A Brief History of the Pilgrims by Ron Collins
The present state of Massachusetts, known legally as a commonwealth, was explored in the late
16th and early 17th centuries but was not permanently settled until the Pilgrims settled at
Plymouth in 1620. These first permanent settlers in Massachusetts, however, were not fortune
hunters but a religious group, whose first landfall was Cape Cod rather than their original
Virginia destination. In December 1620 they landed at Plymouth, where they established a colony
according to terms drawn up in the Mayflower Compact before debarking.
The Pilgrims were English Separatists. In the first years of the 17th century, small numbers
of English Puritans broke away from the Church of England because they felt that it had not
completed the work of the Reformation. They committed themselves to a life based on the Bible.
Most of these Separatists were farmers, poorly educated and without social or political standing.
One of the Separatist congregations was led by William Brewster and the Rev. Richard Clifton
in the village of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire. The Scrooby group emigrated to Amsterdam in 1608
to escape harassment and religious persecution. The next year they moved to Leiden, in Holland
where, enjoying full religious freedom, they remained for almost 12 years.
In 1617, discouraged by economic difficulties, the pervasive Dutch influence on their children,
and their inability to secure civil autonomy, the congregation voted to emigrate to America.
Through the Brewster family's friendship with Sir Edwin Sandys, treasurer of the London Company,
the congregation secured two patents authorizing them to settle in the northern part of the
company's jurisdiction. Unable to finance the costs of the emigration with their own meager
resources, they negotiated a financial agreement with Thomas Weston, a prominent London iron
merchant. Fewer than half of the group's members elected to leave Leiden. A small ship, the
Speedwell, carried them to Southampton, England, where they were to join another group of
Separatists and pick up a second ship. After some delays and disputes, the voyagers regrouped
at Plymouth aboard the 180-ton Mayflower. It began its historic voyage on Sept. 16, 1620, with
about 102 passengers--fewer than half of them from Leiden.
After a 65-day journey, the Pilgrims sighted Cape Cod on November 19. Unable to reach the land
they had contracted for, they anchored (November 21) at the site of Provincetown. Because they
had no legal right to settle in the region, they drew up the Mayflower Compact, creating their
own government. The settlers soon discovered Plymouth Harbor, on the western side of Cape Cod
Bay and made their historic landing on December 21; the main body of settlers followed on
The term Pilgrim was first used by William Bradford to describe the Leiden Separatists who were
leaving Holland. The Mayflower's passengers were first described as the Pilgrim Fathers in 1799.
The English ship the Mayflower (a three-masted merchant ship that had originally been constructed
for transporting wine) carried the Separatist Puritans Pilgrims, to Plymouth. The 180-ton vessel
was about 12 years old and had been in the wine trade. It was chartered by John Carver who had
gone to London to make arrangements for the voyage to America. The ship was made ready at
Southampton with a passenger list that included English Separatists, hired help (among them
Myles Standish, a professional soldier, John Alden, a cooper, Peter Browne, a carpenter and
Stephen Hopkins, perhaps a soldier), and other colonists who were to be taken along at the
insistence of the London businessmen who were helping to finance the expedition. In the
meantime the Leiden Separatists, who had initiated the venture, sailed for Southampton on
July 22, 1620, with 35 members of the congregation and their leaders William Bradford and
William Brewster aboard the 60-ton Speedwell. Both the Speedwell and the Mayflower, carrying
a total of about 120 passengers, sailed from Southampton on August 15, but they were twice
forced back by dangerous leaks on the Speedwell. At the English port of Plymouth some of the
Speedwell's passengers were regrouped on the Mayflower, and on September 16, the historic
This time the Mayflower carried 102 passengers, only 37 of whom were from the Leiden congregation.
After weeks of scouting for a suitable settlement area, the Mayflower's passengers finally landed at
Plymouth on Dec. 26, 1620. Although the Mayflower's captain and part-owner, Christopher Jones,
had threatened to leave the Pilgrims unless they quickly found a place to land, the ship
remained at Plymouth during the first terrible winter of 1620-21, when half of the colonists
died. The Mayflower left Plymouth on Apr. 15, 1621, and arrived back in England on May 16.
William Bradford's classic account of the Mayflower's voyage does not mention the ship by name,
it describe the vessel. In 1926, however, a model was constructed by R. C. Anderson from general
information about late-16th-century merchant ships of its tonnage. This model, which is in
Pilgrim Hall, Plymouth, gives the ship's dimensions as 90 ft (27.4 m) long, with a 64-ft (19.5-m)
keel, 26-ft (7.9-m) beam, and a hold 11 ft (3.4 m) deep. In 1957 a close replica of the
Mayflower was sailed from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth, Mass., where it is on view.
To finance their journey and settlement the Pilgrims had organized a joint-stock venture.
Capital was provided by a group of London businessmen who expected--erroneously--to profit
from the colony. During the first winter, more than half of the settlers died, as a result of
poor nutrition and inadequate housing, but the colony survived due in part to the able leadership
of John Carver, William Bradford, William Brewster, Edward Winslow, and Myles Standish. Squanto,
a local Indian, taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn and where to fish and trap beaver.
Without good harbors or extensive tracts of fertile land, however, Plymouth became a colony
of subsistence farming on small private holdings once the original communal labor system was
ended in 1623. In 1627 eight Pilgrim leaders assumed the settlement's obligations to the
investors in exchange for a 6-year monopoly of the fur trade and offshore fishing.
The Pilgrims were soon followed by other English settlers. The Dorchester Company founded a
colony at Gloucester (1623) on Cape Ann and, after Gloucester's failure, at Naumkeag (Salem, 1626)
. In 1628 a party of Puritans led by John Endecott settled at Salem under the auspices of the
New England Company. The following year the Massachusetts Bay Company was chartered as a
successor to the New England Company; its first large group of Puritan settlers arrived in
1630 under the leadership of John Winthrop (see Winthrop family). Winthrop established Boston
as the capital of the colony and, together with cleric John Cotton, dominated its affairs for
the next two decades.
Puritanism was the overriding religiopolitical force in the Bay Colony, whose leaders sought
to establish a Bible commonwealth. Citizenship (called freemanship) was restricted (until 1664)
to church members. Religious dissenters, most notably Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, were
banished from the colony. Within the framework of religious restriction, however, the colony
early developed representative institutions. In 1632 the freemen gained the right to elect the
governor directly, and in 1634 the freemen of each town won the right to send deputies to the
Throughout this early period new immigrants arrived, settling along the coast and a short
distance inland. Farming, lumbering, and fishing were the principal occupations. Movement into
the interior brought conflict with the Indians, as in the Pequot War (1637). In 1643 the Bay
Colony formed the New England Confederation with Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven colonies
to coordinate defense. The confederation acted most effectively during King Philip's War (1675-76).
Continual disagreements arose between the colonists and the English
government, especially after the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660. Finally, in 1684
the colony's charter was revoked, and in 1686 the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies were
included in the Dominion of New England under Sir Edmund Andros. News of the Glorious Revolution
in England prompted uprisings against Andros and the dissolution of the Dominion in 1689.
Two years later a royal charter was issued that incorporated Plymouth Colony and the Province
of Maine within Massachusetts but placed the extended colony under a royal governor and removed
the religious qualification for voting. The authority of the Puritan clergy, already much
weakened, was further diminished as a result of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The clergy,
notably Increase and Cotton Mather, were blamed for fanning the hysteria that led to the
execution of 20 people.
Plymouth's government was initially vested in a body of freemen who met in an annual General
Court to elect the governor and assistants, enact laws, and levy taxes. By 1639, however,
expansion of the colony necessitated replacing the yearly assembly of freemen with a
representative body of deputies elected annually by the seven towns. The governor and his
assistants, still elected annually by the freemen, had no veto. At first, ownership of property
was not required for voting, but freemanship was restricted to adult Protestant males of good
character. Quakers were denied the ballot in 1659; church membership was required for freemen
in 1668 and, a year later, the ownership of a small amount of property as well.
Plymouth was made part of the Dominion of New England in 1686. When the Dominion was overthrown
(1689), Plymouth reestablished its government, but in 1691 it was joined to the much more
populous and prosperous colony of Massachusetts Bay to form the royal province of Massachusetts.
At the time Plymouth Colony had between 7,000 and 7,500 inhabitants.