Episode 11: Plymouth and Mass Bay Colony

The American History Podcast, episode 11. [Intro music]

Hello, and welcome to the American history podcast episode 11, the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies. Today we continue the story of the New England colonies in the seventeenth century. Before we get started, as always, I’d like to invite you to follow the podcast on social media. We are on twitter @americanhiscast. You can also follow my personal twitter, but I warn you I don’t only tweet about history on that one. For my personal feed look up @shawnwarswick. You can also go to the website where you will find the sources I’ve used to create the episodes and, soon, I’ll have transcripts up for each episode. go to www.the American history podcast dot com. You also can sign up for our email list, which allows you to get email updates whenever a new episode is released.
The first colony founded in New England was the Plymouth Colony, founded by the group of people we know as “pilgrims.” The pilgrims were actually the first wave of separatists who had left Britain for Holland where they felt they would be able to practice Calvinism in the way they wanted. Led by Rev. John Robinson, they would soon become unhappy with the “dutchification” of their children. They wanted, most of all, the chance to practice their religion as Englishmen without interference from others (and without having to see their children infected by the popular culture around them).
Thus, the separatists secured rights to settle within the Virginia Company’s jurisdiction in Virginia. The agreement was that the pilgrims would work for seven years in return for support of the joint stock company which was made up of non-separatist investors. After seven years any profit realized by the venture would be shared between the settlers and the investors. While religion was a motivating factor in the settlement of the pilgrims in the New World, it also had an economic aspect which is sometimes forgotten or overlooked. The idea was, of course, that the pilgrims would practice their religion while, at the same time, providing profit for themselves and the Virginia Company.
The plan was for the Mayflower to set sail for North America in early September. Now, if you pay any attention to the weather off the east coast of the United States, the late summer/early fall can be an interesting time. In September of 1620 the weather was, to say the least, non-cooperative and sailing the North Atlantic was quite dangerous. Nonetheless, the ship set sail from Plymouth on September 6, 1620. There were 102 passengers, plus about 30 officers and sailors on board. The voyage was, quite honestly, miserable for the passengers, and, finally, on November 9, 1620, the ship sighted present-day Cape Cod.
Realizing they were far north of their intended landfall, the ship attempted to head south, to no avail. The heavy seas forced the ship to return to Cape Cod and, on November 11 they dropped anchor. Some historians have suggested that the Pilgrims “hijacked” the ship and, in order to gain the consent of the non-separatists, issued the Mayflower Compact. Whatever the case may be, the settlers eventually chose Plymouth Bay as their initial settlement site. This had been an American Indian community ravaged by a great plague a few years earlier, suggesting that the natives in this area had contact with Europeans or with other natives who had contact with Europeans.
Because Plymouth was outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, the settlers were squatters. They had no legal right to the land and no recognized government. They were not authorized to settle in this area which explains why they never gained a charter from the crown.
I mentioned the Mayflower Compact a few moments ago, so lets briefly discuss it. It was NOT a constitution, but an agreement. The purpose of the compact was to legitimize the fact that the settlers had created a colony outside Virginia by creating a secular document recognizing James I as their sovereign and creating a body of all the settlers with power to devise laws and elect leaders. This is interesting to me because, at the end of the day, this is a group of separatists. They wanted separation from England, and from others whom they found were “impure”, thus the name puritan. However, at the same time, they appear worried about legitimacy in the eyes of the English monarchy. So there is this odd psychosis, at least in my mind, about their action.
Another little interesting aspect of the Plymouth colony is that because it would never possess a Royal charter, it eventually merged with the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The agreement provided for majority rule among the settlers and some argue it was an important seed of democracy in North America. The adult male settlers assembled to make laws and conduct open-discussion town meetings. So there is no doubt, in my mind, that New England did play a role in the idea of democracy in the Americas. However, remember, this is after the Virginia House of Burgesses had already begun meeting, so to give ALL of the credit to New England is, in my mind, out of bounds.
That first winter, the winter of 1620-21was terrible. First, by December many of the passengers and crew were ill with scurvy and severe coughing. During that first winter about half of the members of the expedition would die. By late December the pilgrims had crossed over to the mainland and surveyed the area that became the Plymouth settlement. This was, originally, a native village known as Patuxet to the Wamponoag people, but had been abandoned about 3 years earlier after a plague killed all of the residents. Referred to as “Indian fever” by historians in the nineteenth century, it is now believed they suffered from an outbreak of small pox that was introduced by European traders. The local population of natives was so weakened by the disease, the colonists faced no resistance to their settlement.
The first construction began almost immediately, and by mid January a common house was completed, 20 feet square, for general use. It quickly became a hospital for the ill colonists, 31 of whom would be dead by the first of March. Things were so bad that, at one point only six or seven of the colonists were able to feed and care for the rest of their fellows.The death toll would only rise and Coles Hill, a prominent nearby overlook, became the first European cemetery in New England.
On that happy note, a brief word about relations with the native Americans. Squanto, the last, or one of the last, of the Patuxet people living in Southern New England (remember, they were wiped out by small pox), acted as a liason between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags, a tribe who controlled the regions. Squanto lived an interesting life. He was kidnapped, along with 27 other natives and taken to Spain where they were sold into slavery. Eventually Squanto escaped to England, the story of which is unknown, and made his way back to the new world, specifically Newfoundland. From there he would be taken back to his native village in 1619, which by this point was ravaged by disease. He then lives among the Pokanoket, eventually coming into contact with the colonists from the Mayflower. Because he was the only Indian who was familiar with English, he played a key role in the meetings between the pilgrims and natives that took place in the spring of 1621. Eventually he became attached to the English settlers and assisted the colonists in planting native vegetables and he also introduced them to the fur trade. Of course Squanto’s life comes to a tragic end in November of 1622 when he contracted what the Plymouth governor William Bradford, referred to as the Indian fever. Before we leave Squanto it should be noted that he and Bradford had grown to be close friends, and Bradford remained with Squanto during his final days.
By the fall of 1621, thanks to the help offered to the colonists by Squanto and other local natives, 20 acres of corn were under cultivation and in November of 1621 53 colonists were alive to celebrate the harvest. It would not be known as “thanksgiving” until two years later, in 1623. Nonetheless, what the Pilgrims did was to adopt the Indians traditional custom of giving thanks at the time of the fall harvest. There are three contemporaneous accounts of the event that have survived, and the event was celebrated by the 53 surviving colonists and 90 of Wampanoags. Apparently the celebration lasted three days and featured a feast which included numerous variations of waterfowl, wild turkeys and fish that were procured by the colonists, as well as five deer brought by the Indians.
I know there is, to some extent, a belief that the Europeans mistreated the Indians, and while this might be true generally speaking, the fact is that this is not true for every case and at all times. In fact, an alliance was formed by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags for mutual protection against other Indian tribes and the peace between the two groups would last for 4 decades, until the death of Massasoit, the Wampoanog leader, in 1662. I’m in no way saying the Europeans were benevolent, or even good neighbors, but I am saying that at different times and in different locations, relations between Europeans and Indian tribes weren’t as bad as Hollywood would have us believe.
While the pilgrims had a rough start to life in North America, they did become successful. They developed an economy based on fur trading, fishing and lumber. 1627 would see the arrival of cattle in the colony and marked an upturn in the economic conditions, according to historians James Deetz and Patricia Deetz in their work, The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony. Besides cattle the colony, by 1630 also had pigs, sheep and goats.
Having said that, religion remained paramount in the colony. Interestingly one of the most important religious figures in the colony was John Robinson, who actually never set foot in New England. His ideology and pronouncements on theological issues would give Plymouth it’s nature and character in the early years. Robinson made pronouncements such as women and men have different social roles according to the laws of nature, although either is lesser in the eyes of God. He referred to women as the “weaker vessel” and pronounced that it was the role of males to educate and guide the community. Finally he also believed women should be subject to their husbands.
The community, however, was led by the previously mentioned William Bradford for many years. He was the elected governor and, in order to encourage farming, he distributed land among the settlers. A member of the original group of seperatists, Bradford was a signatory to the Mayflower Compact. Like many of the colonists, he would know hardship and loss, having his first wife, Dorothy May Bradford, fall overboard on the Mayflower while at anchor and drown. Of course he would also lose his close friend, Squanto, in the fall of 1622.
Another important leader of the colony at this time was Miles Standish. He was a military man hired to protect the pilgrims. Standish, like Bradford, was also part of the original group of separatists. He led an expedition against the Massachusetts Indians at the behest of Massasoit. As another example of the complicated relationship between Europeans and Indians, Standish was criticized by Pastor John Robinson for his brutality towards the natives. Bradford himself, while deferring to Standish, was uncomfortable with the way he treated the Massachusetts people. The consequences were such that Natives throughout the region abandoned their villages and the Pilgrims had difficulty for some time when attempting to trade with Indians. Massasoit was also disturbed by the behavior of his European allies, but he would continue to honor the treaty until his death in 1662.
In 1691, the colony had 7,000 people but was smaller than the larger MBC, which whom it merged. There are two reasons for this merger. First, the Pilgrims still did not have their own charter. They were still, in essence, squatters. Secondly, the MBC had it’s own charter revoked and the crown was seeking to unify both colonies for administrative purposes.
Speaking of the MBC, it was founded in 1629 by non-separatist Puritans who were afraid for both, their future and that of England. Why were they in fear? This was the reign of Charles I, the second monarch in the Stuart line, and a firm believer in the “divine right of kings.” When you add this to the fact that he was married to a Roman Catholic and his actions which were seen as those of an absolute monarch, anathema to the English, it meant there was going to be trouble. Charles ended up dismissing Parliament in 1629 and sanctioned an anti-Puritan purge in the kingdom. Before this, the moderate Puritans had gathered support in parliament to enact reforms, but with the monarch refusing to guarantee the power of Parliament or the basic rights of the people, the situation was on the knife’s edge so to speak.
It was in this environment that the MBC was founded. Before they set sail for the new world, the shareholders of the MBC in Cambridge signed what was called the Cambridge Agreement, which led to the founding of Boston. It turned the corporate charter into a government that served as the constitution of the MBC for many years. The result of this is that Puritans were now able to remove themselves from the control of the king and the Church of England, which they regarded as little better than the Roman Catholic Church.
By 1631, 2000 colonists arrived in Boston and had created a number of settlements around it. As England devolved into turmoil during the 1630s, 15,000 more immigrants would arrive in New England and approximately 60,000 others would settle in colonies throughout North America and the West Indies.
The Great Migration ended in the 1640s with the outbreak of the English Civil War as Puritans decided to remain in England to fight the royalist forces. Led by Oliver Cromwell, they were victorious and Charles surrendered to a Scottish army which eventually handed him over to the English parliament. Of course, Charles wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, and he refused his captors demands to create a constitutional monarchy. Choosing instead to try and continue the fight, Charles escaped in 1647, was recaptured and imprisoned on the Isle of Wight, eventually being tried and executed for high treason in January 1649.
Back in New England, John Winthrop was the governor of the MBC. Winthrop was a firm believer in what is referred to as “Covenant Theology.” He believed the Puritans had a covenant with God to lead a new religious experiment in the New World. It was Winthrop who wrote the famous phrase “we shall build a city upon a hill” in A Model of Christian Charity as he was sailing to Massachusetts Bay. This sermon is often credited as the precursor to the idea of American exceptionalism. And while I think it is true, especially since modern neo-cons love to quote it as justification for American imperial activities on the world stage, the fact is that, at its time of delivery, it was not given the attention you might think. Further, he was not introducing new concepts nor was he, I would argue, suggesting they should build an imperial edifice. Instead Winthrop was simply repeating widely held Puritan beliefs. This was not a clarion call to build an American empire.
What we can say about John Winthrop is that his leadership helped the colony to grow and become a success. Indeed, the MBC became the largest and most influential colony in New England. Its economy was based on fishing, shipbuilding, the fur trade, lumbering, some dairy farming and even some small farming of wheat and corn. Certainly location also played a role in this success, but Winthrop’s leadership also played a role, and going forward the MBC and New England would play an important role in American history, for better or worse.
That does it for today. I hope you enjoyed the show. Give us a follow over on twitter @americanhiscast . You can also visit the website www dot the American history podcast dot com and see what sources were used to create the episode as well as sign up for email updates and even view show transcripts (which I’m working on updating for every episode). Until next time, good day.

About the author, Shawn

I'm a historian, teacher, and university lecturer with a focus on militarization and empire in American history.

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