Massachusetts: Plymouth

This town in Plymouth Colony on the coast of Massachusetts was settled by the Pilgrims in 1620. It was folded into the Province of Massachusetts Bay in September, 1691.

Site Offices:

Plymouth Plantation

P.O. Box 1620

Plymouth, MA 02362

ph.: (508) 746-1622

fax: (508) 746-4978

Web site:

The Pilgrim Society

75 Court Street

Plymouth, MA 02360

ph.: (508) 746-1620

Web site:

In 1620, a group of English settlers called Puritans, or Pilgrims, landed ship in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. Years before, they had broken away from the Church of England, wishing to “purify” their religious practices, and many of them had suffered persecution at the hands of English officials. Initially, they left England for Leiden, Holland. When a group of merchants and investors agreed to finance a trip to America, the Puritans took the opportunity to settle their own colonies, farm new lands, and worship freely.

The First Pilgrims

Before the Pilgrims landed in America, they had spent a month sailing around the Northeast, searching for an ideal place to settle. They finally discovered an area that had plenty of fresh water and clear ground and that seemed to lack the threat of Indians. Earlier expeditions by John Smith and Captain Thomas Dermer reassured the Pilgrims that this area would be a wise choice for a plantation. On December 16, 1620, 102 Pilgrims, those who had survived the laborious trip, anchored their ship, the Mayflower, in Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts.

The first few months at Plymouth were grim, as one disaster seemed to follow another. Many Pilgrims remained aboard ship, struggling to survive the cold and the scurvy that had begun to take lives during their journey. In January, a fire destroyed many of their supplies. When summer finally arrived, nearly half of the Mayflower’s passengers were dead, and not much progress had been made toward building the settlement.

In early March, as the Pilgrims began to prepare the fields for planting, they were visited by Indians, who meant no harm. In fact, they were eager to communicate, having learned English from sailors who fished off the coast. One Indian, Squanto, who owned the lands the Pilgrims planned to cultivate, proved a blessing to the settlers. Until his death two years later, Squanto stayed with the Pilgrims, showing them the best places and methods to farm and fish. As their homes took shape and crops began to grow, the miserable months the Pilgrims had suffered seemed to fade.

The First Thanksgiving

Governed by John Carver, Plymouth quickly became a settlement of cooperation and prosperity. Satisfied with the settlement’s success, Captain Christopher Jones sailed an empty Mayflower back to England. After the autumn harvest, the Pilgrims held a feast along with Indians from the surrounding area, in a celebration that would later be commemorated as Thanksgiving. Carver died soon after and was replaced by William Bradford.

The Pilgrims enjoyed a lush harvest and looked ahead to a secure winter. When England heard word of the Pilgrims’ success, however, the investors quickly sent another thirty-six settlers to the colony. Their arrival in November, 1621, dealt a harsh economic blow to the earlier settlers, who shouldered the burden of the newcomers’ support. Along with the new settlers, the colony received a series of patents, ensuring the legality of the settlement, but no supplies. As famine raged during the cold winter months, the Pilgrims continued to wait for the now desparately needed supplies from England.

New Settlers

Instead of supplies, more settlers arrived the following spring and summer, some traveling at their own expense. These men and women were called “particulars” and caused considerable confusion to the economic structure of the settlement. Unlike the Pilgrims, they did not carry the burden of paying off debts and were free to work for themselves; still, the Pilgrims were instructed to provide them with farmland. Bradford agreed to these rules on the basis that the particulars paid an annual tax, were not given political citizenship, and were barred from Indian trade. Not surprisingly, the particulars were dissatisfied and began to complain.

Matters worsened in March, 1624, with the arrival of John Lyford, an Anglican minister. Lyford quickly assumed the role of spokesperson for the particulars, writing letters back to England in protest of Bradford’s administration. In addition to fueling unrest within the colony, Lyford’s letters caused enough discontent among the English investors to break up the stock company that had financed the settlement. In 1625, Lyford was banished by the Plymouth General Court.

Breakdown of Communal System of Ownership

The economic structure within the colony was also coming into question. For three years, the colonists used a communal system, but, encouraged by Bradford, they were beginning to see the benefits of private property. In 1627, communal ownership came to an end as land, goods, and stock shares of the settlement were divided among the colonists. As members of this joint-stock company, all adult males (excluding servants) participated in government, shared in a partnership with English investors, and shared in ownership of the plantation and its assets.

Although capitalism inspired initiative and hard work among the colonists, it hindered their ability to pay the annual two hundred pounds the colony still owed to the English creditors. Out of desperation, Bradford decided to pay off the debt, with the help of eleven other “undertakers.” In return, the undertakers would receive a monopoly of the Indian trade for six years and an annual tax from the colonists. This plan soured, however, as some of the undertakers began to use debt money for personal investments, most of which failed. Several undertakers, including Bradford, were forced to sell portions of their real estate holdings. The debt was finally paid more than ten years later with the help of Massachusetts intermediaries.

As the colonists struggled to pay the debt, Plymouth’s economy was also struggling to prosper. Richer soil was discovered outside the colony, and many settlers left town for other areas. The fishing industry, expected to be a great source of profit, also proved disappointing as few settlers took interest in it. Most of Plymouth’s revenue came from beaver skins exported to England.

Massachusetts Bay Company Puritans

Plymouth’s economy sharply expanded in 1629 with the arrival of the Massachusetts Bay Company Puritans. Although the colonization of Massachusetts decreased Plymouth’s importance, it provided Plymouth with a nearby market to boost its economy with the sale of livestock and agricultural produce. For ten years, Puritans flooded into New England to escape religious persecution in England. As civil war erupted in Scotland in 1638, Puritans started fighting their cause at home; the great migration nearly halted. As a result, livestock prices plummeted and land grants in Plymouth significantly decreased.

Until the late 1630’s, land was distributed (under law of the Mayflower Compact) by the governor and his court of seven assistants. Many colonists opposed this practice, as did the purchasers who had bought out the joint-stock company in 1627 and felt they deserved certain sections of land. Both groups continuously pressured Bradford to amend the system, and in 1639 Bradford came to an agreement with them. The purchasers would select a few tracts of land, and the remaining ungranted land would be distributed to new settlers by the “freemen,” or citizens, of the colony. Not until the 1650’s did land expansion resume.

Church and State

Contrary to popular belief, when the colony was founded, the Pilgrims did not want a separate church and state; they believed government control of religious practices was very important. Though the government tried men for religious offenses, it avoided passing religious legislation until 1650. By that time, dissension had taken the form of a wide variety of practices and beliefs among the colonists. Bradford knew that if religious order were to be kept at all, certain laws needed to exist. In the following years, he attempted to control religious slander, church attendance, and the strict following of the Scriptures. Despite his efforts, religious unity dissipated further, aided by the arrival of Quaker missionaries in 1655.

The Quakers began a fierce attempt to convert the Puritans; opposition to their presence quickly swept through the colonies. For subverting religious and civil authority, the Quakers received severe punishment, yet they continued their struggle. In 1657, Bradford, who vehemently opposed the Quakers, died and was succeeded by Thomas Prence, who held the same convictions. Prence enforced strict laws to rid the colony of Quakers, making illegal almost any dealing with or entertaining of a Quaker.

Persecution of the Quakers

When Charles II became king in 1660, he ordered the New Englanders to stop persecuting the Quakers. The overt opposition ceased, causing Quaker missionaries to soften the battle for their cause. In response to the order, Prence penned legislation that eventually bound the colony in a legal commitment to the defense of the established religion. This legislation also led to restrictions on voting privileges. In 1658, the General Court had ordered not only that every man who applied for freemanship must wait a year after his application date but also that no Quaker or Quaker sympathizer could become a freeman. After the new order was handed down, the General Court revised the voting restrictions, adding a high minimum property requirement–twenty pounds. This practice disenfranchised almost one-third of freemen, pushing the colony further away from inclusive democracy.

Despite the importance of religion to the Pilgrims, they had come to America in 1620 without a minister. They believed, like most Puritans, that a clergyman must have a university education, severely narrowing their options. This belief, as well as the influence of the Quakers and Plymouth’s attempt to confound sectarianism, made it difficult to find a religious leader. Legislation was passed in 1657 guaranteeing a tax collection be used for clergymen’s salary, but colonists opposed the law and most of the small compensation was voluntary. Often, colonists conducted religious services by themselves.

John Cotton

Finally, in 1667, John Cotton, a Harvard graduate, was ordained minister by the Plymouth Church and remained there for more than thirty years. Following Cotton, a string of Harvard men settled to preach in other towns within Plymouth Colony. The arrival of men who shared a common education and background indicated that church practices within the colony and, to some extent within the Massachusetts Bay Colony, would become institutionalized.

One of the policies Cotton would immediately create for the Plymouth Church was its procedural requirements for admission. After 1667, applicants would have to make a public “conversion,” or statement of their spiritual worthiness, to be later analyzed by the church. (Cotton never refused anyone admission.) Although restrictions appeared to tighten, membership during Cotton’s ministry grew significantly. Different churches within the colony borrowed from one another as they formalized their practices, realizing much more congregational freedom than had the Catholic and Anglican churches, with which the Puritans were most familiar.

Although the colony finally began to achieve success in building its church, it never managed major expansion of its economy. Because Plymouth lacked good port facilities, transatlantic trade was difficult. Shipbuilding and ironworks provided some profit, as did sawmills and flour mills. Some men worked as tanners, weavers, coopers, or blacksmiths. Most colonists depended on agriculture, which usually also included the raising of livestock. The demands of agriculture in the colony, as well as the necessity to protect themselves against Indian attack, caused families to organize themselves into small, communal settlements.

Because the colony could not risk the failure of industries important to societal growth, economic life was regulated stringently, including export laws and quality standards for manufactured goods. Certain monopolies existed from town to town, established and supervised by the colony for the common good. Though the colony’s economic status remained consistently good, it never reached the level of wealth of the neighboring Massachusetts Bay Colony or Boston.

Relations with Native Americans

For the first forty years of its existence, the colony had peaceful relations with the Indians. When the Pilgrims first settled, Governor Carver quickly established a friendship with Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief. Friendly relations remained when Carver was succeeded by Bradford. When Bradford died in 1657 and Massasoit in 1660, their successors severed the ties. Trouble began to brew in the early 1660’s when the Indians began selling portions of land granted to them by the settlers, often accepting only small amounts of manufactured goods as payment.

To protect the Indians from fraud and exploitation, the General Court forbid the independent purchase of Indian land. The Wampanoag did not understand that the measure was taken for their benefit, and anger grew throughout the tribe. As whites pushed closer to Indian homes and fields, the Indians’angry feelings grew deeper. Adding to the bitterness was Cotton’s unending effort to convert them to Christianity. Massasoit’s son and successor, Philip, despite his assurances to the General Court, began to act in ways that made many Puritans suspicious of his intentions.

King Philip’s War

In 1672, Prence died and was succeeded by the more moderate Josias Winslow. Winslow immediately heard whispers that Philip was planning an attack on the colony but dismissed the rumors in the hope that Philip would honor his word not to do so. In January, 1675, Winslow was warned in person by Sassamon, an Indian who acted as adviser to Philip. On his way home, Sassamon was murdered by three members of the Wampanoag tribe. The murderers were captured and executed at Plymouth; shortly after, Winslow heard definitive word that Philip had begun to prepare for war.

The first attack occurred on June 20, in the small village of Swansea. As settlers fled, Indians looted and burned their houses. Other tribes joined the Wampanoag, making it obvious that the colony was facing a very serious war. Massachusetts sent missions to nearby tribes, attempted to mediate between Philip and Plymouth, and provided the colony with extra provisions. Situations improved in some areas but got worse in others as the band of Indians, led by Philip, continued to rage through the colony.

On July 16, Plymouth’s militia, commanded by Captain James Cudworth, began to pursue Philip, narrowly failing to capture him on several occasions. They were forced to give up as men were needed to bring in the harvest. This allowed Philip to strengthen his troops by spreading the word of war to other tribes in central and western Massachusetts, and King Philip’s War soon spread throughout New England. The Indians’ offensive did not last long, though, as they were dealing with an organized society that had greater resources and manpower. During the summer of 1676, Indian attacks slowed almost to a halt. Soon after, Philip was killed by a Christian-convert Indian. Rebuilding began at once, and although no town was economically ruined, the war had cost New England numerous casualties and tremendous property loss.

After the war, Plymouth tried to secure Mount Hope, an area formerly occupied by the Wampanoag. They found this annexation difficult, however; no royal charter outlining certain title to their lands had ever been granted. In 1680, after several negotiations with England, they were granted title to the area, yet still no official charter. Governor Winslow took it upon himself to draw up a proposed charter, granting all persons in the colony the same freedoms and immunities allowed to native-born Englishmen. When England replied, it was with a different proposition: the colony would consolidate with Massachusetts and retain Winslow as governor.

With barely a chance to consider the proposal, Winslow died and was succeeded by Thomas Hinckley, who had served under him as deputy governor. At that time, Plymouth was undergoing its own internal reorganization, and much of Hinckley’s attention was drawn away from the problems of consolidation. In 1685, Plymouth’s first county courts were established, modernizing the colony’s entire judicial system.

Hopes for a Royal Charter

When Charles II died and James II assumed the English throne, Plymouth’s hope for a charter quickly faded. James II appointed former New York governor Sir Edmund Andros as new governor of Massachusetts. Soon after, orders were sent to Plymouth, Rhode Island, and Connecticut to report directly to Andros. Not only did this involve great inconvenience for the colonies (Andros was stationed in Boston, forty miles from Plymouth), it also imposed a heavy tax burden on them and took away most of their opportunity to participate in the legislative process. The colonies were greatly distressed and complained bitterly to the Crown. In 1689, the colonies, including Massachusetts, bound together, overthrew Andros, and returned to their former lifestyles.

In 1688, the English entered into war with France in Maine near the present-day Canadian border. As the war pushed its way toward New England, Plymouth, along with the other colonies, was forced to provide support. The financial strain the war put on Plymouth did nothing to help its confused political state after the successful overthrow of Andros. Holding together a poor, heavily taxed colony in a state of disarray proved too much for Hinckley to handle, especially without the help of a formal charter. By 1690, Plymouth’s government had crumbled; in September, 1691, Plymouth Colony became part of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. The colonists did not seem to mind, however; Massachusetts was a strong and wealthy colony, and its government made few changes in their lifestyle. Most important, their religious beliefs and practices remained untouched. Though they had to give up their independent status, the towns in the colony, especially Plymouth itself, finally reached a permanent state of financial, economic, and religious stability.

Modern Preservation Efforts

Today, museums and landmarks in Plymouth provide many opportunities to trace its history. Plymouth Rock, located on the beach at Water Street, marks the exact spot where the Pilgrims stepped into the New World. Adjacent to the rock sits a full-size replica of the Mayflower. Nearby, Coles Hill and Burial Hill house the graves of many seventeenth century Pilgrims, including William Bradford. The Mayflower Society Museum, Plymouth Wax Museum, and Pilgrim Hall Museum display both real and re-created scenes, dramatizations, and artifacts of early Plymouth. Finally, Plymouth Plantation boasts an authentic re-creation of the 1627 Pilgrim village.

Most of Plymouth’s independent history has been documented, including the 71 years before the colony was annexed by Massachusetts Bay. After 1691, Plymouth’s history blended with the history of Massachusetts, but the story of the Pilgrims and the influence the first settlements had on the shaping of the United States has long been remembered and celebrated.

For Further Information

  • Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952. An official chronicle of the Pilgrim story from 1620 to 1647, told by the second man to govern Plymouth Colony. It is especially helpful as it lends to its historical documentation the perspective of one of Plymouth’s most important historical figures.
  • _______. Pilgrim Courage. Edited by E. Brooks Smith and Robert Meredith. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962. Simplifies selected episodes from Bradford’s accounts, adding accounts from Edward Winslow, father to Bradford’s successor.
  • Langdon, George D., Jr. Pilgrim Colony: A History of New Plymouth. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966. Gives a detailed chronological account of the events that took place at Plymouth Colony from 1620 to 1691.
  • Nickerson, W. Sears. Land Ho!–1620. 1931. Reprint. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Tells a somewhat fabricated tale of the Mayflower’s construction, navigation, and landing in America.