In September 1620, during the reign of King James I, a group of around 100 English men and women—many of them members of the English Separatist Church later known to history as the Pilgrims—set sail for the New World aboard the Mayflower. Two months later, the three-masted merchant ship landed on the shores of Cape Cod, in present-day Massachusetts

In late December, the Mayflower anchored at Plymouth Rock, where the pilgrims formed the first permanent settlement of Europeans in New England. Though more than half of the original settlers died during that grueling first winter, the survivors were able to secure peace treaties with neighboring Native American tribes and build a largely self-sufficient economy within five years. Plymouth was the first colonial settlement in New England.

Journey to the 'New World'

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The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor.

Among the group traveling on the Mayflower in 1620 were close to 40 members of a radical Puritan faction known as the English Separatist Church. Feeling that the Church of England had not sufficiently completed the necessary work of the Protestant Reformation, the group had chosen to break with the church altogether. 

The Separatists had sought religious freedom before, fleeing England in 1607 and 1608 to settle in the Netherlands, first in Amsterdam and later in the town of Leiden, where they remained for the next decade. Wanting to secure their English language and heritage, and seeking more economic opportunity, the group–later known as the Pilgrims–laid plans for a voyage to the New World aboard the Mayflower.

Did you know? Three more ships traveled to Plymouth soon after the Mayflower, including the Fortune (1621), the Anne and the Little James (both 1623). Passengers on these first four ships were called the "Old Comers" of Plymouth Colony, and were given special treatment in later colonial affairs.

The Pilgrims had originally signed a contract with the Virginia Company to settle near the Hudson River, but rough seas and storms prevented the ship from reaching its initial destination. After 66 days, it reached the shores of Cape Cod, anchoring at the site of Provincetown on November 21. The Pilgrims sent an exploratory party ashore, and on December 18 docked at Plymouth Rock, on the western side of Cape Cod Bay. The explorer John Smith had named the area Plymouth after leaving Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World. The settlers decided the name was appropriate, as the Mayflower had set sail from the port of Plymouth in England.

Surviving the First Year in Plymouth Colony

For the next few months, many of the settlers stayed on the Mayflower while ferrying back and forth to shore to build their new settlement. In March, they began moving ashore permanently. More than half the settlers fell ill and died that first winter, victims of an epidemic of disease that swept the new colony. 

Soon after they moved ashore, the Pilgrims were introduced to a Native American man named Tisquantum, or Squanto, who would become a member of the colony. A member of the Pawtuxet tribe (from present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island) who had been kidnapped by the explorer John Smith and taken to England, only to escape back to his native land, Squanto acted as an interpreter and mediator between Plymouth’s leaders and local Native Americans, including Chief Massasoit of the Pokanoket tribe. 

The First Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving
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The first Thanksgiving.

In the Fall of 1621, the Pilgrims famously shared a harvest feast with the Pokanokets; the meal is now considered the basis for the Thanksgiving holiday. It took place over three days between late September and mid-November and included feasting as well as games and military exercises.

Most of the attendees at the first Thanksgiving were men; 78 percent of the women who traveled on the Mayflower perished over the preceding winter. Of the 50 colonists who celebrated the harvest (and their survival), 22 were men, four were married women and 25 were children and teenagers.

The Pilgrims were outnumbered more than two to one by Native Americans, according to Edward Winslow, a participant who attended with his wife and recorded what he saw in a letter, writing: “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men.” 

Winslow records eating venison from five deer killed by the Native Americans along with chestnuts, cranberries, garlic and artichokes—all native wild plants the English were learning to use. Turkey was potentially served as well. By the late 1600s, Thanksgiving had become an annual fall tradition. It wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln named the last Thursday in November a national holiday.

The Mayflower Compact

Signing of the Mayflower Compact
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The signing of the Mayflower Compact.

All the adult males aboard the Mayflower had signed the so-called Mayflower Compact, a document that would become the foundation of Plymouth’s government. It was written after a near mutiny on board the Mayflower.

Forty-one of the Mayflower’s 102 passengers were Pilgrims, separatists seeking religious freedom who referred to the rest of the travelers as “strangers.” The strangers argued that since the Mayflower did not land in Virginia, as originally planned, the contract with the Virginia Company was void.

The Mayflower Compact set down laws for all Mayflower passengers to follow. It included a provision that colonists would create and enact “laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices…” for the good of the colony. Signees include John Carver, Plymouth Colony’s first governor; Myles Standish, an English military officer and military leader of the colony; and preacher William Brewster. Though the Separatists were a minority in the group, they formed its powerful center, and would entirely control the colony’s government during its first 40 years.

Governor William 

William Bradford (1590-1657) was a leader of the Separatist congregation, a key framer of the Mayflower Compact, and Plymouth’s governor for 30 years after its founding. He is credited with drafting major parts of Plymouth’s legal code and creating a community focused on religious tolerance and an economy centered on private agriculture.

Born in England, he escaped with the Separatists to the Netherlands in 1609 when he was still a teenager to avoid persecution. Bradford kept a voluminous journal chronicling the Mayflower’s voyage and the founding of Plymouth Colony that was published under the title Of Plymouth Plantation. It is considered one of the most important firsthand accounts of early New England.

Did you know? William Bradford’s descendants include chef Julia Child, Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist and Noah Webster, creator of Webster’s Dictionary.

Growth and Decline of the Plymouth Colony

With peace secured thanks to Squanto, the colonists in Plymouth were able to concentrate on building a viable settlement for themselves rather than spend their time and resources guarding themselves against attack. Squanto taught them how to plant corn, which became an important crop, as well as where to fish and hunt beaver. 

Though Plymouth would never develop as robust an economy as later settlements—such as Massachusetts Bay Colony—agriculture, fishing and trading made the colony self-sufficient within five years after it was founded.

Many other European settlers followed in the Pilgrims’ footsteps to New England. As the settlers sought to occupy more and more land in the region, relations with Native Americans deteriorated, and sporadic violence broke out that would culminate decades later in the bloody King Philip’s War of 1675. 

By that time, the ideal of Plymouth Colony—conceived in the Mayflower Compact as a self-contained community governed by a common religious affiliation—had given way to the far less lofty influences of trade and commerce. The devout Pilgrims, meanwhile, had fragmented into smaller, more self-serving groups. Still, the original concept served as the foundation for many later settlements. These included John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded in 1630, which became the most populous and prosperous colony in the region. Plymouth’s influence in New England declined accordingly, until it was absorbed by Massachusetts in 1691.

Plymouth Plantation

Today, the original colony of Plymouth is a living museum, a recreation of the original seventeenth-century village. Visitors can taste colonial food, see a restored Mayflower II and attend reenactments of the first Thanksgiving, when the Wampanaogs joined the settlers to celebrate the autumn harvest.

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