Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“[U]pon the 11th of November we came to an anchor in the bay, which is a good harbor and pleasant bay, circled round . . . [T]here we relieved ourselves with wood and water, and refreshed our people . . . to search for a habitation.”

Summary Overview

First published in London in 1622, Mourt’s Relation—a greatly shortened common title that most likely references the volume’s editor George Morton—recounts the Pilgrims’ landing and first year of life at Plymouth Colony in what is present-day Massachusetts. The excerpts reproduced here relate the travelers’ arrival and landing, including their creation of the Mayflower Compact, and some of the settlers’ early interactions and impressions of the American Indians living in the region. Later portions discuss the Pilgrims’ efforts to create a successful agricultural community, and the journal ends with a description of what has become known as “the first Thanksgiving.”

Most likely written by Pilgrim leaders Edward Winslow and William Bradford, Mourt’s Relation provides the earliest published account of Pilgrim life in colonial New England and is certainly one of the most optimistic, for the account glosses over the extreme difficulties that the settlers faced during their first winter. This positive portrayal reflects Morton’s stated goal of encouraging the expansion of English lands and investment in the New World colonies.

Defining Moment

The Pilgrims are usually thought of today as stern religious figures who celebrated the first Thanksgiving alongside friendly local American Indians. Although historians roundly dismiss this oversimplified vision of early European settlers, the basic facts of this statement are essentially correct. Those who became the New England Pilgrims settled at Plymouth and were members of a radical Separatist faction of the broader reformist Puritan movement that sought to “purify” the Church of England of remaining Roman Catholic influences. From the early seventeenth century, however, King James I began persecuting Puritans for their opposition to the status quo.

The Separatists first began leaving England for the more accepting religious climate of the Netherlands. Bradford relocated along with several other members of the influential Separatist congregation based at Scrooby, England, in 1609; Winslow followed several years later after working as a printer’s apprentice in London. The Separatists coalesced as a congregation in the town of Leiden, Holland, but the overall Dutch experiment was eventually deemed a failure. Financial problems plagued the group’s members, and they feared that the new generation of Separatists were more Dutch than English. The hand of the English king could also be felt even in this distant land. Hoping to create a settlement in which they could both retain their Englishness and practice their religious beliefs freely, the Separatists began planning a voyage to the New World where they would remain loyal subjects of the English king without risking direct intervention by the crown in their daily lives.

Yet the group lacked the financial resources needed to undertake such an expedition, let alone sufficiently fund the construction and maintenance of a colony large enough to house several dozen settlers. Thus, the Separatists developed an economic relationship with a group of financial backers in England who added a large number of non-Separatists to their ranks. The preparations were fraught with difficulties as the Separatist “Saints” and secular “Strangers” clashed and one of the planned vessels proved unseaworthy. In September of 1620, however, just over one hundred travelers crammed onto the Mayflower to set off for northern Virginia. The ship strayed even further north, however, landing in Cape Cod in early November. Uneasily united in the common cause of survival, the Saints and Strangers soon set about growing an economically viable colony amidst the harsh winter and surrounded by unknown native peoples.

Author Biography

Although no author credits are directly stated in the text of Mourt’s Relation, historians have determined that the primary authors of the narrative were Edward Winslow and William Bradford based on internal evidence and comparisons between other, attributed literary works. Bradford is generally considered to have been the main author of the first section, which covers the Mayflower’s arrival in New England and offers a day-by-day account of their activities there through early spring, constituting roughly one-half of the overall text. The bulk of the remainder is attributed to Winslow. The original introduction was penned by one “G. Mourt,” widely assumed to be George Morton, a member of the Pilgrim congregation who stayed behind in London when the first settlers left for the New World. Another likely contributor to the first published edition was Robert Cushman, an English Separatist leader who had helped organize the expedition to the New World.

Bradford was born into a farming family in late March 1590 in the village of Austerfield, Yorkshire, England. As a teenager, he became involved in the proto-Separatist religious movement based at Scrooby, and with other members of this group left England for the Netherlands in 1609. He spent the next several years at Leiden, Holland, before joining a congregation bound for America. These Separatist Pilgrims hoped to found a settlement away from the religious persecution of King James’s England but isolated from the Dutch influences that were eroding their English cultural heritage. A few months after arriving in New England, Bradford was elected as Plymouth’s second governor, a post he held for the better part of the next three decades. Bradford was also a historian and author known today for his history Of Plymouth Plantation.

Like Bradford, Winslow was a native Englishman who became part of the Separatist congregation at Leiden. There, he operated a printing press with elder Separatist William Brewster, once helping publish a document that criticized the English king and Church of England leadership. Although Winslow escaped scrutiny over the tract, King James ordered Brewster’s arrest, increasing pressure on the Pilgrims even in their self-imposed Dutch exile. Two years later, Winslow and his wife Elizabeth Barker Winslow joined the party aboard the Mayflower. Elizabeth died during the first winter in Plymouth, and Winslow married the widowed Susanna White the following spring, which was also the first wedding in the new colony. He took part in efforts to build relations with the local American Indians and served three times as governor of the colony. Along with his contributions to Mourt’s Relation, Winslow wrote several books and pamphlets, including Goods Newes from New England and Glorious Progress of the Gospel Amongst the Indians in New England.

Document Analysis

In many ways, Mourt’s Relation was a promotional tract meant to appeal to potential English settlers of the new Plymouth Colony. In his book Saints and Strangers, historian George F. Willison argued that the Pilgrims saw the book as a way to build up their own numbers and so help them solve some of the problems caused by underpopulation. Throughout the work, the authors strive to point out their colony’s perceived as well as real virtues in the most glowing possible terms and to downplay its challenges. Throughout the work, Bradford and Winslow particularly emphasize the economic opportunities possible in the New World, which was largely colonized as a profit-seeking enterprise during this early colonial era. The authors dwell on the abundant raw materials, ample fish, and unusual but plentiful crops available in the region surrounding Plymouth Colony. Bradford notes the group’s efforts to create an independent self-government to fairly oversee the colony’s affairs through the signing of the Mayflower Compact, and Winslow also discusses the positive relations that the English colonists developed with the native Wampanoag people. In a hallmark of centuries to come, later portions of the work also describe a successful effort against another local tribe. The complete work concludes its rosy picture of life in colonial Plymouth with a spirited retelling of the first Thanksgiving and a none-too-subtle call for new settlers.

From the beginning, the author—most likely Bradford at this point in the journal—sings the praises of the beauty and bounty of the New World. The Mayflower travelers were “much comforted” to come upon “so goodly a land” after their long voyage. Bradford details some of the plentiful resources easily seen in this territory: various types of wood, wild birds, whales—the source of the heavily used whale oil used to fuel colonial-era lamps—and ready access to water. The author bemoans the group’s lack of whaling equipment, noting that the ship’s experts believed that the whales they noticed within the first few days of their arrival could have yielded thousands of pounds of the valuable oil. Even the lack of some resources is phrased in such as a way as to imply that their absence was surely an anomaly. The Pilgrims found no cod and in fact failed to catch any fish at all, but Bradford had “no doubt” that cod were readily available at other times of the year. The plentiful mussels gave the travelers food poisoning, but the illness was short-lived and, the author suggests, the incident was not a real problem; after all, the mussels were “very fat and full of sea-pearl,” so they offered another possible rich source. Equally, the sickness that befell the passengers upon arrival from the chill weather was dismissed as simple “colds and coughs,” although disease went on to kill just over half of the total traveling party over the hard winter months. Positive details and implications, however, assured possible settlers that the land was filled with the necessities of survival and even offered the possibility for economic gain through the exploitation of raw materials, an aim vital to colonists who, like the Pilgrims, settled land with the financial support of a group of investors who expected their colonists to generate revenue in return.

Unsurprisingly for a dedicated religious adherent, Bradford attributes much of the group’s success to the blessing of God. The simple fact that the group reached the New World was thanks to “God’s providence,” or action, not to the skills of the sailing crew. The travelers’ arrival at Cape Cod caused them to “rejoice” and to “praise God” for allowing them to reach land and, presumably, for the apparent richness of that land. This vein of religious terminology and support for divine providence also heavily informs Bradford’s accounts of the Pilgrims’ arrival and early days found in his well-known work, Of Plymouth Plantation.

The information excluded from Bradford’s description is nearly as telling as the details he provides. The Mayflower’s two-month trip across the Atlantic placed more than one hundred men, women, and children in close quarters, both physically and psychologically. Illness weakened the ships’ passengers, and at least two travelers died while still at sea. Further, the group’s initial traveling plan had divided the Saints and Strangers onto two separate ships, the Speedwell and the Mayflower. But structural problems forced the Speedwell to abandon the trip, putting into dock in western England and further delaying the planned crossing. The Saints, who had intended to travel on the Speedwell, thus boarded the Strangers’ Mayflower, where the Pilgrims just barely represented the majority of total passengers. They also fell under the jurisdiction of the antagonistic Stranger governor Christopher Martin. Yet Bradford skirts these issues by beginning his narrative after the failure of the Speedwell near Plymouth, England, and praising the way in which the group was “kindly entertained . . . by divers friends there dwelling” and then by rushing by the transatlantic crossing with only a brief mention of “many difficulties in boisterous storms.”

The difficulties between the Saints and Strangers receive another mild reference in Bradford’s prelude to the signing of the Mayflower Compact. Strained relations between the Separatists and their secular fellows—and particularly between Pilgrim leaders and Mayflower governor Martin—dated from well before the ship had sailed from England. Spending several weeks in close confines certainly did nothing to improve tensions between the groups. By the time the Mayflower arrived in New England, grumblings among a faction of the Strangers had emerged. When the passengers realized that they had landed far north of their intended and legally approved destination, some of the Strangers who were “not well affected to unity and concord” began to threaten to leave the group after disembarking. Realizing that splintering the small group would endanger the survival of all and threaten the economic success of the colony, Saint and Stranger leaders alike decided to join forces as a cohesive unit under a government of their own choosing.

The Mayflower Compact established such a unified colonial government. Signed by only the adult male passengers on the Mayflower, the covenant began by declaring the travelers’ religious and colonial purpose and by restating their intended if not executed goal of settling in northern Virginia. It then organized the travelers into a “civil body politic,” or self-governed society. The Mayflower Compact identified the new government’s aims as, essentially, the success of the colony they planned to begin and granted it the power to pass and enforce such laws as were necessary to meet those aims. The signatories also agreed to abide by the decisions of the government.

Perhaps surprisingly, even under a slight majority of the Saints, the colonists determined to form a secular government rather than the theocratic body that might have been expected from a group setting out to create a colony for religious motives. Historians have attributed this decision to two purposes. First, King James had used church courts to promote his religious tenets in England, a move that had threatened the Puritans’ Separatist doctrine. Second, the Saints had lived for several years in the Netherlands, where the functions of church and state were divided. This experience encouraged them to adopt separate functions for religion and government, such as marriage being a civil rather than a religious ceremony in Plymouth.

Mourt’s Relation also describes the now-unified Pilgrims’ decided efforts to coexist peacefully with the nearby Pokanoket Indians, the leading tribe of the Wampanoag Nation. Initially, the Pilgrims had a brief but violent meeting with Indians even before locating a suitable site for their settlement. The Pilgrims also stole seeds and looted graves and abandoned homes during their early explorations. But not every encounter was so negative. Some of the Pokanoket had learned English, and one of these men, Squanto, became vital to the settlers’ survival. By late spring of 1621, Squanto helped the Pilgrims attain a peace treaty with Massasoit, the leader of the Pokanoket, which was a clear success after a harsh, difficult winter that claimed the lives of much of the original traveling party through starvation and disease. In an excerpt that is commonly attributed to Winslow, the Pilgrims’ first visit to Massasoit is discussed. It was the summer of 1621, and the meeting was at the behest of Bradford, who had become the colony’s second governor. Although Winslow asserted that Massasoit was the “Great King” of New England’s native peoples, Massasoit and his tribe had in fact lost power and influence in recent years due to the devastation wrought by disease. English exploration parties as well as trappers and fishermen who had arrived in America before the Pilgrims had also killed many of Massasoit’s people. Neighboring tribes were working to gain power over the weakened Pokanoket, and an alliance between the Pilgrims and the Pokanoket could serve valuable purposes for both.

Winslow details multiple purposes for the journey, among them the exploration of the region’s interior, furthering the amity between the Pilgrims and the Indians, and the “[making of] satisfaction for some conceived injuries to be done on our parts,” a reference to the theft of goods and seeds from native stores during Plymouth’s early days. Guided by Squanto, Winslow and fellow colonist Stephen Hopkins made the long walk to the Pokanoket village bearing gifts of a horseman’s coat and a copper chain. Both of these gifts were closely linked to the message that the English travelers also carried. Although the Indians had actively avoided the new arrivals during the first several weeks they had lived in New England, after friendly contact had been established an apparent stream of curious visitors flooded into Plymouth. Concerned that a continued flow of unexpected guests could endanger their food supplies, the Pilgrims settled on a proposal intended to both prevent offending their “nearest neighbors” while also halting this drain on their possibly limited corn supplies. The Pilgrims thus intended that the copper chain presented to Massasoit would serve as his token to indicate which visitors to the English colony came directly from him; these people would then be accepted and entertained as guests, while any without the token could be politely refused. The red cotton coat was clearly intended as a way to soften the potential diplomatic blow. Indeed, Winslow strove to assure his audience of potential settlers that relations were extremely amicable between the colonists and their Pokanoket neighbors. He emphasized the absence of fear with which the natives viewed the Pilgrims, and the “love and good-will” that the Pilgrims held for them in turn. He repeatedly asserts the Pilgrims’ peaceable aims and argues that despite this apparently inhospitable request that the Indians stop visiting the colony, it was a decision driven by “not knowing how our corn might prosper.” He implies that if not for this concern, the Pilgrims would be pleased to continue to welcome their uninvited guests. The English settlers also sought to compensate Massasoit for the goods they had stolen upon their arrival and wished to exchange seeds, among other more minor matters, although Winslow’s characterization of Bradford’s request for native corn as “one favor” seems an underestimation of the many requests made of the Pokanoket leader.

The description of the journey from Plymouth to the Pokanoket village provides useful information on the Pilgrims’ interactions with nearby Indians and their social and cultural practices. On the first day of their trip, the traveling party encountered a group of Indians returning to the village of Nemasket after collecting lobsters from the nearby bay, a common activity during the summer; this group, Winslow explains with an obvious note of irritation, “pestered us till we were weary of them.” Nevertheless, the party accompanied them to Nemasket, some eight miles by foot from Plymouth, and were provided with a hearty meal of local fish, bread, and, although the Pilgrims found them not to their liking, acorns. In return, the Pilgrims used their firearms to shoot crows that were damaging Indian crops. Buried beneath this simple description of events, however, are indications of the Pokanoket way of life. Winslow notes that they move from place to place to be “where victual is easiest to be got,” yet also grow crops, indicating a hybrid agricultural, and hunter-gatherer lifestyle. He names several of the foods commonly consumed by the Pokanoket, including shad, acorns, and corn bread. He also comments that Nemasket was under the control of Massasoit, showing that the tribe’s leader had a fairly large geographic reach even in the group’s weakened state.

Squanto stayed at Nemasket but encouraged the group to continue to try to reach Pokanoket in one more day’s travel. The party covered another several miles by the end of the day, encountering another group of Indians, this time fishermen. The migratory lifestyle of early American Indians is again on display, as Winslow notes that the fishermen had no houses despite spending several weeks there annually. The “open fields” that Winslow saw caused him to realize the extent of earlier native settlements and how many had suffered from disease. Most of the land was cleared but abandoned, causing Winslow to marvel that “thousands of men have lived there” before disease decimated the local population. Yet he uses even this tragedy as a subtle incentive to attract new colonists, pointing out the easy navigability of the river and the quality of the land. His invitation to fellow Englishmen cries out that it is a “pity . . . to see so many goodly fields . . . without men to dress and manure the same.” The implication is clear: high-quality agricultural land ripe for the plucking awaits new settlers willing to undertake cultivation amid a region filled with pleasant native allies.

The journey to Massasoit was not without incident, which seems to also be retold in a positive light. For example, when joined by an additional group of Indians, the travelers continued along the riverbank for several more miles before reaching a point at which they needed to wade through the shallow water. Here, they saw two elderly men—the lone survivors of a much larger group of Indians felled by disease—who rushed out with their bows drawn against what they feared was an enemy party. Winslow applauded their “great courage” in seeking to defend themselves, and the situation was quickly resolved. The men probably recognized the Englishmen’s escorts and then greeted them warmly, exchanging food for a beaded trinket.

With the group traveling in high summer, the climate also posed its own challenges. Yet this pitfall was mitigated by the abundance of fresh water, such that “a man could scarce be dry.” Winslow emphasized the availability of springs, streams, and small rivers, implying that fresh water was so plentiful that Indians were able to be quite selective about where they chose to drink, restricting their sources to the freshest springhead waters. Furthermore, despite any hardships, the group of Indians they travelled with was so friendly, they offered to carry the Englishmen’s goods for them out of concern that they were tiring. Thus, two potential concerns about the new territory—the threat of native attack and the absence of potable water—were easily dismissed. Like most of the challenges presented in Mourt’s Relation, the difficulties of the journey were easily managed and far outweighed by the multitude of benefits offered by New England. Unfortunately, the Pilgrims’ actual experiences were markedly more tumultuous, buffeted by problems such as disease and low food supplies that are only hinted at in this account.

Essential Themes

Certainly the primary goal of the publication of Mourt’s Relation was not to provide historical background for scholarly study, but to attract much-needed English settlers to a colony struggling to survive and to meet its economic obligations. The dominant theme of the work, often unstated but strongly implied, is the abundance and great appeal of Plymouth Colony to the adventurous English settler. Both Bradford and Winslow repeatedly emphasize the relative qualities of their new region, freely comparing them at times to the perceived downfalls of the Old World. In the short term, the arguments set forth in Mourt’s Relation may have had the desired effect. Several months after the publication of the book in London, two ships arrived in Massachusetts with approximately sixty passengers. Despite this population boom, the colony continued to struggle for some time as food and financial security remained out of reach and relations with the Narragansett Indians became problematic.

Modern scholars consider Mourt’s Relation a useful primary source on the Pilgrims’ earliest months of settlement. Although Bradford and Winslow painted the events in the rosiest possible light, glossing over fears of starvation, Indian attack, and further death from disease, the writers do not seem to have presented intentional factual errors. Much of the content, particularly from Bradford’s first section, is retreated in his later, much longer work, Of Plymouth Plantation. Before its publication and widespread availability in the mid-nineteenth century, Mourt’s Relation offered historians their only firsthand account of this period. The piece still provides much greater illuminating detail about some of these early events such as the Pilgrims’ search for a suitable settlement site and their dealings with American Indians. Coupled with Of Plymouth Plantation, Mourt’s Relation greatly informs modern scholars’ understanding of the Pilgrims’ first American settlement. The works also provide the standard text for the now-lost original Mayflower Compact, a document that, regardless of its actual direct influence on the formation of the US government, stands as a testament to the ideals of civil self-government imported from Europe to New England with its earliest transatlantic settlers.

Historians have also long realized the ethnographic value of the account in capturing the waning days of American Indian civilization in New England. In their drive to describe the attractions of the region to potential colonists, the writers of Mourt’s Relation included numerous details about the “savage” people they encountered there. Thus the complete account discusses American Indian foodways, housing, political structures, recent history, and numerous other social and cultural patterns.

Bibliography
  • Anderson, Robert Charles. “Pilgrim Village Families Sketch: Edward Winslow.” American Ancestors: New England Historic Genealogical Society. n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2012.
  • Bremer, Francis J. The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995. Print.
  • Kelso, Dorothy Honiss. “William Bradford.” Pilgrim Hall Museum. n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2012.
  • Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Viking, 2006. Print.
  • Smith, Bradford. Bradford of Plymouth. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1951. Print.
  • Willison, George F. Saints and Strangers. New York: Reynal, 1983. Print.
  • Winslow, William Copley. Governor Edward Winslow: His Part and Place in Plymouth Colony. New York, 1896. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647. New York: Random, 1981. Print.
  • Heath, Dwight, ed. Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Bedford, MA: Applewood, 1986. Print.
  • Hodgson, Godfrey. A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving. New York: Public Affairs, 2006. Print.
  • Karr, Ronald Dale, ed. Indian New England 1524–1674: A Compendium of Eyewitness Accounts of Native American Life. Pepperell, MA: Branch Line, 1999. Print.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea. New York: New York UP, 1963.

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