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Plymouth Colony
Plymouth Colony

The story most of us have heard about the Pilgrims’ voyage to America is that of a band of brave religious rebels whose only crime was wearing stupid-looking hats and being poor Thanksgiving dinner planners. But the real story of the Pilgrim’s is the saga of England’s second permanent colony in America.


Plymouth, Massachusetts 1620. The place that was soon to be transformed into Plymouth Plantation was hardly anything to write home about. A sandy beach, dense forest, rocky soil, and a harbor too shallow for even a small ship like the Mayflower to sail into. If the Pilgrims needed to resupply they would be forced to row a mile out to Cape Cod Bay. But at least the place had fresh water and no sign of hostile Indians. For now...


But what gets left out of this saga is that a ragged bunch of religious nonconformists had chosen to set up their colony in the midst of a post-apocalyptic landscape. Naturally, the Pilgrims had no way of knowing that their new home was on the very spot where a plague, (likely bubonic) introduced by English fishermen, had killed off 90% of the native Pawtuxet people. The Pilgrims didn’t even have to dig to find the gruesome evidence. The bones, long picked clean by predators, were still lying right there on the beach. The survivors had left in such a hurry they hadn’t bothered to bury their dead. After poking around for a bit, William Bradford led the Pilgrims in a quick prayer and then got down to work. But you can excuse the Pilgrims for being callous. Death was now stalking them.

Here they were, December 21, 1620, facing a wilderness full of wild animals and “savages”. Up until they landed, the Pilgrims had been lucky having not lost a single soul crossing the Atlantic but their luck had run out. A lack of food and fresh water were beginning to take their toll. Every day since landing, someone else had died-- including William Bradford’s wife, Dorothy who fell overboard and drowned. Some suggest that she committed suicide, unable to bear the isolation of their new home.


The Mayflower was turned into a makeshift hospital as patients fell ill from colds, pneumonia and even worse scurvy-- a potentially fatal illness caused by vitamin C deficiency.  If they didn’t find food and shelter fast the Plymouth crew would likely end up as a grisly reminder of the dangers that all first colonists faced.


Karma Alert


The only person to die on the Mayflower voyage was a member of the crew who had taunted the seasick passengers. The Pilgrims believed that God had punished him for his attitude.

One of the first buildings that the Pilgrims threw up was their meeting house which served as part church, part city-hall, part community center.

The original town of Plimoth Plantation is long gone. But the replica village gives us an authentic window into what life looked like back in the days when Puritans ran New England.

Fire was a constant threat when your entire community was made of wood. All colonial homes kept their kitchens separated from the main house for this reason. But outbreaks were all too common in colonial America.

The Mayflower Compact Drama

But let’s back up a bit because we need to talk about who the Pilgrims were and why they traveled 2,000 miles to set up shop in the middle of a frozen Massachusetts forest.

Before history came to call them Pilgrims they were known as Separatists because of their radically illegal plan to split with the Church of England and establish a religious utopia in the New World. After years of persecution, the Separatists had snuck out of England, first to Holland and now to America.


When the colonists rolled up into Cape Cod on November 11, 1620, they had some serious issues to iron out. The most serious was that the Mayflower was 250 miles north of where they were supposed to be. Instead of the Hudson River where their charter had given them permission to settle they were now anchored off the coast of Massachusetts. Without a valid charter, the company legally would have the right to refuse to turn over the colony to them.


Establishing a colony was an expensive and risky business. The Pilgrims weren’t the first Englishmen to try their luck in the New World. Roanoke and Popham had both flopped for their own reasons. Even Jamestown survived but could hardly be called a success story. The winter of 1609, the infamous "starving time", witnessed its people turning cannibal. The Pilgrims had plenty of faith but not much cash to fund the journey and so they were forced to suck it up and ask the Merchant Adventurers for a £1,700 loan -- an astronomical sum of money in those days. But the Pilgrims had more Bible sense than business sense. It turns out the Merchants weren't motivated by their godly mission after all. To pay for their voyage the Pilgrims had signed a legal contract called an indenture. To repay their loan the Pilgrims agreed to work four days a week for seven years harvesting furs and cod. Once the seven years were up the colony and the houses they lived in would belong to them-- free and clear.


But with only weeks before their departure the Merchants did the classic bait-and-switch, demanding that the contract be changed to increase the number of workdays to six, while at the same time demanding that 61 Strangers be added to their little mix. Overnight the Pilgrims became a minority in their own utopia. The tension between the two groups had reached the breaking point before the passengers ever saw land. The Pilgrims were so different from the others. They were pious family types who spent their free time praying and holding Bible studies. Fleeing persecution had turned them into a tight-knit group. The Strangers, on the other hand, were single men who had been recruited to work with the Merchants. These guys were young and thrived on adventure. They liked to drink and gamble. And even though they were Anglicans they weren’t all that worried about keeping the Sabbath holy. The Pilgrims and Saints spent most of the ride over at each other’s’ throats.


A power struggle was erupted over who would lead the colony. The Pilgrims had made it clear that once they reached land, Plymouth Colony would be run by their rules. New England was going to be a Puritan paradise, “a city on a hill”, a model of Christian perfection. The Merchants, whom the Puritans nicknamed ‘Strangers’’, couldn’t have cared less about their godly mission. In fact, they openly mocked them, gambled, swore, and drank heavily much to the Puritans annoyance. The Strangers had different goals for coming to America. They were drawn to the prospect of free land wealth. Or think of you think of Plymouth colony being a town where one half is Amish and the other biker gang and you get the picture of what it must have been like for these two to try and forge a community in the wilderness.


Finding themselves at Cape Cod, 250 miles north of the Hudson River in New York. William Brewster-- one of the Pilgrim leaders-- was one the few with a University education drew up a document that would become the first model of self-government in the New World. More importantly to the passengers, the Mayflower Compact averted a crisis that would likely have splintered the colony into Saints and Strangers fighting for control. The Mayflower Compact was an agreement between all male colonists that they would create and abide by the laws for the good of the colony. Basically, this was the first form of democracy in the New World. Men regularly met in churches and meeting houses to debate and create laws unlike in Virginia where the governors had near total control over that colony.


Surviving the Winter of 1620

Plymouth Colony almost didn’t last long enough to become anything more than a historical ghost story. That first winter of 1620-21 Plymouth Colony was hit hard. The Pilgrim’s had not bothered to bring extra food because they assumed (wrongly) that they would just show up and trade beads for choice Indian chow. Sound familiar? But the Pilgrims hadn’t counted on the introduction of smallpox to the natives of Massachusetts. The local Pokanokets played it safe by watching these foreigners from a distance. The only Indian corn the Pilgrims ate that winter is the stash they had stolen from another tribe further up the cape.



That winter, half of the 102 original Pilgrims would die of a deadly combo: hunger, disease, and exposure to the cold and wet. Plymouth settlement came to a standstill-- with only seven of the nineteen houses built-- as every healthy person was on nursing duty. But, considering the horrors of Jamestown, they got off easy. After all, not a single Pilgrim became a cannibal. It was December 23rd before the stormy weather had eased up enough to give the Pilgrims an opportunity to start building their new settlement. A work party armed with axes and saws began the backbreaking task of felling trees and dragging them to the site. After two weeks, they had built their first house. It wasn’t much to look at. The walls were logs stacked and stuffed with branches and “cemented” together with mud. The windows were covered with oiled parchment. The chimney was little more than a hole in the thatched roof. The inside was dark and smoky and they had left their Keurig machine four hundred years in the future. But to appreciate what had been accomplished we have to consider that these individuals were working their tails off, weak from hunger, in the freezing cold of a New England winter.


Two weeks later and Plymouth Colony now boasted of a single log cabin. But that first house was just the beginning.  A community had to be created where only rocky soil and wilderness now stood. The town was planned out before it was even built. Nineteen houses would be added that winter along the main street with parallel alleys. With two rows of houses, the Pilgrims would be able to defend their settlement against an invasion-- Indian or European. A wooden platform was constructed to mount the cannons that they had brought with them. These cannons weren’t meant for protection against the native people but were pointed out towards the Bay in case the French or Dutch should suddenly show up and try to stomp out the little English settlement. For much of the colonial era, Europeans staked competing claims to most of North America and weren’t afraid to use violence to back them up.


Strange Encounters of the Native Kind

It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that since their arrival in November the Pilgrims lived their lives in fear of an Indian attack. They had already been attacked once by the same group whose corn they dug up. But for the last month they had waited in eerie silence with only a few rare sightings but no contact. The Indians of the area seemed to be avoiding them. And who could blame them, these pale strangers came from the same stock of the folks who had unleashed smallpox a few years back and now were setting up camp on top of a graveyard. That sort of thing would tend to freak anyone out.



But March 16, was different. A lone Indian was spotted walking down the hill towards the settlement. The women and children were rushed inside the Common House for protection and the men reached for their guns. The Indian confidently walked into Plymouth like he owned the place, which as it turns out he did. The Pilgrim men moved to block his path. He stopped, gave them a military salute, and said “Welcome Englishmen!” Yeah, you can imagine the surprise on those faces.


The English had just met the man who would save their half-starved settlement-- a man named Samoset who sat around the campfire eating duck and drinking hard liquor while giving the Pilgrim’s their first New World geography lesson. The people who controlled the land on which the Pilgrims were squatting were the Pokanokets led by a guy named Massasoit (pronounced Mass ah SOY), one of the principal chiefs in the area. It seems that the plague hadn’t been all that bad for everyone and the Pokanokets had been able to increase their standing during the chaos. When word got back to Massasoit of the strange people who wore buckles on their hats he was at a loss for how to respond. The English were a dangerous and temperamental bunch, the year before a crew of an English fishing boat had massacred a Pokanoket village for no apparent reason. Massasoit had a choice: wipe the settlement out before it became a threat or sit back and wait. Obviously, you know what his decision was. But why did he make it?



Like most hunter-gatherers, the people of the New World were animists; meaning they put a lot of stock in the power of the spirit world, magic, and unseen forces. For much of that first winter, Massasoit had been holding meetings inside a swamp with his top shamans (holy men) in order to conjure up magic to drive the white men out. When that failed the answer became obvious to Massasoit. The Pilgrim’s magic must be stronger than his.

So, to recap. Reason #1 for Massasoit's hesitation were his religious beliefs. But, reason #2 was a bit more down to earth. Massasoit had an adviser named Squanto who had convinced him that the Pilgrims could be used as a weapon to defeat the Narragansett-- the Pokanokets more powerful enemy in the Bay area. Sure, the Pilgrims might be a loose cannon but if Massasoit wanted to become the dominant chief in the area he would have to use unconventional means. Massasoit would, in fact, achieve his dream of merging the local tribes under his leadership. That tribe would come to be called the Wampanoag, who ironically would be fighting to defend its land from the very same people whom they were now making deals with. But that’s a story for later.


When the two sides finally met they exchanged a few gifts and made some long-winded speeches that were made even more tedious because they had to wait for Squanto to translate. In the end, after the furs and copper knives were passed around the two sides made a defensive pact to protect one another against their enemies. And as of right now both groups had quite a few of those lying in wait in the woods. The Pilgrims made their first allies in the New World, but more importantly, they had secured a source of food. Like we had mentioned earlier, the soil of New England is terrible for growing crops. That is unless you have a few planting tricks up your sleeve. Squanto showed them how to grow corn using fish as fertilizer. He also showed them how to catch lobster and shuck oysters. Essentially, Squanto saved Plymouth.

Pilgrims meets Squanto

Mine eyes hath seen bare skin. Surely we are all doomed!

Pequot Wars

By 1630, the Great Migration was in full swing and tens of thousands of English settlers poured into New England. Demands for food, housing, and a plot to farm led to demands for more land.  Combine this land hunger with the fact that neither side fully understood each other’s' culture and you have a powder keg that is ready to blow.


In 1636, the murder of a Boston merchant led to war with the powerful Pequot tribe who was accused (wrongfully) of committing the crime. The English allied with the Narragansett who also wanted to get rid of the Pequot and in the Battle of Mystic River massacred an entire Pequot village in a surprise night attack. Their huts were burned down, some with people still inside, and those who tried to flee were shot down and the survivors were sold to slave traders in the Caribbean.


In 1671, the alliance between the Wampanoag and the English broke down and turned to war after the English continued to demand more and more native land. The last straw was when three Indians accused of murdering a settler were tried and executed by English law rather than Indian customs. Think of how an American might feel if they were sent to a Canadian prison after committing a crime in Maine. From the Native point of view, English law was meant for the English.

A sachem named Metacomet rose up against the English during "King Philip's War". During this war, the Wampanoag and their allies fought the English and their Indian allies and both sides committed massacres and destroyed entire towns and villages. By the end of the war, half of the Native Americans in New England had either been killed or had fled west to the Great Lakes.


Conflict between Europeans and  Native Americans came down to differing opinions on land ownership. For Europeans  land could be bought and sold. For Native Americans you could no more "own" the earth than you could the sun or the air.

Great Migration

Why the Pilgrims Matter?

The Pilgrims weren't the first English settlers to come to the New World, and they weren't even the first successful settlement either. So why do we devote so much time to their story? The Pilgrims were the first wave of a new type of colonist. In contrast to the isolated plantation culture of the South, the New England colonies grew up around small farming communities and towns. Their towns grew into cities like Boston, Hartford, and Providence which by the 19th century had become centers of the industrial revolution--turning southern cotton into expensive cloth. The Puritans who came to New England were more educated than the average colonist. It was New England that passed America’s first laws for public schools. Harvard and Yale--big Ivy League schools today, got their start as Puritan colleges that trained their boys in medicine, law, and religion. It was in New England where colonists got to elect their local leaders and judges. It was in New England where the revolt over “”big government” led to the American Revolution.


Basically, you could say that the New England way of life shaped modern America. The entire American Civil War was nothing more than a contest between two ways of life. The plantation slave society that began in Jamestown and the industrial urban America that was planted in Plymouth back in 1620. It took 600,000 deaths but the Civil war decided which of these two cultures would go on to shape the modern United States 

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