Introduction to Pilgrims

Pilgrims, the English settlers who founded Plymouth colony in Massachusetts as the first permanent settlement in New England. The term is generally considered to mean all persons who came to the colony from 1620 to 1630, including the original group that arrived on the Mayflower, and some relatives and associates of the early colonists who did not arrive until after 1630. The total number, by this definition, was about 375 persons. Many of these, perhaps one-fifth, died during the first few winters. Some two or three dozen returned to England or moved to other colonies.

The active leaders of the Plymouth venture were members of an English Separatist congregation that had been living in Leiden, Holland. A group of London merchant adventurers (businessmen specializing in foreign trade) financed the early voyages, recruiting additional colonists in London Although the Leiden Separatists were in the minority in the four ships that arrived at Plymouth 1620–23, they completely dominated the colony, and succeeded in converting most of the other settlers to their religious beliefs.

The Plymouth settlers did not call themselves Pilgrims. Sometimes members of the church referred to themselves as “saints” (they were expected to be saintly in moral conduct). William Bradford in his History of Plymouth Plantation told of their sorrow at leaving Leiden, and remarked, “but they knew they were pilgrims.” At a Forefathers' Day celebration in Plymouth in 1793 the Reverend Chandler Robbins, familiar with the Bradford account, referred in a sermon to the settlers as “the Pilgrims," and by mid-19th century the term was in common use.

John Robinson's Congregation

Between 1590 and 1607 a group of English families wishing to separate from the Anglican Church, an action prohibited by law, formed a secret congregation at Scrooby, a village east of Sheffield. John Robinson became their minister in 1607, when the congregation numbered about 100.

Flight to Holland

Other Separatists had moved to Holland to have freedom of worship, although leaving England without permission was illegal. After several unsuccessful efforts, Robinson and some of his congregation escaped to Amsterdam in 1608, and the next year settled at Leiden, where most of them worked in the cloth industry. Many Separatists from England as well as those of other congregations in Holland came to join them, and the Green Gate congregation, as the Leiden church was known, grew to some 300 members.

Meanwhile the first permanent English colony in America was founded at Jamestown, and by 1617 the Green Gate congregation was interested in emigrating to the New World. John Carver, representing the group, opened negotiations with the Virginia Company of London for permission to establish a fishing and trading post in the north of its chartered area. The company agreed, but the church lacked the funds to undertake the enterprise.

The group was considering an offer by the Dutch West India Company to settle them on Manhattan Island when Thomas Weston of London made a proposal. He would organize a merchant adventurers' company and send the Leiden group to Virginia. The majority of the congregation rejected the offer, but a minority under the leadership of John Carver, Elder William Brewster, and William Bradford elected to go. Before plans were completed, it was learned that a charter for New England was being sought by Sir Ferdinando Gorges. The Leiden group would have favored New England, where the Anglican Church was not already established, as it was in Virginia. However, they did not wish to delay departure until Gorges had his charter and could authorize their settlement.

The Voyage to New England

While the Leiden Pilgrims outfitted a small vessel, the Speedwell, the merchant adventurers chartered a large ship, the Mayflower, and recruited colonists in London. In July, 1620, the Speedwell sailed from Delft Haven to Southampton, where it joined the Mayflower. The two ships sailed together in August, but the Speedwell quickly proved unseaworthy and was abandoned at Plymouth, England.

On September 16 (by the modern calendar) the Mayflower put to sea with as many persons from the two ships as could be accommodated. There were 102 passengers and a crew of 25. The passengers included 41 members of the Leiden congregation and 39 colonists from London, including Separatist leaders William Bradford, William Brewster, and John Carver. Among the others were Captain Myles Standish, a professional soldier who had been hired to serve as military commander at Plymouth; and various servants and workmen, including John Alden, a cooper who had signed a contract to serve in the colony for a year. About 30 of the passengers were children.

Mayflower Compact

Land was sighted on the 66th day. It was Cape Cod—New England, not Virginia. The men from Leiden expressed their satisfaction at this, but some of the London passengers who had expected to land in Virginia threatened mutiny. On November 21, 1620, in Provincetown Harbor, the leaders of both groups drew up a covenant agreeing that a governing body would be elected by the colonists, and that all would abide by the rule of the majority. The passengers signed the covenant, known as the Mayflower Compact, and John Carver was elected governor.

In its promise of “just & equall lawes” written by the settlers themselves, the compact was a statement of revolutionary new principles. After being forgotten for many generations, it was hailed in 1802 by John Quincy Adams as a great charter of freedom, and has come to be recognized as a milestone in the growth of democracy.

Plymouth Plantation

Landing At Plymouth

The party rested on Cape Cod for a month. After several exploration trips, and upon the advice of a seaman who had visited the coast with Captain John Smith, Plymouth Harbor (so named by Smith) was chosen on December 21 as the site of settlement. On December 26, the Mayflower anchored offshore. Only a few Indians had been seen, although there were many cleared fields in the area. There was no interference as the Pilgrims began building their town, New Plymouth.

Early Years

Over the first winter half of the Pilgrims died. In the spring two English-speaking Indians appeared—Samoset, who had known English fishermen in Maine, and Squanto, who had been kidnapped and taken to Spain six years before and had lived in England after his escape. Squanto told the Pilgrims that the cleared fields had been been those of his tribe, the Patuxet, which had been wiped out by a plague during his absence. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant and cultivate corn, and served as interpreter between them and Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags, who became their ally. When the harvest was in that autumn, the Pilgrims celebrated a feast of thanksgiving.

The Mayflower had departed for England in April, and in November the Fortune arrived with 35 new settlers and a land grant for “Plimouth Plantation” under the charter of Gorges' Council for New England. The colony, which up to then had lacked permission to be located where it was, now had legal status. Fur trade with neighboring Indians was started, under Squanto's guidance. Crops for the first two summers were not adequate, however, and the second and third winters were periods of great privation.

Later Arrivals

In the summer of 1623 Anne and Little James brought 60 more colonists, many from the Green Gate congregation. In 1629 several ships sailing to new Massachusetts Bay Colony brought settlers from Plymouth, and in 1630 the last group from Leiden arrived on the Handmaid. In the next few years various individuals from the Green Gate church and from the merchant adventurers' company came to join the colony.