The Plymouth Colony Explained: US History

The Plymouth Colony Explained: US History

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Who were the Pilgrims? Why did they come to America? This in-depth lecture traces the foundations of the Plymouth Colony beginning with its European roots and through its 70-year existence. Perfect for struggling #APUSH students, teachers in need of a resource, or the cray cray on the internet.

Plymouth Colony and the Beginnings of Liberty in America: A Q&A with NEH Public Scholar John Turner

NEH Public Scholar John Turner wants to change what you were taught in elementary school about the Mayflower Compact being a precedent for democracy and how the Pilgrims brought religious freedom to the New World.

The Mayflower Compact, a short legal statement that provided a framework of government, was often touted by the nation’s early historians as one of the first steps in the evolution of self-government in the United States—a view that survived centuries. Meanwhile, the Pilgrims are seen as the importers of religious freedom to the United States and stalwarts of the idea that each person should be able to worship as they choose, a narrative that is repeated annually during Thanksgiving celebrations.

John Turner seeks to change these popular perceptions by showing that history is far more complicated. As he explains, after struggling to escape the Church of England, “The Pilgrims were determined to keep New Plymouth’s church and government in their own hands. They preserved their own liberty by denying it to others.” In his book, They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty, Turner sets out to reevaluate the history of the Plymouth Colony just in time for the 400th Anniversary of the Pilgrims' landing on Cape Cod.

It was a pleasure to discuss the book with him.

They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty

Courtesy of Yale University Press

As a historian of Religion in the United States, what brought you to this particular topic?

I enjoy focusing new lenses on well-worn subjects, and the Mayflower crossing remains among the most iconic episodes within American collective memory. All Americans learn something about the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags in elementary school, and the so-called First Thanksgiving briefly intrudes onto our consciousness every November. Especially in light of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower, it seemed an especially appropriate time for a reexamination.

I also found myself fascinated by what happened in Plymouth Colony after its first decade. In most tellings of colonial American history, the scene shifts to Boston after John Winthrop and his Puritan flotilla reach Massachusetts Bay in 1630. Plymouth Colony existed for another sixty years, and those years are filled with their own dramas: steadily worsening relations between English settlers and Wampanoag leaders fierce and never settled debates over religious liberty prompted by the arrival of Quaker missionaries and political revolts against both crown-appointed governors and elected colonial magistrates.

Why do you think so few people know about the first part of the Pilgrims’ journey through the Netherlands? It seems an important part of the story that isn’t often told.

Yes, the Pilgrims were exiles from England, but by way of the Dutch Republic. The majority of Mayflower passengers were separatists, men and women who had entirely rejected the Church of England and had formed their own churches. That was illegal according to English law, and in 1607-1608, there was a new wave of persecution against separatists. Therefore, many of them fled to the Dutch Republic, long a refuge for English religious dissidents. From Amsterdam, many followed separatist pastor John Robinson to the city of Leiden. In Leiden, the English separatists had a large measure of religious liberty. As long as they kept their heads somewhat down, they could worship as they saw fit. But that liberty was fragile, and as far as many of the future colonists were concerned, there was rather too much religious toleration in the Dutch Republic. They preferred to establish their own godly society on the other side of the Atlantic and hoped that their success would attract more English Puritans to embrace separatism.

Your description of the voyage across the Atlantic suggests that there was quite a cast of characters on board the Mayflower. Was there any one individual who captured your attention? Or perhaps your admiration?

Do I have to pick one? There are so many: Bastard children a man (Stephen Hopkins) who had already crossed the Atlantic once and had barely escaped execution on Bermuda and servants like John Howland, who survived falling into the sea during the crossing. The initial Jamestown venture included no women, but there were families on the Mayflower, including three pregnant wives. Stephen Hopkins’s wife, Elizabeth, gave birth to a son named Oceanus.

The original caption demonstrates how the landing of the Pilgrims was once perceived: "The Mayflower left Delft haven in Holland Sept. 6th, 1620, and after a boisterous passage of sixty-three days, anchored within Cape Cod. In her cabin the first Republican government in America was solemnly inaugurated. That vessel thus became truly the 'Cradle of Liberty' rocked on the free waves of the ocean." c. 1876, lithograph, published by Currier & Ives, NY

Your project, being published in the 400th anniversary year of the Mayflower landing, seeks to frame the journey of the Puritans of Plymouth Colony as pilgrims in more or different ways than previously explored. What made you think that there needed to be a change in the way that the story of the Pilgrims is retold?

There are several myths that need to be set aside or at least reexamined. Among them: That the Pilgrims favored religious toleration that the Wampanoags welcomed the Pilgrims and that the Pilgrims played a significant role in the broader trajectory of American political history. There are others as well, such as those surrounding Plymouth Rock and Thanksgiving. Take even the name “Pilgrims.” My book’s title comes from William Bradford’s history, in which he explained that he and his fellow colonists-to-be took comfort in the fact that they “knew they were pilgrims.” The reference was to the Epistle to the Hebrew from the New Testament, which teaches that all Christians are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” The Mayflower passengers and other early Plymouth colonies became known as the Pilgrims only around the turn of the nineteenth century

Because it is such an interesting distinction, will you describe the ways you contrast ideas on the “Christian Liberty” of New Plymouth and the later “Soul Liberty” of Rhode Island?

Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, spent time in both Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth before being banished by the Bay Colony magistrates. After his banishment, Plymouth also wouldn’t let him settle on land it considered within its jurisdiction. Williams believed in a strict separation between church and civil government. No church taxes, no prohibited beliefs or practices. Other Protestants, Williams pointed out, wanted “their own souls only to be free.” And that was true in Plymouth Colony, which like the Bay Colony established a single religious option in each town. Plymouth’s leaders did permit a significant measure of “liberty of conscience.” No one had to join the established church or have their children baptized by its ministers. At first, there weren’t any church taxes, and, much of the time, attempts to enforce attendance at worship didn’t amount to much. But for the duration of the colony’s history, Plymouth’s magistrates never embraced “soul liberty.”

In the latter half of the book, you make out “freedom” as being very circumstantial, would you say that servitude, of one form or another, was more common in New England than many would believe?

Many men and women came to the colony as indentured servants. Some of those servants went on to receive political privileges and land, while others remained very much on the margins of communities. But the subject of servitude is a much bigger and more complex topic. In the wake of the 1675-1677 war (most commonly known as King Philip’s War), thousands of Wampanoags were taken captive. Some were exported as slaves. Others remained as slaves and servants within the colony. A few scholars, including Margaret Newell, have written important accounts of Native slavery in colonial New England. Still, I was surprised to learn just how ubiquitous Native servants and slaves were during the final decades of the seventeenth century. There were also African slaves in Plymouth Colony, especially in the western townships across from Rhode Island.

How would you like the public to react to this book?

By purchasing and praising it. More seriously, I learned a great deal about a range of peoples (Wampanoags, Quakers, Dutch Remonstrants) while writing this book, and I’m confident readers will find many things in They Knew They Were Pilgrims that will startle and surprise them. It’s important, for instance, to learn about the dispossession of Native peoples. Epidemics and wars were important, but so too were the many smaller acts that coerced Native leaders to sell land. Likewise, Americans who admire the Pilgrims for their faith might also examine the 17th-century Wampanoags who embraced Christianity.

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Free Example of Plymouth Colony Essay

The history of Plymouth Colony is wide and treacherous. It is the history that defines the colonial America, which has been slow and steadily grown into a less spectacular approach. The history of the people of America could be traced back to their experience throughout the journey to America. The modern American history can be traced back to Britain, where their life is said to have evolved in17 th century after crossing over to Holland. They were defined by the religious beliefs that informed their activities such as being separatists, thus leading to them being harassed by state authorities (Demos, p.3). The book by Demos John, A little commonwealth: family life in Plymouth Colony is based on the history of American people, the Plymouth Colony, where they (colonized) had been shaped by the environment setting where they settled, family relationships, and various social aspects of social circle. The author uses a factious assumption of the Puritan life, with the intention of creating a &ldquocity on a hill&rdquo, which set Plymouth as a different as an example of the rest of the world to emulate. His emphasis on hardworking culture of the Pilgrim people is what has shaped America today- that which has made the legendary America look like the model for the rest of the world. In his analysis, culture of the people of Plymouth has created a lot of historical background for the people of America. He sets out a family life pilgrim household in the 17 th century. The author has used various materials to justify his analysis, such as William Bradford&rsquos Of Plymouth Plantation, George D. Langdon, Conn&rsquos Pilgrim Colony: A History of New Plymouth among many other historical authors who have made a mark in the compilation of American history. This paper will analyze the Pilgrim family life through the themes of work, home and family relationships Plymouth material setting and the 17C life cycle.

Work, home and family relationships

Demos has used his literary skills to illustrate elaborately the family life of the Pilgrims in a more advanced approach, focusing on how these people&rsquos lives were connected with work culture, family relationships, and management of homes. While some past authors have alleged that women were generally created weaker sex, and they would be naturally subjected to roles confined in homes. He dismisses this notion as a &ldquoMythic national Identity&rdquo (Demos, p xi.). In an uncharacteristic manner, he set out a day to day life of family as the basis to defend this belief, thus making his work more authentic. For instance, he dismisses the issue that female were created to be submissive, that has been highlighted by the oldest books like the bible (Demos, p.82).

As illustrated by many other writers of history, there has been a focused approach to the management of our lifestyle, which basically affects the overall life of the people in the society. In fact, the communities around the world would prefer belief in myth, which according to the author, is the source of confusion and death of past believes among our younger generation. The societal changes are not fully effective, especially due to the fact that we mostly believe in our past. The problem is how we tend to confuse myths and reality of life, with the latter being the casualty of this confusion.

The author has highlighted the reality of what life entailed in the 17 th Century, with specific analysis on the Plymouths family setting in the midst of the colonized land being the main focus. In the theme of the religion and social life, Demo illustrates that the Pilgrims were guided by Godly virtues that became part of their life in the Old Colony of Plymouth. It is the Godly and ethical life that guided the Pilgrims in their day to day operations, which eventually became a pillar for their life cycle and management of their lifestyle. In fact, Demos sets a clear explanation where Pilgrim&rsquos everyday life was set rolling by ethical behaviors, supported by religious belief of Christianity. When they changed from the Old World Habitat, the people acknowledged the value of God in their life, pointing out that it was a tricky affair to manage the life of the people who did not belief in God. His fact is based on the belief that the people of Plymouth were not actually homogenous as people had always assumed, but were a group of strangers, who did not have unifying religious beliefs to guide the day to day operations (Demos, p.6). The author demonstrates the virtual equivalence of the two sexes, male and female. Although the author&rsquos intention is not to dismiss the Pilgrim&rsquos life, the most important aspect of his argument is based on the analysis of the present lifestyle, as compared to the past inconsistencies in the lifestyle of the people in relation to myth and reality of the people in all aspects of life.

The analysis indicates that the concept of gender equality is illustrated by the myth and reality of the people, which has no relationship with the virtuous ability of the Puritan community in the 17 th C. With this kind of analysis, it is possible to state that Demos has opened a new chapter of understanding the Pilgrim lifestyle. According to Demos, the Puritan society is identical with divorce, violence, and adultery-vices that have characterized their lifestyles and historical backgrounds (Demos, P.82-87).

The Government of Plymouth Colony

When the pilgrims of Plymouth Colony first arrived in the New World and landed at Cape Cod, they didn’t have a charter or a patent to settle the area.

A charter was a document from the British government that gave a colony the legal right to settle an area and establish local law there. A land patent was a document that granted land to a colony but didn’t give permission to establish local law there.

The colonists had originally planned to land in Northern Virginia, where they did have a patent to settle, but they had drifted off course during the long voyage and ended up in Cape Cod.

The pilgrims worried they didn’t have any legal right to settle Cape Cod and were concerned that without any social order the colony might fail, much like earlier colonies did. Since some of the passengers on the Mayflower were not separatists like themselves, they questioned the pilgrims’ authority which concerned many members of the group.

As a result, the group decided to draw up a social contract, now known as the Mayflower Compact, that would establish a local government and oblige the pilgrims to abide by the law of this government until they could obtain a new patent.

The group signed the contract on board the Mayflower on November 11, 1620. The compact is one of the first examples of a colony self-governing itself and is considered by some historians to be the beginning of American democracy.

“Signing the Mayflower Compact,” oil painting by Edward Percy Moran, circa 1900

This claim is debatable though as an article in the Washington Post points out that the pilgrims identify themselves in the document as the “loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James” and appear to have been more concerned with trying not to commit an illegal act in the eyes of the crown than with self-governing.

They also identify the king in the document as their king “by the grace of god,” and not their king by their consent which could technically make the Mayflower Compact more of an affirmation about the divine right of kings than the right of self-rule. These ideas are all open to interpretation though.

Compared to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth Colony had a much more modern type government that wasn’t as intertwined with the colonist’s religion, according to the book Plymouth Colony: Its History and Its People:

“With the Mayflower Compact, the colonists agreed to a form of democracy that would not be practiced in their homeland for several centuries. Though Bradford and his supporters has envisioned something close to a church-state, the large non-Separatist population prevented the full implementation of this idea as it was subsequently practiced in the adjoining Massachusetts Bay Colony. As a result, Plymouth obtained a reputation for having a less rigid and more moderate government, though it never practiced the toleration soon to come to Rhode Island. Its land policy of making grants to the many prevented it from becoming a manorial or proprietary colony, such as Virginia or other English colonies would later become. It became something unique. Unfortunately, at least for those who measure progress in terms of large-scale industrial and commercial expansion, the original choice of settlement on the shores of shallow Plymouth Harbor prevented the colony from ever achieving the size, prominence, wealth, or importance of Massachusetts Bay Colony or New York. The future of Plymouth was virtually prescribed by 1627. It would be what it would be.”

Politics and government were a big part of life in the Plymouth Colony. Attendance at town meetings was practically mandatory and the majority of colonists both voted and served in the local legislature, according to the book Cape Cod and Plymouth Colony in the Seventeenth Century:

“Government, then, in both its political and judicial aspects, was something Cape Codders knew well. Freemanship aside, they participated in it indirectly by voting for town Deputies to the General Court, and directly by serving either as Grand Jurymen or as trial jurors. Within the towns, it was impossible to to avoid political involvement. Even for the small minority who did not fill a government position, attendance at town meetings was made virtually obligatory by assessing fines for absence. For the vast majority, they not only voted, but they also served. Without a professional bureaucracy, local offices were filled and community services performed by the town’s citizens. Some men were apparently good at it, and filled every post the town had and did so repeatedly. Others were not so adept, and served less often. But whether it was the obligation to repair the roads, decide a lawsuit, collect taxes, or be a Deputy, the men of the Cape did what was required. Government and politics in seventeenth-century Plymouth was a participatory system in the best sense of the term.”

The General Court was a gathering of all the freemen, men who were allowed to vote, in the colony and met in the local meetinghouse about four times a year. The court had the authority to pass laws, impose taxes and hold criminal trials.

The Plymouth Colony never received a legal charter from the king and based its existence as a self-governing colony completely on the Mayflower Compact and two land patents it received from the New England Council in 1621 and 1630.

Despite the fact that the colony did not have a charter, it still operated as though it had a charter government. In a charter government the legislature was run by a governor, council, and assembly which were all chosen by the people of the colony. A charter government was also allowed to enact their own laws but the laws were not allowed to contradict the laws of England.

The colonists knew that not having a charter could cause legal problems for them though and tried repeatedly to obtain an official charter, according to the Plymouth Colony Archive Project website:

“Governor Bradford and other prominent officers of the Colony realized the riskiness of proceeding without a royal charter for their venture. They instead possessed only a land patent issued by the New England Council, a private corporation which did not possess the authority to grant the colonists any right to self-governance. Bradford, Isaac Allerton and others attempted repeatedly over the years of the Colony to obtain a charter from the Crown. They failed to do so, and Plymouth Colony ultimately lost its self-governance and was annexed as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.”

When Plymouth Colony was merged with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691, it then became a royal colony, known as the Province of Massachusetts Bay, with a mixed government. A mixed government meant it was partly a charter government and partly a royal government. In this mixed government, the governor was appointed by the Crown but both the assembly and the council were chosen by the people.

This mixed government came to an end less than 100 years later when the colony won its legislative and economic freedom from Britain during the American Revolution.

For more information about Plymouth Colony, here are some related articles: The Economy of Plymouth Colony and Religion in Plymouth Colony.

This is a fascinating timeline and includes my ancestors William White and his son Peregrine (other son was Resolved). I will look for other research by Rebecca Beatrice Brooks soon.

This gave me a lot of information for my reading report in school.

As a retired history teacher and one who is researching family history I found this very informative and helpful.

One of the things I found interesting was that the sons of Massasoit legally requested to change their names after the death of the father., that it was customary in the tribe to do that and that they chose English names.

Missing the Point of Plymouth Rock

The Pilgrims Signing the Compact, on board the Mayflower, Nov. 11th, 1620, engraving by Gauthier (Library of Congress)

O f course the Pilgrim landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620 explains American history. Of course the 1619 Project’s shoddy exercise in vituperation is meant to delegitimize America. John G. Turner’s recent article in National Review is an extended exercise in missing the point.

Turner, a scholar of the history of American religion, and the author of a recent book on the Plymouth colony, surveys the debate about the New York Times’s 1619 Project with the traditional attitude of a liberal scholar — a facile resort to moral equivalence.

Turner, positioning himself as the neutral and expert arbiter, frames the 1619 Project and its critics as equally mistaken — the one unduly obsessed with the 1619 arrival of blacks in Virginia as the foundation of an America built on slavery, and the other unduly obsessed with the 1620 arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, as the foundation of an America built on liberty. Neither view, says Turner, is correct. Nor are views of America as built on liberty in 1776 or 1787. All the supposed foundations of liberty are compromised by racism or elitism: The proper way to understand America is to look at the endless details of Americans’ flaws, and not their sweeping aspirations.

Turner’s entire approach is misguided. To begin with, he obscures the 1619 Project’s entirely unprofessional abuse of historical facts to create a denigratory Black Legend of American history — an abuse entirely absent in the 1619 Project’s critics. The 1619 Project includes errors of astonishing magnitude, such as:

  • Obscuring the long history of slavery throughout the world, not least in Africa, to create a false impression that slavery is a uniquely American institution.
  • Falsely foreshortening the history of chattel slavery in America, so as to claim that the chattel slavery that developed by ca. 1680 already existed in Virginia in 1619.
  • Falsely claiming that Americans fought the American Revolution to protect slavery — and, after revision under fire, still using the deceptive qualifier some Americans — when there is no evidence that any American rebelled against Britain to defend the slave regime.
  • Sweeping aside the substantial evidence of racially egalitarian and abolitionist sentiment involved in the composition of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to present a grotesque caricature of these documents as exercises in white supremacy and the protection of slavery.
  • Falsely attributing the development of elements of modern capitalism, such as double-entry bookkeeping, to the plantation South.
  • Committing elementary accounting errors so as to attribute most antebellum American growth to slavery, even though the free North’s war-winning economic preponderance over the slave South would be inexplicable if slavery had truly been so profitable.
  • Eliminating all examples of black reformism and cross-racial reformist alliances so as to argue that only monoracial black resistance has had any importance or success in American history.
  • Caricaturing Abraham Lincoln as a white supremacist who disliked blacks, against the overwhelming evidence of his longstanding commitment to blacks’ civic and human dignity, far beyond that of most white Americans of his day, and fundamental to his political strategy, which culminated in one of the great emancipations of human history, as well as the vast majority of the spadework for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which would finally abolish slavery throughout the United States.

So many scholars have criticized the 1619 Project because it commits malpractice whenever it speaks on any matter of American history.

Turner then claims that the focus on 1620 and liberty as the foundation of American history is somehow misguided, both because Plymouth and its liberty were not that important in American history and because the Plymouth colony was complicit in an original national sin at least as important as slavery, the conquest of Indian land and the expulsion of Indian peoples. Both arguments are fallacious.

The argument for the importance of Plymouth and liberty was always made by intelligent Americans who were perfectly aware of historical nuance in the story of America’s origins. But the perfectly tenable argument, well-supported by facts, would be something like this:

The history of liberty depends upon the slow transformation, and expansion, of a number of discourses and institutions of liberty. The Puritan conception of communal liberty of conscience vis-à-vis royal authority, and the remarkably egalitarian self-rule of the Puritan township, constituted the strongest seed of liberty in all the English colonies on the North American mainland — and, indeed, a discourse and practice of liberty virtually unparalleled in world history until that point. Plymouth Colony influenced the immediately succeeding Massachusetts Bay settlement, not least by providing a model that shifted it, unexpectedly, from affiliation with the Church of England to independent congregationalism — thus transforming all of New England’s Puritan religion into a model of egalitarian liberty, which would be enormously influential for American politics. The Mayflower Compact likewise set the mold for consensual self-government, as ideal and practice, which would also spread throughout New England.

New England, spared the diseases that killed so many 17th century colonists in the Chesapeake colonies, became the most culturally and political influential of the colonial regions, by dint of an ever-expanding population, a mature commercial class, influential divines such as Jonathan Edwards, and finally the constellation of political thinkers and warriors of the Revolutionary Era. This constellation included notables such as John and Abigail Adams, Samuel Adams, James Otis, Ethan Allen, and the émigré Bostonian Benjamin Franklin. Alongside these leaders, the mass of Massachusetts farmers and Boston workingmen, formed in a culture, society, and government they had inherited from Plymouth, constituted the revolutionary vanguard of the American colonies, and swept their more hesitant peers away from compromise with Britain’s Parliament and toward the Declaration of Independence. Revolutionary New England in turn provides the hinge that links the narrower Puritan liberty of Plymouth with the universal American liberty of the future. Revolutionary-era Boston was the home of black Revolutionary martyr Crispus Attucks and pioneering and emancipated black poetess Phyllis Wheatley. Every state in New England abolished slavery between 1777 and 1784.

When Daniel Webster in 1820 praised Plymouth as the birthplace of American liberty — a speech that Turner dismisses as old-fashioned mythmaking — he correctly described, and continued, the tradition of liberty that had grown from its cradle on Cape Cod to embrace a continental empire of liberty.

Is this the entire story of American liberty? No, of course not — as the names of the eminent Virginians George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison amply testify. But it is the essential, central component of that story. The narrative of New England liberty as the heart of America is true — as the 1619 Project’s narrative of slavery as the heart of America is false, and Turner’s narrative of white mistreatment of Indians, somehow to incorporate every mutual slaughter from King Philip’s War (1675–78) and the The Raid on Deerfield (1704) to Bloody Point Massacre (1850) and the Battle of Wounded Knee (1890), is — to be charitable — insufficient. Turner might add that the moral condemnation of America, on behalf of American Indians, is itself a product of the New England tradition, by way of writers such as the Massachusetts-born Helen Hunt Jackson, author of the seminal, sentimental A Century of Dishonor (1881).

Turner concludes his essay with the banality that, “A single birth year cannot unlock the very meaning of the nation, not least because how historians and others explain the past hinges on how they understand the present.” But it is precisely the continued meditation on liberty, and the multiplication of events, that makes 1620 so important. Every generation of Americans has built upon the traditions of liberty they inherited from Plymouth, and every generation of Americans has meditated upon what we owe to Plymouth. Plymouth becomes more important with every year, not less, as the ripples of its impact grow and grow. There is a wonderful, complex story to be told of how Plymouth and 1620 roots itself ever deeper in the American present. To pretend that story does not exist is not to be sophisticated, but to be blind.

Government and Politics

Since the Pilgrims did not settle in Virginia, their patent was worthless, and they established Plymouth without any legal underpinning. Needing to formulate some kind of legal frame for the colony's government, the Pilgrims crafted the Mayflower Compact, in which the signers agreed to institute colonial self-government. The ship's free adult men signed the compact on 11 November 1620 before the settlers went ashore. They agreed to establish a civil government based upon congregational church compact government, in which freemen elected the governor and his assistants, just as congregational church members chose their own ministers.

As the colonists spread out and founded new towns, the system needed modification. Having meetings of all freemen (most adult men) in Plymouth town to elect officials became impractical. Starting in 1638, assemblies of freemen in individual towns chose deputies for a "General Court." William Bradford dominated political life in Plymouth for a generation, being elected thirty times between 1621 and 1656, but the governor's power lessened as the General Court became a true representative assembly. The General Court became a powerful legislature, with sole authority to levy taxes, declare war, and define voter qualifications. Plymouth, however, never received a legal charter from the crown, and based its existence as a self-governing entity entirely on the Mayflower Compact and the two patents issued by the Council for New England in 1621 and 1630, the latter defining the colony's physical boundaries.

The Plymouth Colony Explained: US History - History

Plymouth Colony is also known by two other names: New Plymouth and Plymouth Bay Colony. It was a colonial endeavor by the English in North America from 1620 to 1691. The colony first settled in New Plymouth, a place discovered and named by Captain John Smith (and is now a place in Massachusetts called Plymouth). It was founded by the Pilgrims, originally formed into two groups known as the Separatists and the Anglicans.

Mayflower Compact

This colony had been one of the successful colonies in the early years along with Jamestown, Virginia. The Plymouth Colony did not have a royal charter in order to be authorized to form its own government. The Mayflower Compact was its first governing document. This was signed by forty-one men in Provincetown Harbor on November 21, 1960. The Governor was the highest and the most powerful leader in the colony and was originally elected by the people, but was later selected by the court. The colony had an official seal that shows four figures in Native American clothing within a shield with St. George’s Cross. This seal is still used in Plymouth today.


During Plymouth Colony’s first two-and-a-half years, the economy was in the form of a communal system. This means that there was no such thing as private property or division of labor. The crops and food were grown for allocation to the whole town and were equally distributed to the people. But in 1623, the Plymouth Plantation had difficulties which led to starvation. This led the leaders to try another system. They started to allot private properties, mainly land, which increased productivity and pulled the plantation out of poverty. It was proven that people became more productive when they were tasked to plant the crops that they would later use for their own consumption.

Agriculture, Livestock, & Trading

Fur trading had been the largest supplier of wealth in the colony but they were raided frequently creating economic difficulties for the people. To make up for the losses, the people fished out of Cape Cod that had been abundant to all types of fish. Yet it didn’t take a long time before they also gave up on this because they lacked fishing skills. Cattle raising and selling were the livelihood that improved the colony’s economy.

The Great Migration brought the price of cattle down. The livelihood was also affected by the presence of other animals such as pigs, goats and sheep that were being raised in the colony. Agriculture was a source of livelihood in the colony. Colonists planted squash, pumpkins, potatoes, beans and maize. They also adopted the planting of carrots, oats, turnips, wheat, barley and peas. The colony had very little cash but they were wealthy because of their physical possessions. The residents experienced economic stability because of durable goods like fine wares and clothes.

The Colony’s history was short-lived but has a special role in the history of America. Members of the colony were heavily engaged in matters of the soul. They constructed a church where they could worship. They also gave birth to a tradition that is still celebrated up to the present time, Thanksgiving.

Crime and Punishment in Plymouth Colony

Warning to Parents and Teachers:
Some of the criminal acts discussed on this page are very graphic and explicit in nature, and some involve sexual acts that are shocking and repulsive even by non-Puritanical standards.

Records from Plymouth Colony's earliest courts have actually survived almost entirely intact. Just prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, they were published in a 12-volume set edited by Nathaniel B. Shurtleff and David Pulsifer, and they have been reprinted on several occasions since. Some of the court records date back as early as 1623, and continue through 1691, when Plymouth Colony merged with the Massachusetts Bay.

The Plymouth Colony's court records are very interesting, as they provide a glimpse into the everyday life of the Pilgrims (albeit usually the negative side). They provide insight into how the Pilgrims interpreted scriptural and English law, and a look at their moral and religious values.

In 1636, the Plymouth Colony formally codified its five crimes that were punishable by death:

  • willful murder
  • forming a solemn compact with the devil by way of witchcraft
  • willful burning of ships or houses
  • sodomy, rape, and buggery
  • adultery

Plymouth Colony never attempted to put anyone to death for adultery, although Mayflower passenger William Latham's wife Mary was hanged for adultery in the neighboring Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1644. In Plymouth Colony in 1639, Mrs. Mary Mendame of Duxbury was convicted of "uncleanness" with an Indian named Tinsin, and was sentenced to be whipped at a cart's-tail through the town streets and to wear an AD badge: which, if she was found without, would be branded onto her forehead. In 1641, an adulterous affair between singleman Thomas Bray and Mrs. Anne Linceford was discovered, and both parties were sentenced to public whipping at the post, and to wear the AD badge on their clothing. In 1658 the law was finally rewritten to formalize how it had been administered previously: it defined the punishment for adultery as two severe whippings, once right after conviction and once at a second time to be determined by the magistrates and the individual would have to wear the letters AD "cut out in cloth and sowed on their uppermost garment on their arm or back." If at any time they were found without the mark within the jurisdiction of the Colony, they would be publicly whipped. In 1662, Thomas Bird was sentenced to double whippings for committing "several adulterous practices and attempts, so far as strength of nature would permit" with Hannah Bumpass, who was also sentenced to be whipped once "for yielding to him, and not making such resistance against him as she ought." Bird was also sentenced to pay Hannah £10 for "satisfaction for the wrong he hath done her."

The first person executed for murder was Mayflower passenger John Billington, who was hanged in September 1630. He had gunned down John Newcomen, apparently the result of an ongoing quarrel. Arthur Peach, Thomas Jackson, Richard Stinnings and Daniel Cross were convicted of murdering an Indian named Penowanyanquis in 1638: the motive was robbery. Daniel Cross escaped custody, but the others were executed by hanging. The triple-hanging sent a strong message that Plymouth Colony would treat the murder of Native Americans equally. In 1648, Alice Bishop was hanged for slashing the neck of her 4-year old daughter Martha with a knife, while Martha was sleeping in her bed: perhaps the most shocking and horrific crime in Plymouth Colony's history.

Nobody in Plymouth Colony was ever charged with intentionally burning a house or ship, so arson as a capital crime was never tested in Plymouth court.

There were two witchcraft trials in Plymouth Colony, decades before the more famous Salem Witchcraft trials of 1692. Both Plymouth Colony witchcraft trials ended in not guilty verdicts: in fact the accusers were fined by the court for having made false accusations.

In 1637, John Alexander and Thomas Roberts were changed with and convicted of "lude behavior and unclean carriage one with another, by often spending their seed one upon another, which was proved both by witness and their own confession the said Alexander found to have been formerly notoriously guilty that way, and seeking to allure others thereunto." John Alexander was sentenced to a severe whipping, then to be burned in the shoulder with a hot iron, and then to be permanently banished from the Colony. Roberts was sentenced to a severe whipping, but was not banished. He was prohibited from ever owning any land within the Plymouth Colony "except he manifest better desert."

In 1642, a 16-year old boy, Thomas Granger, a servant to Mayflower passenger Love Brewster, was caught (and later admitted to) bestial acts with various of Brewster's livestock, and was executed (along with the animals) per Biblical precedent (Leviticus 20:15).

In 1660, Thomas Atkins was tried for incest with his daughter Mary. The jury found him not guilty of the capital crime of incest, but sentenced him to a whipping for "incestuous attempts" towards his daughter "in the chimney corner," while intoxicated with drink.

Plymouth Colony enacted a number of fines and punishments for lesser, misdemeanor crimes. The following table illustrates some of the crimes, and their associated fine or punishment.

From a modern perspective, Plymouth Colony had some unique laws. Gun control was not much of an issue back then: in fact, if you were a member of the militia, there was a twelve pence fine for failing to bring your loaded gun to church with you. Today we have a problem with low voter turnout: Plymouth Colony solved this by imposing a fine on all freeman who failed to vote.

If you thought anti-smoking laws were a thing of the modern era, think again. In 1637, Plymouth Colony enacted the first anti-smoking law: a 12 pence fine for smoking in any street, barn, outhouse or highway, and for smoking anywhere further than 1 mile from your house. The fine increased to 2 shillings for a second offense. In 1640, a 5 shilling fine was enacted for any juror who smoked at any time during a trial, prior to giving a verdict. In 1669, smoking to and from church was added as a 12 pence fine.

Plymouth also enacted wildlife conservation laws, . well, at least it was illegal to catch fish before they had spawned.

All criminal cases in Plymouth Colony, and civil cases involving trespassing or debts, were to be tried by a jury of twelve men, whose names went onto the public record. A grand jury system was also implemented. The court itself met four times a year, plus special circumstances and was adjudicated by the governor and his five to seven assistants, all of whom were elected by the Colony's freemen to 1-year terms.

Watch the video: The Plymouth Colony Explained: US History Review