by Gerald Boerner
“…how many families there were, willing all single men that had not wives to join with some family as they thought fit, that so we might build fewer houses; which was done and we reduced them to nineteen families.”
— William Bradford
“Most likely, they [the cottages in the Plymouth Colony] were modeled after the English cottage—a wooden frame with a steeply pitched roof that allowed for a small storage or sleeping area above the main room. They were sided with wide boards or narrow clapboards, not logs. Undoubtedly, they were very small.”
— History of American Women blog
“So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advise of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of the number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family.”
— William Bradford
“A married women in Plymouth Colony had fewer rights and responsibilities than a man. She couldn’t hold positions of authority, and wasn’t allowed to own land, or material possessions. But her rights changed dramatically if her husband preceded her in death. A widow was expected to fulfill the responsibilities of both mother and father, as well as husband and wife—which gave her the right to control money, land, and other resources from her deceased husband’s estate, and to conduct business on her own.”
— History of American Women blog
“The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.”
— William Bradford
[Part 2 of a series on our Thanksgiving Celebration]
Thanksgiving: The Plymouth Colony
Plymouth Colony (sometimes New Plymouth) was an English colonial venture in North America from 1620 to 1691. The first settlement was at New Plymouth, a location previously surveyed and named by Captain John Smith. The settlement, which served as the capital of the colony, is today the modern town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. At its height, Plymouth Colony occupied most of the southeastern portion of the modern state of Massachusetts.
Founded by a group including separatists who later came to be known as the Pilgrim Fathers, Plymouth Colony was, along with Jamestown, Virginia, one of the earliest successful colonies to be founded by the English in North America and the first sizable permanent English settlement in the New England region. Aided by Squanto, a Native American of the Patuxet people, the colony was able to establish a treaty with Chief Massasoit which helped to ensure the colony’s success. The colony played a central role in King Philip’s War, one of the earliest and bloodiest of the Indian Wars. Ultimately, the colony was annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.
Despite the colony’s relatively short history, Plymouth holds a special role in American history. Rather than being entrepreneurs like many of the settlers of Jamestown, the citizens of Plymouth were fleeing religious persecution and searching for a place to worship as they saw fit. The social and legal systems of the colony became closely tied to their religious beliefs, as well as English custom. Many of the people and events surrounding Plymouth Colony have become part of American folklore, including the North American tradition known as Thanksgiving and the monument known as Plymouth Rock.
Plymouth Colony was founded by a group of people who later came to be known as the "Pilgrims". The core group—roughly 40% of the adults and 56% of the family groupings—was part of a congregation of religious separatists led by pastor John Robinson, church elder William Brewster, and William Bradford. While still in the town of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, England, the congregation began to feel the pressures of religious persecution. During the Hampton Court Conference, King James I had declared the Puritans and Protestant Separatists to be undesirable and, in 1607 Tobias Matthew, Archbishop of York raided homes and imprisoned several members of the congregation. The congregation then left England and emigrated to the Netherlands, first to Amsterdam and then to Leiden, in 1609.
In Leiden, the congregation found the freedom to worship as it chose, but Dutch society was unfamiliar to these immigrants. Scrooby had been an agricultural community, whereas Leiden was a thriving industrial center, and the pace of life was hard on the Pilgrims. Furthermore, though the community remained close-knit, their children began adopting Dutch language and customs. The Pilgrims were also still not free from the persecutions of the English Crown; in 1618, after William Brewster published comments highly critical of the King of England and the Anglican Church, English authorities came to Leiden to arrest him. Though Brewster escaped arrest, the events spurred the congregation to move even farther from England.
In June 1619, after declining the opportunity to settle in New Netherland because of their desire to avoid the Dutch influence, the Pilgrims obtained a land patent from the London Virginia Company, allowing them to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River. They then sought financing through the Merchant Adventurers, a group of Puritan businessmen who viewed colonization as a means of both spreading their religion and making a profit. Upon arriving in America, the Pilgrims began working to repay their debts.
Using the financing secured from the Merchant Adventurers, the Pilgrims bought provisions and obtained passage on two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. Though they had intended to leave early in 1620, difficulties in dealing with the Merchant Adventurers, including several changes in plans for the voyage and in financing, resulted in a delay of several months. The Pilgrims finally boarded the Speedwell in July 1620 from the Dutch port of Delfshaven.
Landings at Provincetown and Plymouth
The Mayflower anchored at Provincetown Harbor on November 11, 1620. The Pilgrims did not have a patent to settle this area, thus some passengers began to question their right to land; they complained that there was no legal authority to establish a colony. In response to this, a group of colonists, still aboard the ship as it lay off-shore, drafted and ratified the first governing document of the colony, the Mayflower Compact, the intent of which was to establish a means of governing the colony. Though it did little more than confirm that the colony would be governed like any English town, it did serve the purpose of relieving the concerns of many of the settlers.
The group remained onboard the ship through the next day, a Sunday, for prayer and worship. The immigrants finally set foot on land at what would become Provincetown on November 13. The first task was to rebuild a shallop, a shallow draft boat that had been built in England and disassembled for transport aboard the Mayflower. It would remain with the Pilgrims while the Mayflower returned to England. On November 15, Captain Myles Standish led a party of sixteen men on an exploratory mission, during which they robbed Native American graves and located a buried cache of Indian corn. The following week Susanna White gave birth to a son, Peregrine White, on the Mayflower. He was the first English child born to the Pilgrims in the New World.
The shallop was finished on November 27, and using it, a second expedition was undertaken, under the direction of Mayflower master Christopher Jones. Thirty-four men went, but the expedition was beset by bad weather; the only positive result, from their perspective, was that they found the previously discovered cache of corn and raided it to provide for the colony. A third expedition along Cape Cod left on December 6; it resulted in a skirmish with local Native Americans known as the "First Encounter" near modern-day Eastham, Massachusetts. Having failed to secure a proper site for their settlement, and fearing that they had angered the local Native Americans by robbing their corn stores and firing upon them, the colonists decided to look elsewhere; the Mayflower left Provincetown Harbor and set sail for Plymouth Harbor.
The Mayflower dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor on December 17 and spent three days surveying for a settlement site. They rejected several sites, including one on Clark’s Island and another at the mouth of the Jones River, in favor of the site of a recently abandoned Native American settlement named Patuxet. The location was chosen largely for its defensive position; the settlement would be centered on two hills: Cole’s Hill, where the village would be built, and Fort Hill, where a defensive cannon would be stationed. Also important in choosing the site, the prior Indian villagers had cleared much of the land, making agriculture relatively easy. Although there are no contemporary accounts to verify the legend, Plymouth Rock is often hailed as the point where the colonists first set foot on their new homeland.
The area where the colonists settled had been identified as "New Plymouth" in maps by John Smith published in 1614. The colonists elected to retain the name for their own settlement—after their final point of departure from England: Plymouth, Devon.
On December 21, 1620, the first landing party arrived at the site of what would become the settlement of Plymouth. Plans to immediately begin building houses, however, were delayed by inclement weather until December 23. As the building progressed, twenty men always remained ashore for security purposes, while the rest of the work crews returned each night to the Mayflower. Women, children, and the infirm remained on board the Mayflower; many had not left the ship for six months. The first structure, a "common house" of wattle and daub, took two weeks to complete in the harsh New England winter. In the following weeks, the rest of the settlement slowly took shape. The living and working structures were built on the relatively flat top of Cole’s Hill, and a wooden platform was constructed to support the cannon that would defend the settlement from nearby Fort Hill.
Many of the able-bodied men were too infirm to work, and some died of their illnesses. Thus, only seven residences (of a planned nineteen) and four common houses were constructed during the first winter.
During the first winter in the New World, the Mayflower colonists suffered greatly from diseases like scurvy, lack of shelter and general conditions onboard ship. 45 of the 102 emigrants died the first winter and were buried on Cole’s Hill. Additional deaths during the first year meant that only 53 people were alive in November 1621 to celebrate the first Thanksgiving. Of the 18 adult women, 13 died the first winter while another died in May. Only four adult women were left alive for the Thanksgiving.
By the end of January, enough of the settlement had been built to begin unloading provisions from the Mayflower. In mid-February, after several tense encounters with local Native Americans, the male residents of the settlement organized themselves into military orders; Myles Standish was designated as the commanding officer. By the end of the month, five cannons had been defensively positioned on Fort Hill. John Carver was elected governor to replace Governor Martin.
On March 16, 1621, the first formal contact with the Native Americans occurred. A Native American named Samoset, originally from Pemaquid Point in modern Maine, walked boldly into the midst of the settlement and proclaimed, "Welcome, Englishmen!" He had learned some English from fishermen who worked off the coast of Maine and gave them a brief introduction to the region’s history and geography. It was during this meeting that the Pilgrims found out that the previous residents of the Native American village, Patuxet, had probably died of smallpox. They also discovered that the supreme leader of the region was a Wampanoag Native American sachem (chief) by the name of Massasoit; and they learned of the existence of Squanto—also known by his full Massachusett name of Tisquantum—a Native American originally from Patuxet. Squanto had spent time in Europe, as a slave, and spoke English quite well. Samoset spent the night in Plymouth and agreed to arrange a meeting with some of Massasoit’s men.
The most important religious figure in the colony was John Robinson, the original pastor of the Scrooby congregation and religious leader of the separatists throughout the Leiden years. Though he never actually set foot in New England, many of his theological pronouncements shaped the nature and character of the Plymouth church. For example, Robinson stated that women and men have different social roles according to the law of nature, though neither was lesser in the eyes of God. However, Robinson frequently assigned inferior characteristics to the feminine roles. He referred to them as the "weaker vessel". In matters of religious understanding, he proclaimed that it was the man’s role to educate and "guide and go before" women. He also noted that women should be "subject" to their husbands. Robinson also dictated the proper methods of child rearing—he prescribed a strict upbringing with a strong emphasis on corporal punishment. He believed that a child’s natural inclination towards independence was a manifestation of original sin and should thus be repressed.
The Pilgrims themselves were a subset of an English religious movement known as Puritanism, which sought to "purify" the Anglican Church of its secular trappings. The movement sought to return the church to a more primitive state and to practice Christianity as was done by the earliest Church Fathers. Puritans believed that the Bible was the only true source of religious teaching and that any additions made to Christianity, especially with regard to church traditions, had no place in Christian practice. The Pilgrims distinguished themselves from the Puritans in that they sought to "separate" themselves from the Anglican Church, rather than reform it from within. It was this desire to worship from outside of the Anglican Communion that led them first to the Netherlands and ultimately to New England.
Each town in Plymouth colony was considered a single church congregation; in later years some of the larger towns split into two or three congregations. While church attendance was mandatory for all residents of the colony, church membership was restricted to those who received God’s grace through personal conversion. In Plymouth Colony, it seems that a simple profession of faith was all that was required for acceptance. This was a more liberal doctrine than some other Puritan congregations, such as those of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where it was common to subject those seeking formal membership to strict and detailed cross-examinations. There was no central governing body for the churches. Each individual congregation was left to determine its own standards of membership, hire its own ministers, and conduct its own business.
Marriage and family life
Edward Winslow and Susanna White, each of who lost their spouses during the harsh winter of 1620–1621, became the first couple to be married in Plymouth. Governor Bradford presided over the civil ceremony.
Marriage was considered the normal state for all adult residents of the colony. Most men first married in their mid-twenties and women around age 20. Second marriages were not uncommon, and widows and widowers faced social and economic pressures to remarry. On average, most widows and widowers remarried within six months to a year. As most adults who reached marriageable age often lived into their sixties, two-thirds of a person’s life was spent married.
Within the confines of marriage, women and men were not considered equal from either a legal or social standpoint. However, it should be noted that, compared to 17th century European norms, women in Plymouth Colony had more extensive legal and social rights. From the perspective of the Church, women were considered equal to men before God. The entire family worshiped together and God’s grace was available equally to all professed Christians. Women were, however, expected to take traditionally feminine roles, such as child-rearing and maintaining the household, in Puritan families.
This concludes the third part of this exploration leading up to the celebration of the first Thanksgiving and how our current celebrations relate to these antecedents. Join us again tomorrow and onward through the Thanksgiving holidays.
It is our hope that these postings will heighten not only your enjoyment of Thanksgiving, but that you may also gain an enhanced understanding of how it came about… [GLB]
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
The Plymouth Colony which can be found at… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plymouth_Colony