"The Pilgrims' Landing and First Winter," an excerpt from Of Plymouth Plantation
Reprinted in Eyewitness to America
Published in 1997
Edited by David Colbert
"But that which was most sad, and lamentable, was, that in two or three months the half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts;"
In 1607, a year after the Virginia Company of London party embarked for Jamestown, the Virginia Company of Plymouth prepared for an expedition to Maine, which was the place that Bartholomew Gosnold (d.1607) had so glowingly praised. Gosnold's party had seen the region only in the summertime, however, and the Plymouth group were planning to stay permanently. They were completely unprepared for the long and bitterly cold Maine winter. Although most of the settlers managed to survive the harsh climate, one of the leaders died and another was called back to England. Finally the settlers dispersed and the English did not return to the area for another thirteen years.
The next attempt at colonization in New England came about as a result of the Puritan movement. Puritanism (a group that stressed strictness in matters of religion or conduct), in turn, was an outgrowth of Protestantism. The Protestant movement began in England in 1531, when King Henry VIII (1491–1547) decided to annul (make legally invalid or void) his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536). (Protestantism was initiated in 1517 by German theologianMartin Luther [1483–1546], who accused Roman Catholic Church leaders of corruption and misuse of power.) A staunch Roman Catholic, Henry wanted to marry again because Catherine had not borne him a son and he was determined to father a male heir to the throne. Yet Henry encountered strong resistance from the pope, who had the final authority to nullify marriages. Since Catherine was a Spanish princess and the Catholic Church depended upon Spain to fight Protestantism in Europe, the pope could not afford to alienate the Spanish by granting the annulment. Henry therefore broke with the Catholic Church and declared himself head of the Church of England, which he founded.
Henry's quarrel with Roman Catholicism was political, not religious. Although he closed monasteries (houses for monks, or men who took religious vows) and seized Catholic lands, he did not want to change the basic values of the church. Therefore he maintained most of the rituals, especially the elaborate ceremonies and fancy vestments (robes) worn by bishops and priests. Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I (1533–1603), also loved the grand processions and dramatic services, so she continued her father's policies. Her successor, James I (1566–1625), was similarly unwilling to make any changes. By this time many English Protestants were rebelling against the heavy emphasis on Catholicism in the Church of England. They wanted a simpler church, one that placed less emphasis on displays of wealth.
During the reign of James I many ministers and congregations refused to organize their worship services according to the requirements of the Church of England. Some critics, who became known as Puritans, felt that purification of the national church would solve the problems. At the same time a few dissenters (those who did not conform to the Church of England) were contending that the church was too corrupt to be saved and they wanted total separation. Since the king was head of both the church and the government, separation was considered a crime against the state. Nevertheless a congregation in Scrooby, England, declared themselves to be Nonconformists, or separatists. When the Scrooby leaders were persecuted in 1607 the congregation resolved to leave England and go to Leyden in the Netherlands (Holland), the most tolerant of the European states.
Life was pleasant in Leyden, and the Nonconformists were free to practice their religion. Nevertheless they were uneasy because their children were becoming more Dutch than English. Economic opportunities were also limited, and there were rumors that war would soon break out between Spain and the Netherlands. Many members of the group wanted to relocate in another country where they could speak the English language and bring up their children in a familiar Christian environment. They were determined not to return to England or move to New Netherland, the Dutch colony in America (see "Impressions of New Jersey and New York"). Calling themselves Pilgrims, they decided to settle instead at the northernmost end of the land granted to the Virginia Company.
In 1619 the Pilgrims secured financing through Thomas Weston and Associates, an investment company, and the following year they left the Netherlands for America. Stopping first in England, they found that only one of their ships, the Mayflower, was seaworthy. The party consisted of one hundred and two men, women, and children, but they were not all Pilgrims. Several men called "merchant adventurers" represented the Weston company and did not share the Nonconformists' religious beliefs. Although no minister had joined the party, one of the members of the Leyden group, William Bradford (1590–1657), became a leader of the venture. On September 5, 1620, they set sail on the Mayflower for their destination in the New World.
Along the way the Mayflower encountered stormy weather, and the Pilgrims never arrived in Virginia territory. Instead they anchored the ship in Cape Cod harbor (off the coast of present-day Massachusetts), which was far north of their original destination. Since they were not on the land that had been legally granted to them, Bradford and forty other free adult males (those with voting rights) drafted and signed anew contract, the Mayflower Compact, in November 1620. The contract, which was based on Nonconformist church covenants, would allow the Pilgrims to establish a government with binding laws. However, they soon had to address the problem that they were only forty percent of the people aboard the ship. The rest, including men such as Miles Standish (1584–1656), were outsiders whom the Pilgrims called "strangers." The Mayflower Compact was intended to prevent conflict, provide for a government, and form a new religious society. It is considered the first democracy established by Europeans in North America.
While the Mayflower was anchored in Cape Cod harbor, Standish led an expedition inland. Leaving the ship in a small boat in November, they set out for the Hudson River, but bad weather forced them to return to the harbor at Cape Cod. Calling it Plymouth Harbor, they anchored near a rock that is now known as Plymouth Rock. The Pilgrims began settling their new colony on December 25, 1620, and elected John Carver (1576–1621) as their first governor. Although they faced a harsh winter in the Northeast, several factors worked in their favor. Unlike many ships that brought settlers to North America, the Mayflower remained at Plymouth and furnished housing until shelters had been built. The colonists' first dwellings were small, one-room houses made of boards (not logs). The careful selection of a settlement site also gave them an advantage; rather than facing a "howling wilderness" they were able to nestle into a hillside that had once been inhabited by Native Americans. Fresh water was nearby, and they had access to corn Native Americans had put away for the winter.
Yet nearly half of the party died that first winter—the fate also of the earliest colonists at Jamestown (see "The Founding of Jamestown"). Although the Pilgrims and local Native Americans were aware of one another, they did not make contact during that difficult winter. The dying settlers maintained their distance, even though the Native Americans could have helped them. In turn, the Wampanoags, who had mixed experiences with Europeans, warily watched the newcomers. In the spring the surviving colonists were helped by Squanto (?–1622), a member of the neighboring Patuxet tribe; in his youth, he had been kidnapped and taken to England. During his captivity he had learned to speak English, so he was able to communicate with the settlers. Squanto helped the Pilgrims plant corn and other crops, and the next fall there was a plentiful harvest. The colonists invited the Native Americans to a celebration feast, which has become known as the first Thanksgiving in America (thanksgivings were common in England).
When Carver died in April 1621, Bradford was chosen to take his place as governor. He would be reelected thirty times between 1621 and 1656. During this period he repeatedly tried to leave the post, but he was such an effective leader that colonists always asked him to remain in office. Bradford was also the principal historian of the Plymouth Colony, and he began writing Of Plymouth Plantation in 1630. In the two-volume work he gave a detailed account of the migration of the Pilgrims to Plymouth and the subsequent hardships they faced in the New World. "The Pilgrims' Landing and First Winter," in which Bradford tells the story of the Pilgrims' first few months in their new colony, is an excerpt from Of Plymouth Plantation, Book I.
Things to Remember While Reading "The Pilgrims' Landing and First Winter":
- Bradford's narrative begins when the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod. They unloaded a boat (Bradford called it a ship) that had been stored, probably in pieces, on the Mayflower. They started putting it together ("mending" it) while Standish and others explored the mainland. When the ship was ready the Pilgrims set out for the Hudson River. After several mishaps amid a violent storm at sea, they returned to Cape Cod, where they finally started building their settlement in December.
- When winter set in over half of the Pilgrims died of disease and exhaustion. In the fourth paragraph Bradford described how "six or seven sound [healthy] persons" took care of the others, at the "hazard of their own health."
- Bradford wrote that during the winter Native Americans secretly watched the Pilgrims ("came skulking about them") and stole some of their tools. On March 16 one of the Native Americans, Samasett (also Samoset), entered the settlement. To the Pilgrims' surprise, he spoke English and he told them about Squanto, another Native American who also knew English and had even lived in England. Soon more Native Americans came to visit. Eventually the stolen tools were returned.
- Friendly visits and exchanges of gifts led to the signing of a treaty between the Pilgrims and the great Chief Massasoit. Bradford outlined the terms of the agreement, under which the two groups swore to protect one another and always to be at peace. He reported that, at the time he was writing his history, the peace had lasted for twenty-four years. Bradford concluded his account with a description of the plentiful harvest the Pilgrims gathered the following autumn.
"The Pilgrims' Landing and First Winter"
Being thus arrived at Cape-Cod . . . they having brought a large ship with them out of England, stowed in quarters in the ship, they now got her out, and set their carpenters to work to trim her up, but being much bruised and shattered in the ship with foul weather, they saw she would be long in mending. Whereupon a few of them tendered themselves, to go by land and discover those nearest places, while the ship was in mending. . . . It was conceived there might be some danger in the attempt, yet seeing them
the afternoon, the wind increased, and the sea became very rough; and they broke their rudder, and it was as much as two men could do to steer her with a couple of oars. But their pilot bade them be of good cheer for he saw the harbor, but the storm increasing, and night drawing on, they bore what sail they could to get in, while they could see; but herewith they broke their mast in three pieces and their sail fell overboard, in a very high sea. . . .
But a lusty seaman which steered, bade those which rowed if they were men, about with her, or else they were all cast away; which they did with speed, so he bid them be of good cheer, and row justly for there was a fair sound before them, and he doubted not, but they should find one place or other, where they might ride in safety. And though it was very dark, and rained sore; yet in the end they got under the lee of a small island and remained there all that night in safety. . . .
But though this had been a day and night of much trouble, and danger unto them; yet God gave them a morning of comfort and refreshing (as usually he does to his children) for the next day was a fair sunshining day, and they found themselves to be on an island secure from the Indians; where they might dry their stuff, fix their pieces, and rest themselves, and gave God thanks for his mercies, in their manifold deliverances. And this being the last day of the week, they prepared there to keep the Sabbath; on Monday they sounded the harbor, and found it fit for shipping; and marched into the land, and found many cornfields, and little running brooks, a place (as they supposed) fit for situation, at least it was the best they could find, and the season, and their present necessity made them glad to accept of it. So they returned to their ship again with this news to the rest of their people, which did much comfort their hearts. . . .
Afterwards [they] took better view of the place, and resolved where to pitch their dwelling; and the 25th day [December 25, 1620] began to erect the first house, for common use to receive them, and their goods. . . .
But that which was most sad, and lamentable, was, that in two or three months the half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases, which this long voyage and their inacommodate condition had brought upon them; so as there died some times two or three of a day, in the forsaid time; that of one hundred and odd persons scarce fifty remained: and of these in the time of most distress there was but six or seven sound persons; who to their great commendations, be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed their meat, made their beads, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them. In a word did all the homely, and necessary offices for them, which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren. A rare example and worthy to be remembered, two of these seven were Mr. William Brewster, their Reverend Elder, and Miles Standish, their Captain and military commander, (unto whom myself, and many others were much beholden in our low, and sick condition). . . .
All this while the Indians came skulking about them, and would sometimes show themselves aloof, but when any approached near them, they would run away; and once they stole away their tools when they had been at work and were gone to diner. But about the 16th of March a certain Indian came boldly amongst them, and spoke to them in broken English which they could well understand, but marveled at it; at length they understood by discourse with him, that he was not of these parts, but belonged to the eastern parts where some English ships came to fish, with whom he was acquainted, and could name sundry of them by their names, amongst whom he had got his language. He became profitable to them in acquainting them with many things concerning the state of the country in the east parts where he lived . . . of the people here, of their names, number and strength, of their situation and distance from this place, and who was chief amongst them. His name was Samasett; he told them also of another Indian whose name was Squanto, a native of this place, who had been in England and could speak better English then himself. Being after some time of entertainment, and gifts dismissed, a while after he came again, and five more with him, and they brought again all the tools that were stolen away before, and made way for the coming of their great Sachem, called Massasoyt. Who about four or five days after came with the chief of his friends, and other attendance with the aforesaid
Squanto. With whom after friendly entertainment, and some gifts given him, they made a peace with him (which has now continued this 24 years) in these terms:
- That neither he nor any of his, should injure or do hurt, to any of their people.
- That if any of his, did any hurt to any of theirs; he should send the offender, that they might punish him.
- That if any thing were taken away from any of theirs, he should cause it to be restored; and they should do the like to his.
- If any did unjustly war against him, they would aide him; if any did war against them, he should aide them.
- He should send to his neighbors confederates to certify them of this [treaty], that they might not wrong them [the Pilgrims], but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.
- That when [Massasoyt's] men came to [the Pilgrims,] they should leave their bows and arrows behind them. . . .
They [the Pilgrims] began now to gather in the small harvest they had; and to fit up their houses and dwellings, against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength; and had all things in good plenty, for as some were thus employed in affairs abroad; others were exercised in fishing, about cod, and bass, other fish of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion; all the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first, (but afterward decreased by degrees), and besides water fowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison etc. Besides they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion, which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not fained, but true reports.
What happened next . . .
After solving the initial problems of food and shelter, the Plymouth settlers realized they did not know how to run businesses such as fur trading, which was thriving in other colonies. The colony ultimately proved to be a disappointment to its investors because Pilgrim leaders paid attention to immediate needs rather than long-term plans. For instance, despite extreme food shortages, they invited other Nonconformists to move to Plymouth from Leyden.
As the colony grew, the Pilgrims benefitted from their alliance with Massasoit (1580–1661), the Wampanoag leader who had helped them through the first winter. The result was peaceful trading relationships and an increased food supply in Plymouth. Nevertheless this harmony was disturbed when the colonists found themselves in the middle of battles between the Narragansetts and the Mohegans. Tensions continued to mount, and in the Pequot War (1637) the New England colonies formed an alliance with the Narragansetts to attack a Pequot fort at Mystic, Connecticut. Four hundred Pequots were killed while they were sleeping.
Native Americans were not the only unpredictable element at Plymouth. The colonists also had to contend with the merchant adventurers, many of whom committed crimes. In 1627 Bradford and seven other Pilgrims bought out the merchant adventurers and divided their property evenly among the colonists. As a result, the outcast merchants became part of Pilgrim society and were labeled "Old Comers." Although the Pilgrims had come to America to practice religious freedom, they did not extend the same rights to others. Therefore Plymouth, unlike other colonies in New England, did not become a haven for those who were fleeing persecution.
Plymouth did not have a formal government. In 1630 Bradford tried to forge relations with the more prosperous Massachusetts Bay Colony, but he met resistance from Massachusetts residents. Plymouth finally adopted a formal constitution in 1636. The population grew steadily, reaching seven thousand by the time Plymouth finally became part of Massachusetts in 1691, thirty-four years after Bradford's death.
Did you know . . .
- Although historians have labeled the Plymouth Colony a democracy, there is little proof to support this claim. The people who signed the Mayflower Compact may have exercised power as a group, but they transferred all authority to the governor. When Bradford became governor in 1621, he served as principal judge and treasurer until 1637. He oversaw trade and agriculture, managed profits, and appointed allotments of land to settlers. Since he held executive (responsibility for enforcing laws) and legislative (responsibility for making laws) authority, only he could decide when freemen (former indentured servants who had earned their freedom) were allowed to take part in government. Bradford could also make decisions without the advice of others.
- The Plymouth settlers sent out their first ship loaded with goods—clapboards (boards with one edge thicker than the other used to cover the outer walls of houses) and beaver and otter skins—that were intended to provide a profit to their financial backers in England. The ship was seized by the French, however, and the colony soon became a disappointment to investors.
- Massasoit honored his treaty with the Plymouth colonists for forty years. During this time, the two groups exchanged many friendly visits. When the Wampanoag chief became ill, for instance, Plymouth leaders traveled to his home at Pokanoket to help cure their ally. On several occasions Massasoit or his fellow Wampanoags probably saved the colonists from slaughter by warning them of possible attacks by warring tribes.
For more information
Colbert, David. Eyewitness to America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997, pp. 22–24.
Dubowski, Cathy East. The Story of Squanto: First Friend of the Pilgrims. Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens Publishers, 1997.
"The First Thanksgiving Proclamation (1676)" in Documents Relevant to the United States Before 1700. http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/9061/USA/colonial/bef... Available September 30, 1999.
Hays, Wilma Pitchford. Rebel Pilgrim: A Biography of Governor William Bradford. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969.
"Massasoit." Biographical Dictionary of Indians of the Americas, Volume I. Newport Beach, Calif.: American Indian Publishers, 1991.
Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776. Second edition. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996, pp. 75–80.