Some 100 people, many of them seeking religious freedom in the New World, set sail from England on the Mayflower in September 1620. That November, the ship landed on the shores of Cape Cod, in present-day Massachusetts. A scouting party was sent out, and in late December the group landed at Plymouth Harbor, where they would form the first permanent settlement of Europeans in New England. These original settlers of Plymouth Colony are known as the Pilgrim Fathers, or simply as the Pilgrims.
The Mayflower Voyage
The group that set out from Plymouth, in southwestern England, in September 1620 included 35 members of a radical Puritan faction known as the English Separatist Church. In 1607, after illegally breaking from the Church of England, the Separatists settled in the Netherlands, first in Amsterdam and later in the town of Leiden, where they remained for the next decade under the relatively lenient Dutch laws.
Due to economic difficulties, as well as fears that they would lose their English language and heritage, they began to make plans to settle in the New World. Their intended destination was a region near the Hudson River, which at the time was thought to be part of the already established colony of Virginia. In 1620, the would-be settlers joined a London stock company that would finance their trip aboard the Mayflower, a three-masted merchant ship, in 1620. A smaller vessel, the Speedwell, had initially accompanied the Mayflower and carried some of the travelers, but it proved unseaworthy and was forced to return to port by September.
Some of the most notable passengers on the Mayflower included Myles Standish, a professional soldier who would become the military leader of the new colony; and William Bradford, a leader of the Separatist congregation and author of “Of Plymouth Plantation,” his account of the Mayflower voyage and the founding of Plymouth Colony.
The Mayflower Compact
Rough seas and storms prevented the Mayflower from reaching their initial destination in Virginia, and after a voyage of 65 days the ship reached the shores of Cape Cod, anchoring on the site of Provincetown Harbor in mid-November. Discord ensued before the would-be colonists even left the ship. The passengers who were not separatists—referred to as “strangers” by their more doctrinaire peers—argued the Virginia Company contract was void since the Mayflower had landed outside of Virginia Company territory. William Bradford later wrote, “several strangers made discontented and mutinous speeches.”
The Pilgrims knew if something wasn’t done quickly it could be every man, woman and family for themselves. While still on board the ship, a group of 41 men signed the so-called Mayflower Compact, in which they agreed to join together in a “civil body politic.” This document would become the foundation of the new colony’s government. Signed on November 11, 1620, the Mayflower Compact was the first document to establish self-government in the New World.
Settling at Plymouth
After sending an exploring party ashore, the Mayflower landed at what they would call Plymouth Harbor, on the western side of Cape Cod Bay, in mid-December. During the next several months, the settlers lived mostly on the Mayflower and ferried back and forth from shore to build their new storage and living quarters. The settlement’s first fort and watchtower was built on what is now known as Burial Hill (the area contains the graves of Bradford and other original settlers).
More than half of the English settlers died during that first winter, as a result of poor nutrition and housing that proved inadequate in the harsh weather. Leaders such as Bradford, Standish, John Carver, William Brewster and Edward Winslow played important roles in keeping the remaining settlers together. In April 1621, after the death of the settlement’s first governor, John Carver, Bradford was unanimously chosen to hold that position; he would be reelected 30 times and served as governor of Plymouth for all but five years until 1656.
The First Thanksgiving
The native inhabitants of the region around Plymouth Colony were the various tribes of the Wampanoag people, who had lived there for some 10,000 years before the Europeans arrived. Soon after the Pilgrims built their settlement, they came into contact with Tisquantum, or Squanto, an English-speaking Native American. Squanto was a member of the Pawtuxet tribe (from present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island) who had been seized by the explorer John Smith’s men in 1614-15. Meant for slavery, he somehow managed to escape to England, and returned to his native land to find most of his tribe had died of plague.
In addition to interpreting and mediating between the colonial leaders and Native American chiefs (including Massasoit, chief of the Pokanoket), Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, which became an important crop, as well as where to fish and hunt beaver. In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims famously shared a harvest feast with the Pokanokets; the meal is now considered the basis for the first Thanksgiving holiday.
The first Thanksgiving likely did not include turkey or mashed potatoes (potatoes were just making their way from South America to Europe), but the Wampanoag brought deer and there would have been lots of local seafood plus the fruits of the first pilgrim harvest, including pumpkin.
Relations with Native Americans
After attempts to increase his own power by turning the Pilgrims against Massasoit, Squanto died in 1622, while serving as Bradford’s guide on an expedition around Cape Cod.
Other tribes, such as the Massachusetts and Narragansetts, were not so well disposed towards European settlers, and Massasoit’s alliance with the Pilgrims disrupted relations among Native American peoples in the region. Over the next decades, relations between settlers and Native Americans deteriorated as the former group occupied more and more land.
By the time William Bradford died in 1657, he had already expressed anxiety that New England would soon be torn apart by violence. In 1675, Bradford’s predictions came true, in the form of King Philip’s War. (Philip was the English name of Metacomet, the son of Massasoit and leader of the Pokanokets since the early 1660s.) That conflict left some 5,000 inhabitants of New England dead, three quarters of those Native Americans. In terms of percentage of population killed, King Philip’s War was more than twice as costly as the American Civil War and seven times more so than the American Revolution.
The Pilgrim Legacy in New England
Repressive policies toward religious nonconformists in England under King James I and his successor, Charles I, had driven many men and women to follow the Pilgrims’ path to the New World. Three more ships traveled to Plymouth after the Mayflower, including the Fortune (1621), the Anne and the Little James (both 1623). In 1630, a group of some 1,000 Puritan refugees under Governor John Winthrop settled in Massachusetts according to a charter obtained from King Charles I by the Massachusetts Bay Company. Winthrop soon established Boston as the capital of Massachusetts Bay Colony, which would become the most populous and prosperous colony in the region.
Compared with later groups who founded colonies in New England, such as the Puritans, the Pilgrims of Plymouth failed to achieve lasting economic success. After the early 1630s, some prominent members of the original group, including Brewster, Winslow and Standish, left the colony to found their own communities. The cost of fighting King Philip’s War further damaged the colony’s struggling economy. Less than a decade after the war King James II appointed a colonial governor to rule over New England, and in 1692, Plymouth was absorbed into the larger entity of Massachusetts.
Bradford and the other Plymouth settlers were not originally known as Pilgrims, but as “Old Comers.” This changed after the discovery of a manuscript by Bradford in which he called the settlers who left Holland “saints” and “pilgrimes.” In 1820, at a bicentennial celebration of the colony’s founding, the orator Daniel Webster referred to “Pilgrim Fathers,” and the term stuck.