Plymouth Colony, 1620
In 1608 a group of religious separatists from the English town of Scrooby had
moved quietly to Amsterdam and Leiden, Holland, in pursuit of religious freedom. This
journey earned them the name Pilgrims. Despite their enjoyment of religious toleration, this
group of Puritans (or Pilgrims) was denied the opportunity to work for any of the lucrative
Dutch guilds and found it hard to support themselves. They also were concerned about the
fact that their children were growing up as young Dutch children and not adhering to their
parents’ religious rules.
Around the same time the Virginia Company of
Plymouth, a group of English merchant investors, had failed
to establish permanent colonies in the northern reaches of
what was then known as Virginia. The stockholders’ spirits
were further dampened when they noticed that their chief
rival, The Virginia Company of London, had established a
settlement at Jamestown, where a lucrative tobacco economy
began to develop. Sir Edwin Sandys, a major investor in the
Plymouth Company, hoped to salvage some of his
investment by convincing King James I that he should allow
a group of religious dissenters like the Puritans to settle on
the company’s land in hopes of establishing a permanent settlement for exports.
In September, 1620 the Pilgrim leaders secured a land
grant from Sandys and embarked in the ship Mayflower for the
New World. The Pilgrims had intended to settle near the mouth
of the Hudson River. They were blown off course and arrived
near Provincetown in November. They realized that they were not
near the land owned by the Virginia Company and viewed the land
grant as null and void. Since they were well outside of the confines
of Virginia, the colonists sought to legitimize their venture by
forming the Mayflower Compact. The Mayflower Compact was a
document signed by 41 male Pilgrims on November 21, 1620. By
signing this document, the men agreed to form a temporary government and be bound by its
laws. The compact became the basis of government in the Plymouth Colony. It was in
essence a social contract in which the settlers consented to follow the compact's rules and
regulations for the sake of survival.
The Pilgrims sailed from present-day
Provincetown and landed in “Plymouth,”
named for the company that supplied the
grant. The Pilgrims established their first
home in an empty Indian village where the
inhabitants had recently been wiped out by an
epidemic. With typical religious certainty, the
leaders concluded that God had cleared the
site for his chosen people. During the first
winter, adverse weather conditions and lack of food took a heavy toll (45 casualties) among
the original 102 colonists.
In 1621 the Pilgrims concluded a peace treaty with Chief Massasoit of the
neighboring Wampanoag tribe. The natives provided critical instruction on adaptation to
the new environment, particularly the cultivation of corn. That fall, following a successful
harvest, the Pilgrims feasted with the Wampanoag in what is regarded as the first
The economy of the Plymouth colony developed around the trade of fish and furs.
The sandy/rocky soil had made agriculture difficult, but basic crops were grown successfully.
Plymouth was never a prosperous settlement, but the religiously faithful were content to be
ignored by English officials and left to direct their own affairs. For the next seventy years
the Colony remained a separate political entity until it was absorbed by the Massachusetts
Bay Colony in 1691.
* Guided Reading Questions:
1. Why did the Pilgrims have difficulty in Holland?
2. Why do you think religious dissenters were a perfect choice to set up a new colony?
3. Explain why the Virginia Company of Plymouth was motivated to set up a colony in
the New World.
4. Describe why the Mayflower Compact was written and explain what it contained.
5. Explain why the Pilgrims were upset in 1691.
*Quick-Write Assignment: Compare and contrast life in both Jamestown and Plymouth. Based
on your knowledge of life in Jamestown and life in Plymouth, which colony would you be more likely
to settle in and why? Use facts from both handouts to explain your answers.