The Plymouth Colony
The Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock


Plymouth Colony was the second permanent English settlement in America. The colonists who settled there became known as Pilgrims because of their wanderings in search of religious freedom. In 1620, they established their colony on the rocky western shore of Cape Cod Bay in southeastern Massachusetts. This region had been called Plimouth on John Smith's map of New England, drawn in 1614. The Pilgrims established the Congregational Church in America. Plymouth Colony remained independent until 1691, when it became part of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Plymouth Colony and the Pilgrims have become for all Americans a lesson of how a people with little more than courage, perseverance, and hard work could build themselves a home in a hostile world. Their bravery set an example for future generations of Americans.

Many tourists visit modern Plymouth with its memorials to the Pilgrim forefathers. Just south of town there is a model of the original Pilgrim village. Plimoth Plantation, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of the Pilgrim heritage, also maintains a replica of the first Pilgrim house and of the Mayflower.

The founding of Plymouth Colony

Most of the Pilgrims were Separatists (Puritans who had separated from the Church of England). The government of England arrested and tried the Separatists because of their nonconformity (refusal to belong to the Church of England). In 1608, a group of Separatists moved to the Netherlands. After a few years, some of them became dissatisfied, and felt that things would be better in a new land. They secured financial backing in London, and, in 1620, left the Netherlands in a small ship called the Speedwell. The ship stopped in England, and the expedition was joined by other English people who hoped to better their lives. The group left England in the Speedwell and a larger ship, the Mayflower. The Speedwell proved unseaworthy, and the fleet returned to England twice. Finally, in September 1620, the Mayflower sailed alone from Plymouth, England. It carried 102 passengers, including women and children.

A rough passage of 65 days brought the Mayflower to Cape Cod on November 20 (November 10, according to the calendar then in use). The Pilgrims had promised to settle somewhere within the limits of the original grant of the Virginia Company of Plymouth. But errors in navigation led them to the New England region. Adverse winds and the shoals off Cape Cod forced the Mayflower to stay north. The ship anchored in Provincetown harbor inside the tip of Cape Cod on November 21.

The Pilgrim leaders were uncertain of their legal position because they were in the area without authority. They also knew they would need discipline among themselves. To solve these problems, 41 men aboard the Mayflower met and signed the Mayflower Compact, the first agreement for self-government in America. The Pilgrims also elected John Carver as their governor.

The sea-weary Pilgrims were anxious to learn more about the country. For almost a month, several small groups explored the coast around Cape Cod Bay while the rest remained aboard. One of the groups had to take refuge on an island in Plymouth harbor during a blinding snowstorm. On Dec. 21, 1620, this group landed at Plymouth. There they found a stream with clear water, some cleared land, and a high hill that could be fortified. This site was once an Indian village, but smallpox had wiped out all the Indians in 1617. The Pilgrims decided that this would be their new home. The Mayflower sailed across Cape Cod Bay and anchored in Plymouth harbor on December 26.

The first year was a difficult one for the Pilgrims. Poor and inadequate food, strenuous work, and changeable weather made the settlers susceptible to sickness. The colony lost about half its members that first winter.

But help came one spring morning, when an Indian walked into the little village and introduced himself to the startled people as Samoset. He later returned with Squanto. They introduced the Pilgrims to Massasoit, the sachem (chief) of the Wampanoag tribe that controlled all southeastern Massachusetts. Carver and the chief exchanged gifts and arranged a treaty of peace. Soon afterward, the Mayflower sailed for England, leaving the Pilgrims. Then Carver died, and William Bradford became governor of the colony.

The Pilgrims, under Squanto's direction, caught alewives (a fish in the herring family) and used them as fertilizer in planting corn, pumpkins, and beans. They hunted and fished for food. The harvest that year led Governor Bradford to declare a celebration. Sometime in the autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims invited their Indian friends to join them in a three-day festival that we now call the first New England Thanksgiving. The menu included corn bread, duck, eel, goose, wild leeks, shellfish, venison, watercress, and wine.

Life in Plymouth Colony

The Pilgrims received legal rights to settle at Plymouth under a patent granted by the Council for New England in 1621. Governor Bradford received a new patent, the Warwick Patent, in 1630. It granted him all the land south of a line between Narragansett Bay and Cohasset. Under this patent, Bradford could have claimed ownership of the entire colony, but he shared control with the other settlers. He turned the patent over to all the freemen (voters) of the colony in 1640. A few years later, surveyors marked off an area corresponding to the present counties of Bristol, Barnstable, and Plymouth as the colony of Plymouth.

In November 1621, the ship Fortune arrived with 35 new colonists. Other ships brought additional settlers but the population grew to only 300 settlers in 10 years. Some of the colonists decided to move from Plymouth to better lands. Some went north and established the towns of Duxbury, Marshfield, and Scituate. Others moved west to Rehoboth, or farther east on Cape Cod to settle Sandwich, Barnstable, Yarmouth, and Eastham.

The men who signed the Mayflower Compact were the freemen of the colony. They, along with any newly chosen freemen, met once a year to discuss the problems of the colony. This body, called the General Court, elected the governor and his assistants, made laws, and levied taxes. In outlying towns, the freemen held town meetings to elect their own officers and settle town matters. Beginning in 1639, these towns sent representatives to the General Court at Plymouth.

The Pilgrims organized a joint-stock company with some London merchants to finance the voyage. The partnership was to last for seven years. The Pilgrims agreed to put the results of their labor into a common fund, which would provide the necessities of life for the settlers. At the end of seven years, all the profits and property were to be divided among the financiers and the settlers. This experiment did not work out, and in 1623 the colony allowed settlers to farm individual plots. The London merchants in 1627 agreed to sell their interest in the company to the Pilgrims, who finished paying off the debt in 1648.

The Pilgrims at first expected to make a profit from fishing. But they were never very successful at this. They turned to farming for their existence and to fur trading for profit. When other Puritans settled Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1628, the Pilgrims developed a prosperous trade in corn and cattle with them. Through steady and hard work, the colony was able to live moderately well without extremes of wealth or poverty.

Voyage on the Mayflower

William Bradford, the second governor of Plymouth, wrote a history of the Pilgrims' adventure aboard the Mayflower. He listed the ship's passengers as follows:
[Spelling retained from original text.]

Mr. John Carver; Kathrine, his wife; Desire Minter; & 2. man-servants, John Howland, Roger Wilder; William Latham, a boy; & a maid servant, & a child yt was put to him, called Jasper More.

Mr. William Brewster; Mary, his wife; with 2. sons, whose names were Love & Wrasling; and a boy was put to him called Richard More; and another of his brothers. The rest of his childeren were left behind, & came over afterwards.

Mr. Edward Winslow; Elizabeth, his wife; & 2. men servants, caled Georg Sowle and Elias Story; also a litle girle was put to him, caled Ellen, the sister of Richard More.

William Bradford, and Dorothy, his wife; having but one child, a sone, left behind, who came afterward.

Mr. Isaack Allerton, and Mary, his wife; with 3. children, Bartholmew, Remember, & Mary; and a servant boy, John Hooke.

Mr. Samuell Fuller, and a servant, caled William Butten. His wife was [left] behind, & a child, which came afterwards.

John Crakston, and his sone, John Crakston.

Captin Myles Standish, and Rose, his wife.

Mr. Christopher Martin, and his wife, and 2. servants, who were Salamon Prower and John Langemore.

Mr. William Mullines, and his wife, and 2. children, Joseph & Priscila; and a servant, Robart Carter.

Mr. William White, and Susana, his wife, and one sone, caled Resolved, and one borne a ship-board caled Perigriene; & 2. servants, named William Holbeck & Edward Thomson.

Mr. Steven Hopkins, & Elizabeth, his wife, and 2. children, caled Giles, and Constanta, a doughter, both by a former wife; and 2. more by this wife, caled Damaris & Oceanus; the last was borne at sea; and 2. servants, called Edward Doty and Edward Litster.

Mr. Richard Warren; but his wife and childeren were lefte behind, and came afterwards.

John Billinton, and Elen, his wife; and 2. sones, John & Francis.

Edward Tillie, and Ann, his wife; and 2. children that were their cossens, Henery Samson and Humillity Coper.

John Tillie, and his wife; and Eelizabeth, their dougter.

Francis Cooke, and his sone John. But his wife & other children came afterwards.

Thomas Rogers, and Joseph, his sone. His other children came afterwards.

Thomas Tinker, and his wife, and a sone.

John Rigdale, and Alice, his wife.

James Chilton, and his wife, and Mary, their dougter. They had an other doughter, yt was maried, came afterward.

Edward Fuller, and his wife, and Samuell, their sonne.

John Turner, and 2. sones. He had a doughter came some years after to Salem, wher she is now living.

Francis Eaton, and Sarah, his wife, and Samuell, their sone, a yong child.

Moyses Fletcher, John Goodman, Thomas Williams, Digerie Preist, Edmond Margeson, Peter Browne, Richard Britterige, Richard Clarke, Richard Gardenar, Gilbart Winslow.

John Alden was hired for a cooper, at South-Hampton, wher the ship victuled; and being a hopefull yong man, was much desired, but left to his owne liking to go or stay when he came here; but he stayed, and maryed here.

John Allerton and Thomas Enlish were both hired, the later to goe mr [master] of a shalop here, and ye other was reputed as one of ye company, but was to go back (being a seaman) for the help of others behind. But they both dyed here, before the shipe returned.

Ther were allso other 2. seamen hired to stay a year here in the country, William Trevore, and one Ely. But when their time was out, they both returned.

These, bening aboute a hundred sowls, came over in this first ship; and began this worke, which God of his goodnes hath hithertoo blesed; let his holy name have ye praise.


Although 102 Pilgrims sailed from England, one died and another was born during the voyage. So 102 reached the harbor at Provincetown, Mass. Four more died and one was born there. The group that landed at Plymouth consisted of 99 Pilgrims.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony's superior harbor at Boston helped draw trade and settlers from Plymouth Colony. Boundary and trade disputes increased among the colonies that had formed in the area. The Pilgrims also faced the danger of attack by nearby Indians and Dutch and French colonists. In 1643, Plymouth Colony joined the Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and New Haven colonies in forming the New England Confederation. This alliance worked to settle disputes and provide for the common defense.

A long tradition of peace between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians ended in 1675. That year, Metacomet, the son of Massasoit, led an Indian war against the colonies in New England. The colonists called Metacomet King Philip, and the war became known as King Philip's War. The Indians attacked because they feared that the colonists would take all their land. Metacomet was killed in 1676, and the war in southern New England then ended. Fighting in northern New England continued until 1678. In 1686, King James II of England tried to reassert control over the colonies by combining Plymouth and the rest of New England, New York, and New Jersey into the Dominion of New England.] However, the dominion proved unpopular and was disbanded in 1689. In 1691, Plymouth became part of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Contributor: Joan R. Gundersen, Ph.D., Prof. of History, California State Univ., San Marcos. SOURCE: IBM 1999 WORLD BOOK

The Plymouth Constitution
November 15, 1636

1. A Republican Government Grounded in the Consent of the Governed

Now being assembled and having read the combination [Mayflower Compact] made at Cape Cod the 11th of November 1620. . . , as also our letters patent confirmed by the honorable council, his said Majesty established and granted the 13th of January 1629. . . , and finding that, as freeborn subjects of the state of England, we hither came endowed with all and singular the privileges belonging to such being assembled; doe ordaine Constitute and enact that noe act, imposition, law, or ordinance be made or imposed upon us at present, or to come, but such as shall be imposed by Consent of the body of associates or their representatives legally assembled, according to the free liberties of the state and kingdom of England and no otherwise.

2. Annual Elections

That. . . we ordain, institute, and appoint the first Tuesday in March every year for the election of such officers as shall be thought meet for the guiding and government of this corporation. . . .

3. Term Limits

That at the day and time appointed, a governor and seven assistants be chosen to rule and govern the said plantations within the said limits for one whole year and no more; and this election to be made only by the freemen according to the former custom. And that then also constables for each part and other inferior officers be also chosen.

4. Supplemental Officers

That in every election some one of the assistants, or some other sufficient person, be chosen treasurer for the year present. . . .

That a clerk of the court also be chosen for the year.

That also one be chosen to the office of coroner to be executed as near as may be to the laws and practice of the kingdom of England, and to continue one year.

5. Oaths of Office
[here the document inserts the oaths required to be taken by the officers]
6. The Process of Announcing Elections and the Place Designated

That the annual election of officers before expressed be at the general court held in his Majesty's name, and that the governor in due season, by warrant directed to the several constables in his Majesty's name aforesaid, give warning to the freemen to make their appearance. . . .

7. Voting Made Mandatory

And for default in each case of appearance at the election before mentioned, without due excuse, each delinquent to be amerced in three shillings sterling.

8. The Winners of the Elections Are Required to Accept the Offices

That if at any time any shall be elected to the office of governor and will not hold according to the election then he be amerced in twenty pounds sterling fine.

That if any elected to the office of assistant refuse to hold according to election that then he be amerced in ten pounds sterling fine.

9. Winners Are not Required to Serve Two Years in a Row, Unless They Be Persuaded

That in case one and the same person should be elected governor a second year, having held the place the foregoing year, it should be lawful for him to refuse without amercement unless they can prevail with him by entreaty.

10. Location of Government and Residential Requirement of the Governor

That the government, viz., the general courts and the courts of assistants, be held at Plymouth, and the governor hold his dwelling there for the present year, except such inferior courts as for some matters shall be allowed by this court in other places of this government.

11. All Testimony Before Grand Juries Must Be Sworn

It is enacted that no presentment hereafter shall be exhibited to the Grand Inquest to be brought to the bench except it be done upon oath, and that it shall be lawful for any of the assistants to administer an oath in such case.

12. Government's Responsibility To Do Roadwork

That the constable see the highways for man and beast be made and kept in convenient repair. . . .

13. Who May Legislate

That the laws and ordinances of the colony and for the government of the same be made only by the freemen of the corporation and no other;

14. Tax Rates Must Apply Evenly Between Legislators and Others

That in such rates and taxations as are or shall be laid upon the whole they be without partiality so as the freeman be not spared for his freedom, but the levy be equal.

15. Right of Civil Complaint

And in case any man finds himself aggrieved that his complaint may be heard and redressed if there be due cause.

16. Mandatory Oath of Every Citizen

That an oath of allegiance to the King and fidelity to the government and the several colonies therein be taken of every person that shall live within or under the same.

17. Rights of Due Process According to the Common Law of England

That all trials, whether capital or between man and man, be tried by juries according to the precedents of the law of England, as near as may be.

18. Small Claims Court, Misdemeanor Trials

That the governor and two assistants, at the least, shall, as occasion shall be offered in time convenient, determine in such trivial cases, viz., under forty shillings between man and man, as shall come before them; as also in offense of small nature shall determine, do and execute as in wisdom God shall direct them.

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