The Coming of the Pilgrims

After many misgivings, the fateful decision was reached and preparations for departure were made. But, where to go became a troublesome problem. The merits of Guiana and other “wild coasts” were debated; but, finally, Virginia met with general approval because there, they might live as a private association, a distinct body by themselves, similar to other private companies already established there. To this end, they sent two of their number to England to secure a patent from the Virginia Company of London. Under this patent and in bond of allegiance to King James, yet acting as a “body in the most strict and sacred bond and covenant of the Lord,” an independent and absolute church, they became a civil community also, with governors chosen for the work from among themselves. But, the dissensions in the London Company caused them to lose faith in that association, and, hearing of the reorganization of the Virginia Company of Plymouth, which about this time obtained a new charter as the New England Council, they turned from southern to northern Virginia — that is, to New England — and resolved to make their settlement where according to reports fishing might become a means of livelihood.

Landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth, by Peter Frederick RockRothermel, 1869

Landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth, by Peter Frederick RockRothermel, 1869

But, their plans could not be executed without assistance; and, coming into touch with a London merchant, Thomas Weston, who promised to aid them, they entered into what proved to be a long and wearisome negotiation with a group of adventurers — gentlemen, merchants, and others, 70 in number — for an advance of money to finance the expedition. The Pilgrims entered into a partnership with the merchants to form a voluntary joint-stock company. It was understood that the merchants, who purchased shares, were to remain in England; that the colonists, who contributed their personal service at a fixed rating, were to go to America, there to labor at trade, trucking, and fishing for seven years; and that during this time, all profits were to remain in a common stock and all lands to be left undivided. The conditions were hard and discouraging, but there was no alternative; and at last, embarking at Delfthaven in the Speedwell, a small ship bought and fitted in Holland, they came to Southampton, where another and larger vessel, the Mayflower, was in waiting. In August 1620, the two vessels set sail; but, the Speedwell, proving unseaworthy, was returned after two attempts.

The Mayflower went on alone, bearing 102 passengers, two-thirds of the whole, picked out as worthy and willing to undertake the voyage. The Mayflower reached the waters of New England on the 11th of November after a tedious course of 65 days from Plymouth to Cape Cod; but, they did not decide on their place of landing until December 21, 1620. Four days later they erected, on the site of the town of Plymouth, their first building.

The coast of New England was not an unknown shore. During the years from 1607 to 1620, while settlers were founding permanent colonies at Jamestown and in Bermuda, explorers, and fishermen, both English and French, had skirted its headlands and penetrated its harbors. In 1614, John Smith, the famous Virginia pioneer, who had left the service of the London Company and was in the employ of certain London merchants, had explored the northern coast in an open boat and had given the region its name. These many voyages and ventures at trading and fishing served to arouse enthusiasm in England for a world of good rivers and harbors, rich soil, and wonderful fishing, and to spread widely a knowledge of the coasts from Newfoundland to the Hudson River. Of this knowledge, the Pilgrims reaped the benefit, and the captain of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones, against whom any charge of treachery may be dismissed, guided them, it is true, to a region unoccupied by Englishmen but, not to one unknown or poorly esteemed. The miseries that confronted the Pilgrims during their first year in Plymouth colony were not due to the inhospitality of the region, but, to the time of year when they landed upon it; and insufficiently provisioned as they were before they left England, it is little wonder that suffering and death should have accompanied their first experience with a New England winter.

Plymouth Colony

Plymouth Colony

This little group of men and women landed on territory that had been granted to the New England Council and they themselves had neither patent for their land nor royal authority to set up a government. But, some form of government was absolutely necessary. Before starting from Southampton, they had followed John Robinson’s instructions to choose a governor and assistants for each ship “to order the people by the way”; and now that they were at the end of their long voyage, the men of the company met in the cabin of the Mayflower, and drew up a covenant in accordance with which they combined themselves together into a body politic for their better ordering and preservation. This compact, signed by 41 members, of whom eleven bore the title of “Mister,” was a plantation covenant, the political counterpart of the church covenant which bound together with every Separatist community. It provided that the people should live together in a peaceable and orderly manner under civil authorities of their own choosing, and was the first of many such covenants entered into by New England towns, not defining a government but, binding the settlers to unite politically as they had already done for religious worship. John Carver, who had been chosen governor on the Mayflower, was confirmed as governor of the settlement and given one assistant. After their goods had been set on shore and a few cottages built, the whole body met to establish the laws and orders, both for their civil and military governments.

Of this courageous but, sorely stricken community more than half died before the first winter was over. However, the people gradually became acclimated, new colonists came out, some from the community at Leyden, and the numbers steadily increased. The settlers were mostly a homogeneous body, both as to social class and to religious views and purpose. Among them were undesirable members — some were sent out by the English merchants and others came out of their own accord — who played stool-ball on Sunday, committed theft, or set the community by the ears, as did one notorious offender named Lyford. But, their number was not great, for most of them remained but a short time, and then went to Virginia or elsewhere, or were shipped back to England by the Pilgrims as incorrigibles. The life of the people was predominantly agricultural, with fishing, salt-making, and trading with the Indians as allied interests. The partners in England sent overseas —  cattle, stock, and laborers, and, as their profits depended on the success of the settlement, did what they could to encourage its development. The position of the Pilgrims was that of sharers and partners with the merchants, from whom they received directions but not commands.

The first Thanksgiving in 1621

The first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims. 1921 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

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