Rhode Island, including the mainland portion of Newport County and all of modern Bristol County, Rhode Island.[81][82]



The English in Plymouth Colony fit broadly into three categories: Pilgrims, Strangers, and Particulars. The Pilgrims, like the Puritans that would later found Massachusetts Bay Colony to the north, 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.[49] 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 those we now call the Pilgrims was the "Saints." They used the term to indicate their special place among God's elect, as they subscribed to the Calvinist belief in predestination.[83]

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 other reasons throughout the history of the colony and who did not necessarily adhere to the Pilgrim religious ideals.[84][85] 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 obliged to pay the colony's debts.[86]

The presence of the Strangers and the Particulars was a considerable annoyance to the Pilgrims. As early as 1623, a conflict between the two groups broke out over the celebration of Christmas, a day of no particular significance to the Pilgrims. Furthermore, when a group of Strangers founded the nearby settlement of Wessagusset, the Pilgrims were highly strained, both emotionally and in terms of resources, by their lack of discipline. They looked at the eventual failure of the Wessagusset settlement as Divine Providence against a sinful people.[87]

The residents of Plymouth used terms to distinguish between the earliest settlers of the colony and those that came later. 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".[88]

Native Americans

The Native Americans in New England were organized into loose tribal confederations, sometimes called "nations." Among these confederations were the Nipmucks, the Massachusett, the Narragansett, the Niantics, the Mohegan, and the Wampanoag.[34] Several significant events would dramatically alter the demographics of the Native American population in the region. The first was "Standish's raid" on Wessagusset, which frightened Native American leaders to the extent that many abandoned their settlements, resulting in many deaths through starvation and disease.[28] The second, the Pequot War, resulted in the dissolution of its namesake tribe and a major shift in the local power structure.[34] The third, King Phillip's War, had the most dramatic effect on local populations, resulting in the death or displacement of as much as 80 percent of the total number of Native Americans of southern New England and the enslavement and removal of thousands of Native Americans to the Caribbean and other locales.[44]

Black slaves

Following the tradition of England, some 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 and 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.[89] So few were black slaves in the colony that the General Court never saw fit to pass any laws dealing with them.[78]


The largest source of wealth for Plymouth Colony was the fur trade. 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 area, and it did little to relieve their economic hardship.[90] The colony traded throughout the region, establishing trading posts as far away as Penobscot, Maine. They were also frequent trading partners with the Dutch at New Amsterdam.[91]

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.[92] Cattle became an important source of wealth in the colony; the average cow could sell for ₤28 in 1638. However, the flood of immigrants during the Great Migration drove the price of cattle down. The same cows sold at ₤28 in 1638 were valued in 1640 at only ₤5.[93] Besides cattle, there were also pigs, sheep, and goats raised in the colony[94]

Agriculture also made up an important part of the Plymouth economy. The colonists adopted Native American agricultural practices and crops. They planted maize, squash, pumpkins, beans, and potatoes. Besides the crops themselves, the Pilgrims learned productive farming techniques from the Native Americans, such as proper crop rotation and the use of dead fish to fertilize the soil. In addition to these native crops, the colonists also successfully planted Old World crops such as turnips, carrots, peas, wheat, barley, and oats.[95]


Despite its short history, fewer than 72 years, the events surrounding the founding and history of Plymouth Colony have had a lasting effect on the art, traditions, and mythology of the United States of America.

Art, literature and film

Front page of William Bradford's manuscript for Of Plimoth Plantation

The earliest artistic depiction of the Pilgrims was actually done before their arrival in America—Dutch painter Adam Willaerts painted a portrait of their departure from Delfshaven in 1620.[96] The same scene was repainted 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 Plymouth 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 the Colony.[97]

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 are both accounts written by Mayflower passengers, accounts that 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 throughout the eighteenth century. An edition of the work was illustrated by Paul Revere in 1772. Another work, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, provides an account of King Philip's War from the perspective of Mary Rowlandson, an Englishwoman who was captured and spent some time in the company of Native Americans during the war.[98]


Each year the United States celebrates a holiday known as Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November. It is a recognized federal holiday,[99] and frequently involves family gathering with a large feast, traditionally featuring a turkey. Civic recognition of the holiday typically include parades and football games. The holiday is meant to honor the "First Thanksgiving," which was a harvest feast held in Plymouth in 1621.

Plymouth Rock

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. 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.[100]


  1. Patricia Scott Deetz and James F. Deetz, Passengers on the Mayflower: Ages & Occupations, Origins & Connections. The Plymouth Colony Archive Project, 2000, accessdate 2006-05-19
  2. Nathaniel Philbrick. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. (New York: Penguin Group, 2006. ISBN 0670037605), 7–13
  3. Albert Christopher Addison. (1911), The Romantic Story of the Mayflower Pilgrims. The Plymouth Colony Archive Project accessdate 2007-04-30, foreword "From a Pilgrim Cell," xiii–xiv
  4. Addison, (1911), 51
  5. Philbrick, 2006, 16–18
  6. Due to hardships experienced during the early years of the settlement, as well as corruption and mismanagement by their representatives, the debt was not actually paid off until 1648. Philbrick, 2006, 19–20, 169
  7. Philbrick, 2006, 41
  8. Philbrick, 2006, 78–80
  9. Paul Johnson. A History of the American People. (New York: HarperCollins, 1997. ISBN 0060168366), 37
  10. Philbrick, 2006, 80–84
  11. Philbrick, 2006, 88–91
  12. 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, 93, 155
  13. Philbrick, 2006, 93–94
  14. Philbrick, 2006, 94–96
  15. Elliot West, "Squanto", in Allen Weinstein and David Rubel. The Story of America: Freedom and Crisis from Settlement to Superpower. (New York: DK Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0789489031), 50–51
  16. Philbrick, 2006, 97–99
  17. Addison, 1911, 83–85
  18. Patricia Scott Deetz and James F. Deetz, Mayflower Passenger Deaths, 1620–1621. The Plymouth Colony Archive Project, 2000. accessdate 2007-04-19
  19. Addison, 1911, 83
  20. Carolyn Freeman Travers, "Fast and Thanksgiving Days of Plymouth Colony." Plimoth Plantation: Living, Breathing History. [1]. Plimoth Plantation, accessdate 2007-05-02
  21. Primary Sources for "The First Thanksgiving" at Plymouth. Pilgrim Hall Museum 1998 accessdate 2007-03-30 note: this reference contains partial transcriptions of two documents, Winslow's Mourt's Relations and Bradford's Of Plimoth Plantation, which describe the events of the First Thanksgiving.
  22. Philbrick, 2006, 102–103
  23. Philbrick, 2006, 104–109
  24. Philbrick, 2006, 110–113
  25. Philbrick, 2006, 113–116
  26. Philbrick, 2006, 151–154
  27. 27.0 27.1 Patricia Scott Deetz, 2000, [2] "Population of Plymouth Town, County, & Colony, 1620–1690". The Plymouth Colony Archive Project. Retrieved March 26, 2009.
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 28.3 Philbrick, 2006, 154–155
  29. Edward Winslow. The Plymouth Colony Archive Project 1624, Chapter 5 Good Newes From New England. accessdate 2007-05-17
  30. Philbrick (2006) pp 123–126, 134
  31. Plimoth Plantation: Living, Breathing History Residents of Plymouth according to the 1627 Division of Cattle. Plimoth Plantation. accessdate 2007-05-02
  32. Douglas Edward Leach, "The Military System of Plymouth Colony." The New England Quarterly 24 (3) (Sep., 1951): 342–364 doi = 10.2307/361908 note: login required for access
  33. Norris Taylor, The Massachusetts Bay Colony 1998. accessdate 2007-03-30
  34. 34.0 34.1 34.2 The Descendants of Henry Doude. Perspectives: The Pequot War
  35. Philbrick, 2006, 180–181
  36. Philbrick, 2006, 205
  37. Philbrick, 2006, 207–208
  38. 38.0 38.1 38.2 Jennifer L. Aultman, From Thanksgiving to War: Native Americans in Criminal Cases of Plymouth Colony, 1630–1675. The Plymouth Colony Archive Project 2001. accessdate 2007-05-17
  39. Philbrick, 2006, 221–223
  40. Philbrick, 2006, 229–237
  41. Philbrick, 2006, 288–289
  42. Philbrick, 2006, 311–323
  43. Philbrick, 2006, 331–337
  44. 44.0 44.1 Philbrick, 2006, 332, 345–346
  45. 45.0 45.1 Timeline of Plymouth Colony 1620–1692. Plimoth Plantation 2007 accessdate 2007-04-02.
  46. John Demos. A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 17
  47. Demos, 17–18
  48. Weinstein and Rubel, 64–65
  49. 49.0 49.1 Richard Howland Maxwell, "Pilgrim and Puritan: A Delicate Distinction." 2003, Pilgrim Society Note, Series Two. Pilgrim Hall Museum. accessdate 2003-04-04
  50. 50.0 50.1 50.2 50.3 50.4 50.5 Christopher Fennell, Plymouth Colony Legal Structure. The Plymouth Colony Archive Project 1998. accessdate 2007-04-02
  51. 51.0 51.1 Demos, 104–106, 140
  52. Demos, 8–9
  53. Deetz and Deetz, 87–100, and endnotes
  54. Deetz and Deetz, 2000, 2–98, and endnotes
  55. Heather Whipps, September 21, 2006, Census: U.S. household size shrinking accessdate 2007-05-11 A study reported by MSNBC found that the modern American household consisted of 2.6 people. Demos, 1970, 192 cites that by the third generation, the average family had 9.3 births, with 7.9 children living until adulthood. Since most families had two parents, this would extrapolate to an average of 10 people under one roof.
  56. Demos, 64–69
  57. Carolyn Freeman Travers, 2007, Common Myths: Dead at Forty Plimoth Plantation. accessdate 2007-05-11
  58. Demos, 62–81
  59. 59.0 59.1 Demos, 141
  60. Demos, 71–75
  61. Demos, 146
  62. Demos, 147–149
  63. Demos, 142–143
  64. Demos, 144
  65. Demos, 104
  66. Demos, 148
  67. Governors of Plymouth Colony 1998. Pilgrim Hall Museum accessdate 2007-04-02
  68. Demos, 7
  69. Demos, 10
  70. Demos, 14
  71. Philbrick, 2006, 214–215
  72. Deetz and Deetz, 2000, 133, cite the first eight examples (treason-adultery); Demos, 100 mentions the last.
  73. Deetz and Deetz, 2000, 135
  74. Demos, 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."
  75. Philbrick, 2006, 223
  76. Johnson, 53
  77. Demos, 96–98
  78. 78.0 78.1 Lillian Galle, 2000, Servants and Masters in the Plymouth Colony The Plymouth Colony Archive Project. accessdate 2007-05-17
  79. David Martucci, 1997, The Flag of New England
  80. Morse Payne, 2006, The Survey System of the Old Colony. Slade and Associates.
  81. The Rhode Islander: A depository of opinion, information, and pictures of the Ocean State. 2007, The Border is Where? Part II. accessdate 2007-04-03
  82. EDC Profile (Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, 2007) Town of Bristol. accessdate 2007-07-13
  83. Deetz and Deetz, 2000, 14
  84. Duane A. Cline, 2006, The Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony: 1620. Rootsweb. accessdate 2007-04-04
  85. Philbrick, 2006, 21–23
  86. Demos, 6
  87. Philbrick, 2006, 128, 151–154
  88. Deetz and Deetz, 2000, 14 and endnotes
  89. Demos, 110–111, also see Demos's footnote #10 on 110
  90. Philbrick, 2006, 136
  91. Philbrick, 2006, 199–200
  92. Deetz and Deetz, 2000, 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.
  93. Charles S. Chartier, Livestock in Plymouth Colony. Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project. accessdate 2007-05-03
  94. Johnson, 37
  95. Johnson, 36–37
  96. Philbrick, 2006, 22
  97. History Paintings Pilgrim Hall, 1998. accessdate 2007-04-05
  98. Philbrick, 2006, 75, 288, 357–358
  99. 2007 Federal Holidays U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
  100. Philbrick, 2006, 75, 78–79

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Addison, Albert Christopher. The Romantic Story of the Mayflower Pilgrims. (1911), [3] The Plymouth Colony Archive Project accessdate 2007-04-30
  • Deetz, James, and Patricia Scott Deetz. The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 2000. ISBN 071673830-9.
  • Demos, John. A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony. New York:xford University Press, 1970.
  • Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. ISBN 0060168366.
  • Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Penguin Group, 2006. ISBN 0670037605.
  • Weinstein, Allen, and David Rubel. The Story of America: Freedom and Crisis from Settlement to Superpower. New York: DK Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0789489031.

External links

All links retrieved November 24, 2022.


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