Colonial Period: Plymouth Colony
The Plymouth Colony is the first lesson in the Colonial Period unit with Massachusetts Bay Colony, Marquette and Joliet, Bacon’s Rebellion, and the French and Indian War to follow. The pre-Colonial Period saw European explorers, through the use of triangular trade and particularly the Atlantic Slave trade, colonize indigenous people while establishing indentured servitude and slavery as sources of labor. In mainland North America, settlers would establish thirteen colonies, areas that are now the states known as:
- New York
- New Jersey
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- New Hampshire
- Rhode Island
There were other scattered colonies like St. Augustine in what is now known as Florida. In the early days of the colonial period, the settlers did not know how to live in the wilderness, and they faced many hardships.
In Massachusetts, for example, the Plymouth settlers, spent most of their first winter (1620–21) on board the Mayflower. The following winter, the Pilgrims lived on land but in wigwams and sailcloth tents. Many were sick and all were hungry, with nearly one-quarter of them dying, before a ship from England brought fresh supplies.
In time, the colonists learned how to live in the wilderness — through trial and error and the help of some of the more friendly Native American tribes. By the 1700s, small cities and towns were well established. The colonists slowly developed their own customs and lifestyles. Eventually they began to feel that this new land was now their true home.
Life In Colonial America
Life in colonial America centered around the family. Most people worked, played, learned, and worshiped at home. A large family was necessary in colonial days to get all the work done.
The father was considered the head of the household. He made all of the decisions concerning their families and earned money through farming and jobs outside the home. Women worked in the home, raising the children, preparing the meals, sewing clothes, preserving food for the winter, scrubbing laundry, fetching water, and stoking fires.
Most children in early colonial times never saw the inside of a schoolhouse. Instead, colonial children usually learned about the adult world by doing things the way their parents did. But, just because they didn’t go to school, their lives were not easy.
Children were expected to help with a share of the family’s work. Boys helped their fathers and girls did chores at home. By a time a girl was four she could knit stockings!
By the time they had reached age 14, most children were already considered adults. Boys would soon take up their father’s trade or leave home to become an apprentice. Girls learned to manage a house and were expected to marry young, probably by the time they were 16 and surely before they were 20.
The Plymouth Colony was an English colonial venture in America from 1620 to 1691 at a location that had previously been surveyed and named by Captain John Smith. The settlement served as the capital of the colony and developed as the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. At its height, Plymouth Colony occupied most of the southeastern portion of Massachusetts.
Plymouth Colony was founded by a group of Puritan Separatists initially known as the Brownist Emigration, who came to be known as the Pilgrims. It was the second successful colony to be founded by the English in America after Jamestown in Virginia, and it was the first permanent English settlement in the New England region. The colony established a treaty with Wampanoag Chief Massasoit which helped to ensure its success; in this, they were aided by Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe. Plymouth played a central role in King Philip’s War (1675–1678), one of several Indian Wars, but the colony was ultimately merged with the Massachusetts Bay Colony and other territories in 1691 to form the Province of Massachusetts Bay.
Despite the colony’s relatively short existence, Plymouth holds a special role in American history. Most of the citizens of Plymouth were fleeing religious persecution and searching for a place to worship as they saw fit, rather than being entrepreneurs like many of the settlers of Jamestown in Virginia. The social and legal systems of the colony became closely tied to their religious beliefs, as well as to English custom. Many of the people and events surrounding Plymouth Colony have become part of American folklore, including the American tradition of Thanksgiving and the monument of Plymouth Rock.
On December 21, 1620, the first landing party arrived at the site of Plymouth. Plans to build houses, however, were delayed by bad weather until December 23. As the building progressed, 20 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, and many had not left the ship for six months.
The first structure was a common house of wattle and daub, and it 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 atop nearby Fort Hill to support the cannon that would defend the settlement.
During the winter, the Mayflower colonists suffered greatly from lack of shelter, diseases such as scurvy, and general conditions on board ship. Many of the men were too infirm to work with 45 out of 102 pilgrims dying and buried on Cole’s Hill; thus, only seven residences and four common houses were constructed during the first winter out of a planned 19. By the end of January, enough of the settlement had been built to begin unloading provisions from the Mayflower.
The men of the settlement organized themselves into military orders in mid-February, after several tense encounters with local Indians, and Myles Standish was designated as the commanding officer. By the end of the month, five cannon had been defensively positioned on Fort Hill. John Carver was elected governor to replace Governor Martin.
The Mayflower set sail for England on April 5, 1621, after being anchored for almost four months in Plymouth Harbor. Nearly half of the original 102 passengers had died during the first winter. As William Bradford wrote, “of these one hundred persons who came over in this first ship together, the greatest half died in the general mortality, and most of them in two or three months’ time”. Several of the graves on Cole’s Hill were uncovered in 1855; their bodies were disinterred and moved to a site near Plymouth Rock.
Myles Standish (c. 1584 – October 3, 1656) was an English military officer hired by the Pilgrims as military adviser for Plymouth Colony. He accompanied them on the Mayflower journey and played a leading role in the administration and defense of Plymouth Colony from its inception.
On February 17, 1621, the Plymouth Colony militia elected him as its first commander and continued to re-elect him to that position for the remainder of his life. He served as an agent of Plymouth Colony in England, as assistant governor, and as treasurer of the Colony. He was also one of the first settlers and founders of the town of Duxbury, Massachusetts
Contact With Native Americans
On March 16, 1621, the first formal contact occurred with the Indians. Samoset was an Abenaki sagamore who was originally from Pemaquid Point in Maine. He had learned some English from fishermen and trappers in Maine, and he walked boldly into the midst of the settlement and proclaimed, “Welcome, Englishmen!” It was during this meeting that the Pilgrims learned how the previous residents of Patuxet had died of an epidemic. They also learned that an important leader of the region was Wampanoag Indian chief Massasoit, and they learned about Squanto (Tisquantum) who was the sole survivor from Patuxet. Squanto had spent time in Europe and spoke English quite well. Samoset spent the night in Plymouth and agreed to arrange a meeting with some of Massasoit’s men.
Massasoit and Squanto were apprehensive about the Pilgrims, as several men of his tribe had been killed by English sailors. He also knew that the Pilgrims had taken some corn stores in their landings at Provincetown. Squanto himself had been abducted in 1614 by English explorer Thomas Hunt and had spent five years in Europe, first as a slave for a group of Spanish monks, then as a freeman in England. He had returned to New England in 1619, acting as a guide to explorer Capt. Robert Gorges, but Massasoit and his men had massacred the crew of the ship and had taken Squanto.
Samoset returned to Plymouth on March 22 with a delegation from Massasoit that included Squanto; Massasoit joined them shortly after, and he and Governor Carver established a formal treaty of peace after exchanging gifts. This treaty ensured that each people would not bring harm to the other, that Massasoit would send his allies to make peaceful negotiations with Plymouth, and that they would come to each other’s aid in a time of war.
Native Americans In New England
The Native Americans in New England were organized into loose tribal confederations, sometimes called “nations”. Among these confederations were the Nipmucks, the Massachusett, the Narragansett, the Niantics, the Mohegan, and the Wampanoag. Several significant events dramatically altered the demographics of the Native American population in the region.
- The first was “Standish’s raid” on Wessagussett, which frightened Native American leaders to the extent that many abandoned their settlements, resulting in many deaths through starvation and disease.
- The second, the Pequot War, resulted in the dissolution of the Pequot tribe and a major shift in the local power structure.
- The third, King Philip’s War, had the most dramatic effect on local populations, resulting in the death or displacement of as much as 80% of the total number of Native Americans of southern New England and the enslavement and removal of thousands of Native Americans to the Caribbean and other locales
In November 1621, the surviving pilgrims celebrated the harvest feast which was known from the 1800s as “The First Thanksgiving”. The feast was probably held in early October 1621 and was celebrated by the 53 surviving Pilgrims, along with Massasoit and 90 of his men. Three contemporaneous accounts of the event survive:
- Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford
- Mourt’s Relation probably written by Edward Winslow
- New England’s Memorial by Plymouth Colony Secretary (and Bradford’s nephew) Capt. Nathaniel Morton.
The celebration lasted three days and featured a feast that included numerous types of waterfowl, wild turkeys and fish procured by the colonists, and five deer brought by the indigenous people
The Pequot War was an armed conflict that took place between 1636 and 1638 in New England between the Pequot tribe and an alliance of the colonists of the Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Saybrook colonies and their allies from the Narragansett and Mohegan tribes. The war concluded with the decisive defeat of the Pequot.
At the end, about 700 Pequots had been killed or taken into captivity. Hundreds of prisoners were sold into slavery to colonists in the West Indies; other survivors were dispersed as captives to the victorious tribes. The result was the elimination of the Pequot tribe as a viable polity in Southern New England, and the colonial authorities classified them as extinct. Survivors who remained in the area were absorbed into other local tribes.
King Philip’s War
King Philip’s War was an armed conflict in 1675–1678 between indigenous inhabitants of New England and New England colonists and their indigenous allies. The war is named for Metacom, the Wampanoag chief who adopted the name Philip because of the friendly relations between his father Massasoit and the Mayflower Pilgrims. The war continued in the most northern reaches of New England until the signing of the Treaty of Casco Bay in April 1678. Plymouth Colony lost close to eight percent of its adult male population and a smaller percentage of women and children to Indian warfare or other causes associated with the war.
Indian losses were much greater, with about 2,000 men killed or who died of injuries in the war, more than 3,000 dying of sickness or starvation, and another 1,000 Indians sold into slavery and transported to other areas, such as the British-controlled islands in the Caribbean. About 2,000 Indians escaped to other tribes to the north or west; they joined continued Indian attacks from those bases well into the next century. Historians estimate that, as a result of King Philip’s War, the Indian population of southern New England was reduced by about 40 to 80 percent
Southern New England
The war in southern New England largely ended with Metacomet’s death. More than 1,000 colonists and 3,000 Indians had died. More than half of all New England towns were attacked by Indian warriors, and many were completely destroyed. Several Indians were enslaved and transported to Bermuda, including Metacomet’s son, and numerous Bermudians today claim ancestry from the Indian exiles.
Members of the sachem’s extended family were placed among colonists in Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut. Other survivors joined western and northern tribes and refugee communities as captives or tribal members. Some of the Indian refugees returned to southern New England. The Narragansetts, Wampanoags, Podunks, Nipmucks, and several smaller bands were virtually eliminated as organized bands, and even the Mohegans were greatly weakened.
The Colony of Rhode Island was devastated by the war, as its principal city Providence was destroyed. Nevertheless, the Rhode Island legislature issued a formal rebuke to Connecticut Governor John Winthrop on October 26, scarcely six months after the burning of the city—although Winthrop had died. The “official letter” places blame squarely on the United Colonies of New England for causing the war by provoking the Narragansetts.
Sir Edmund Andros had been appointed governor of New York in 1674 by the Duke of York, who claimed that his authority extended as far north as Maine’s northern boundary. He negotiated a treaty with some of the northern Indian bands in Maine on April 12, 1678. Metacomet’s Pennacook allies had made a separate peace with the colonists as the result of early battles that are sometimes identified as part of King Philip’s War. The tribe nevertheless lost members and eventually its identity as the result of the war.
Northern New England
In northern New England, conflict continued for decades in Maine, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts. Wabanakis gradually entered the French orbit as English incursions on their territory continued. There were six wars over the next 74 years between New France and New England, along with their respective Indian allies, starting with King William’s War in 1689.
The conflict in northern New England was largely over the border between New England and Acadia, which New France defined as the Kennebec River in southern Maine. Many colonists from northeastern Maine and Massachusetts temporarily relocated to larger towns in Massachusetts and New Hampshire to avoid Wabanaki raids.
Government in Plymouth Colony
Plymouth Colony did not have a royal charter authorizing it to form a government, yet some means of governance was needed. The Mayflower Compact was the colony’s first governing document, signed by the 41 Puritan men aboard the Mayflower upon their arrival in Provincetown Harbor on November 21, 1620. Formal laws were not codified until 1636.
The colony’s laws were based on a hybrid of English common law and religious law as laid out in the Bible. The colonial authorities were deeply influenced by Calvinist theology, and were convinced that democracy was the form of government mandated by God.
The colony offered nearly all adult males potential citizenship. Full citizens, or “freemen”, were accorded full rights and privileges in areas such as voting and holding office. To be considered a freeman, adult males had to be sponsored by an existing freeman and accepted by the General Court. Later restrictions established a one-year waiting period between nominating and granting of freeman status, and also placed religious restrictions on the colony’s citizens, specifically preventing Quakers from becoming freemen.
Freeman status was also restricted by age; the official minimum age was 21, although in practice most men were elevated to freeman status between the ages of 25 and 40, averaging somewhere in their early thirties. The colony established a disabled veterans’ fund in 1636 to support veterans who returned from service with disabilities. In 1641, the Body of Liberties developed protections for people who were unable to perform public service. In 1660, the colonial government restricted voting with a specified property qualification, and they restricted it further in 1671 to only freemen who were “orthodox in the fundamentals of religion”.
The colony’s most powerful executive was its Governor, who was originally elected by the freemen but was later appointed by the General Court in an annual election. The General Court also elected seven Assistants to form a cabinet to assist the governor. The Governor and Assistants then appointed Constables who served as the chief administrators for the towns, and Messengers who were the main civil servants of the colony. They were responsible for publishing announcements, performing land surveys, carrying out executions, and a host of other duties.
The General Court
The General Court was the chief legislative and judicial body of the colony. It was elected by the freemen from among their own number and met regularly in Plymouth, the capital town of the colony. As part of its judicial duties, it would periodically call a Grand Enquest, which was a grand jury of sorts elected from the freemen, who would hear complaints and swear out indictments for credible accusations. The General Court, and later lesser town and county courts, would preside over trials of accused criminals and over civil matters, but the ultimate decisions were made by a jury of freemen.
The General Court as the legislative and judicial bodies, and the Governor as the chief executive of the colony constituted a political system of division of power. It followed a recommendation in John Calvin’s political theory to set up several institutions which complement and control each other in a system of checks and balances in order to minimize the misuse of political power.
In 1625, the settlers had repaid their debts and thus gained complete possession of the colony. The colony was a de facto republic, since neither an English company nor the King and Parliament exerted any influence—a representative democracy governed on the principles of the Mayflower Compact (“self-rule”)
Laws in Plymouth Colony
As a legislative body, the General Court could make proclamations of law as needed. These laws were not formally compiled anywhere in the early years of the colony; they were first organized and published in the 1636 Book of Laws. The book was reissued in 1658, 1672, and 1685. These laws included the levying of “rates” or taxes and the distribution of colony lands.
The General Court established townships as a means of providing local government over settlements, but reserved for itself the right to control specific distribution of land to individuals within those towns. When new land was granted to a freeman, it was directed that only the person to whom the land was granted was allowed to settle it. It was forbidden for individual settlers to purchase land from Native Americans without formal permission from the General Court. The government recognized the precarious peace that existed with the Wampanoag, and wished to avoid antagonizing them by buying up all of their land.
Crime and Punishment
The laws also set out crimes and their associated punishment. There were several crimes that carried the death penalty:
- cursing or smiting one’s parents.
The actual exercise of the death penalty was fairly rare; only one sex-related crime resulted in execution, a 1642 incidence of bestiality by Thomas Granger. Edward Bumpus was sentenced to death for “striking and abusing his parents” in 1679, but his sentence was commuted to a severe whipping by reason of insanity. Perhaps the most notable use of the death penalty was in the execution of the Native Americans convicted of the murder of John Sassamon; this helped lead to King Philip’s War.
Though nominally a capital crime, adultery was usually dealt with by public humiliation only. Convicted adulterers were often forced to wear the letters “A.D.” sewn into their garments, much in the manner of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter.
Several laws dealt with indentured servitude, a legal status whereby a person would work off debts or be given training in exchange for a period of unrecompensed service. The law required that all indentured servants had to be registered by the Governor or one of the Assistants, and that no period of indenture could be less than six months. Further laws forbade a master from shortening the length of time of service required for his servant, and also confirmed that any indentured servants whose period of service began in England would still be required to complete their service while in Plymouth.
Black and Indigenous Slaves
Some of the wealthier families in Plymouth Colony owned slaves that were considered the property of their owners, unlike indentured servants, and passed on to heirs like any other property. Slave ownership was not widespread and very few families possessed the wealth necessary to own slaves.
In 1674, the inventory of Capt. Thomas Willet of Marshfield includes “8 Negroes” at a value of £200. In the July 29th, 1680 codicil to the will of Peter Worden of Yarmouth, he bequeathed ownership of his “Indian servant” to his wife Mary, to be passed on to their son Samuel upon her decease. The unnamed slave was dutifully recorded in the January 21st, 1681 inventory of Worden’s estate at the original purchase price of £4 10s.
Other inventories of the time valued “Negro” slaves at £24–25 each (equivalent to £2.81 thousand in 2010, or $4,300 at parity), well out of the financial ability of most families. A 1689 census of the town of Bristol shows that, of the 70 families that lived there, only one had a black slave. So few were black and indigenous slaves in the colony that the General Court never saw fit to pass any laws dealing with them
The largest source of wealth for Plymouth Colony was the fur trade. The disruption of this trade caused by Myles Standish’s raid at Wessagussett created great hardship for the colonists for many years and was directly cited by William Bradford as a contributing factor to the economic difficulties in their early years. The colony traded throughout the region, establishing trading posts as far away as Penobscot, Maine. They were also frequent trading partners with the Dutch at New Amsterdam.
The colonists attempted to supplement their income by fishing as the waters in Cape Cod bay were known to be excellent fisheries; however, they lacked any skill in this area, and it did little to relieve their economic hardship.
The economic situation improved with the arrival of cattle in the colony. It is unknown when the first cattle arrived, but the division of land for the grazing of cattle in 1627 represented one of the first moves towards private land ownership in the colony. Cattle became an important source of wealth in the colony; the average cow could sell for £28 in 1638 (£3,400 in 2010, or $5,200 at parity). However, the flood of immigrants during the Great Migration drove down the price of cattle. The same cows sold at £28 in 1638 were valued in 1640 at only £5 (£700.00 in 2010, or $1,060 at parity). Besides cattle, there were also pigs, sheep, and goats raised in the colony.
Agriculture also made up an important part of the Plymouth economy. The colonists adopted Indian agricultural practices and crops. They planted maize, squash, pumpkins, and beans.
Besides the crops themselves, the Pilgrims learned productive farming techniques from the Indians, such as proper crop rotation and the use of dead fish to fertilize the soil. In addition to these native crops, the colonists also successfully planted Old World crops such as turnips, carrots, peas, wheat, barley, and oats.
Overall, there was very little cash in Plymouth Colony, so most wealth was accumulated in the form of possessions. Trade goods such as furs, fish, and livestock were subject to fluctuations in price and were unreliable repositories of wealth. Durable goods such as fine wares, clothes, and furnishings represented an important source of economic stability for the residents.
Currency was another issue in the colonies. In 1652 the Massachusetts legislature authorized John Hull to produce coinage (mintmaster). “The Hull Mint produced several denominations of silver coinage, including the pine tree shilling, for over 30 years until the political and economic situation made operating the mint no longer practical.” Mostly political for King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland deemed the “Hull Mint” high treason in the United Kingdom which had a punishment of Hanging, drawing and quartering.
“On April 6, 1681, Randolph petitioned the king, informing him the colony was still pressing their own coins which he saw as high treason and believed it was enough to void the charter. He asked that a writ of Quo warranto (a legal action requiring the defendant to show what authority they have for exercising some right, power, or franchise they claim to hold) be issued against Massachusetts for the violations.”
In 1686, the entire region was reorganized under a single government known as the Dominion of New England; this included the colonies of Plymouth, Rhode Island, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. In 1688, New York, West Jersey, and East Jersey were added.
The President of the Dominion, Edmund Andros, was highly unpopular, and the union did not last. The union was dissolved after news of the Glorious Revolution reached Boston in April 1689, and the citizens of Boston rose up and arrested Andros. When news of these events reached Plymouth, its magistrates reclaimed power.
The return of self-rule for Plymouth Colony was short-lived, however. A delegation of New Englanders led by Increase Mather went to England to negotiate a return of the colonial charters that had been nullified during the Dominion years. The situation was particularly problematic for Plymouth Colony, as it had existed without a formal charter since its founding.
Plymouth did not get its wish for a formal charter; instead, a new charter was issued, combining Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts Bay Colony, and other territories. The official date of the proclamation was October 17, 1691, ending the existence of Plymouth Colony, though it was not put into force until the arrival of the charter of the Province of Massachusetts Bay on May 14, 1692, carried by the new royal governor Sir William Phips. The last official meeting of the Plymouth General Court occurred on June 8, 1692.
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