2020 was the year to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first group of Separatist Pilgrims to North America, but, like so many plans for 2020, many celebrations had to be canceled or revised while some digital ways opened. The iconic Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth even closed for the pandemic. Although my blog has focused mostly on the early settlement of Virginia, I want to give a shout out before the end of this year to the brave Pilgrims and their associates in the Plymouth Colony.
Frought with risk, the …project endured a long period of trial, experiment, and error. Deeply in debt to their backers in London, and chronically short of supplies to keep their feet shod, their muskets loaded, and their small boats afloat, they needed a commodity to send back to England to be swapped for silver coins or used to redeem their IOUs. 
Is that a description of the Jamestown or the Plymouth Colony? While it could apply to both, that was written about Plymouth. There were distinctive differences in the two ventures, but colonization in the early years was simply hard. The stories of Jamestown and Plymouth share many similar challenges, tragedies, resources, influential figures, and impact.
In 1606, both the Jamestown adventurers and a group of English Separatists (not yet called Pilgrims) from parts of Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire were planning to leave England. The 104 passengers bound for Jamestown boarded their ships in December and then waited just off England’s coast for six weeks for favorable winds to take them West. The 125 or so religious dissidents were planning to secretly head south to Amsterdam, fearful of imprisonment or worse if caught worshipping in their congregations independent of the Church of England. However, as they prepared to sail in 1607, the Separatists were betrayed by their ship’s captain and taken into custody. The next year, they tried to escape on a Dutch ship, but only 16 men boarded before the militia came and forced the other 80 to stay behind. However, the militia did not know what to do with the mostly women and children, now homeless, and somehow they were allowed to make their way to Holland. In 1609, this English group ultimately congregated in the university town of Leiden. 
Although allowed to worship as they wished in Holland, they were still surrounded by religious turmoil among the differing persuasions of Calvinistic Protestantism. Yet, William Bradford, an important Pilgrim leader and chronicler, remembered “peace and love and holiness” within their congregation during those years under the leadership of John Robinson and William Brewster. Despite their own harmony, these Separatists struggled in Holland to maintain their English language and group identity while not having access to better jobs and opportunities because they were not Dutch. They also worried that their youth were being drawn too much into worldly ways in that highly commercial setting. 
As with the rest of the English world, the Separatists had their eye on the Jamestown experiment. Dissatisfied with what they could achieve in Holland, they began to explore the possibility of going to the New World and sought a charter to settle in “Northern Virginia,” an area known today as the Hudson River Valley in New York. The French had already settled Acadia along the St. Lawrence River in 1604, and English ships were busy fishing around Newfoundland and the Eastern seaboard. Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, who commanded the Godspeed in the first voyage to Jamestown and served on its first ruling council, had explored the New England coast and named Cape Cod in 1602. Sadly, he died only a few months after the arrival at Jamestown in 1607. Captain John Smith, who like Gosnold was on the first Jamestown voyage and served with him on the ruling council, went on to preside over Jamestown until he had to return to England in 1609 due to a gunpowder incident. While Captain Smith never returned to Jamestown, he further explored the New England coast in 1614 and published his map in 1616. Captain Smith apparently offered his services to take the Leiden Separatists, but was refused, as he wrote that they said, ” my books and maps were much better cheape to teach them, than myself.” 
However, to settle in Virginia, the Separatists needed both English approval and funding. Taking advantage of some political turmoil in Europe, they turned to sympathetic English friends, comparing themselves to the displaced French Huguenots. Sir John Wolstenholme, one of the more senior members of the Virginia Company of London, was approached and with the assistance of Fulke Greville, a member of the King’s Privy Council, and Sir Edwin Sandys, who had taken the lead in the Virginia Company, the Leiden group were finally granted a patent to settle in the area designated as Virginia. Despite theological issues, it was thought desirable to have another English colony to the north to block colonization efforts by other European powers. 
While the Virginia Company could help the Leiden Separatists gain permission, it could not offer financial support. Unlike many Puritans, the Separatists did not see wealth as the sign of God’s favor, and whatever they might have had, they had spent on going to Holland where they worked in low paying jobs. Most could not afford passage. When King James had initially chartered the Virginia Company in 1606, he had also chartered a Plymouth Virginia Company with the intent for a northern settlement. The Plymouth group actually sent 29 settlers headed to Maine in 1606 before the Jamestown group sailed, but going via the West Indies, they were captured by the Spanish and sent to Spain in chains. In August 1607, the Plymouth Company sent 100 colonists to Sagadahoc, Maine under George Popham, but with his death and quarrelsome factions, that colony was abandoned in 1608. A version of the Plymouth Company was reestablished as a means to finance the Leiden Separatists’ journey. About 70 London merchants and craftsmen called Adventurers agreed to invest in the project, although they did not have the “deep pockets” or resources of the more wealthy Virginia Company investors. William Brewster was appointed to lead the group for America, while Pastor John Robinson agreed to stay with the hundreds left in Leiden. They hoped for an early reunion of the groups, but it was not to be, and Robinson died before the next group could leave. 
Only 44 of the Leiden Separatists were on the Mayflower. Thy referred to their other fellow passengers as “Strangers” as they were not of their faith community. While some respected the Separatist beliefs, others did not . The intent was to take two ships, but they had to turn back to England when the smaller ship Speedwell developed serious leaks. The Mayflower which finally left England on September 6, 1620 was late for the season and overcrowded. Despite serious storms, having their main mast damaged, and nearly losing a man overboard, only one passenger and one crewmen died before reaching land. 
However, they did not land in “Northern Virginia.” Whether it was intentional, an accident, or simply forces of nature, the Mayflower instead arrived at Cape Cod on November 9. After a brief exploration, they landed at Plymouth on December 11, 1620. The site had been named Plymouth four years before their arrival on the map created by John Smith. Obviously, there was no time to plant, and much of their food had been consumed on the journey. The colonists initially lived on the boat while they started construction on a common building for shelter and storage. Thwarted by the winter weather, disease, and death, it was not completed until January 20. 
Arriving north of “northern” Virginia meant these settlers would not be subject to Virginia’s government or Anglican Church constraints. Some non-Separatist “Strangers” let it be known they could not be made to obey the Separatist leaders either. With great wisdom, and in short order, a concise compact was drawn up, probably by Bradford, which was signed by 41 free adult males on November 11, 1620. Using language often found in other charters and compacts, it concisely put in place a system of agreed-upon governance under which they functioned until incorporated in the 1636 Codified Plymouth Book of Laws. In 1619, Sir Edwin Sandys had been instrumental in establishing representative government in Virginia through a charter for the House of Burgesses, but the Mayflower Compact took self governance a step farther as it was created by the colonists, not granted by authorities. 
… We, whose names are underwritten… having undertaken… a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience.
At Jamestown, 60 settlers out of their group of 104 died that first year from disease, starvation and Powhatan attacks. The first settlers at Plymouth did not fare much better. Suffering from scurvy, lack of food, and the freezing New England temperatures, 52 of the 99 passengers died in their first year. Unlike the original Jamestown settlers who were all men or boys, the majority of Mayflower passengers had traveled as families. Of the 19 women, 14 died; 3 of the 15 youths; 6 of the 14 children; and over half of the 50 men. The Pilgrim Hall Museum recently published a powerful chart portraying the Mayflower passengers as families and indicating those who survived to the first Thanksgiving. Some entire families perished. Unlike Jamestown whose problems with disease, brackish water, and hostile tribes persisted, the Plymouth Colony was able to stabilize and provide a healthier environment with fewer deaths in the subsequent years, although there would be lean times with insufficient provisions. 
For clarity, I have chosen to subsequently refer to those religious Separatists from Leiden who came to America as the “Saints,” as has historian Martyn Whittock, to distinguish them from the other non-believing “Stranger” colonists who were also part of the Plymouth Colony. Although the Saints were the instigators for the colony and were generally selected as its governmental leaders, it is important to remember they were just a subset of the Plymouth colonists. It was the Saints’ desire to bring their fellow Separatists from Leiden to Plymouth as quickly as possible. However, their English investors made the decision of who to send, and they looked for those who could pay their own passage and/or showed potential for creating a profit. Over its first nine years, Plymouth received about 362 new emigrants, but less than a third of them were Separatists. Rather than being able to escape the world to set up an independent idyllic community, the Saint Pilgrims were forced to bring the world with them for financial backing. 
Some non-Saints were helpful, such as Stephen Hopkins who had been a prior immigrant to Virginia. Being one of those on the SeaVenture that was shipwrecked on Bermuda for a year and then spending two years in Virginia after the starving time, he had considerable experience with survival which he shared at Plymouth, although he also made his share of trouble for the colony. Miles Standish, about whom Longfellow wrote the iconic poem regarding his unsuccessful courtship, was a veteran of the Low Countries wars and served faithfully as the Captain of the Plymouth militia. Bradford wrote of him, “he is as helpful an instrument as any we have and as careful of the general good.”
John Pory, the Secretary of Virginia under Governor Yeardley, also performed a brief service for the Plymouth Colony when, after a visit there in 1623, he wrote to notables in London about Plymouth’s piety, hard work, and achievements. As Pory knew, independent praise of struggling colonies was rarely sent back home, and the Plymouth leaders were grateful. However, there were also conflicts and divisions between the Plymouth groups. Some settled apart; others returned to England or went south to Virginia. When Thomas Morton, who was reported to hold drunken orgies in his encampment, was accused of illegal trading of guns and liquor to the native tribes, the Plymouth leaders finally had reason to have him and his followers shipped back to England in 1628. 
The Plymouth colonists generally had more positive relationships with their native neighbors than did the Virginians. Fortunately, when they arrived at Plymouth, they did not have to compete for land as it had been left abandoned when almost all the Wampanoag at that site had died of a disease that had swept through several years before. The settlers were certainly startled on March 16 when a native man named Samoset walked into their village and addressed them in English which he had learned from coastal traders. Ascertaining that the colonists desired peaceful cooperation, Samoset introduced them to Tisquantum (Squanto) and Massasoit, the sachem (chief) of the local tribes, and a trade and peace agreement was arranged. Tisquantum was a skilled translator, for he had been one of 27 native people who were kidnapped by an earlier English trader, Thomas Hunt, to sell as slaves in Spain. Tisquantum had managed to escape and flee to England where he was befriended by an English merchant before returning to his own land. Tisquantum may have benefited from the excitement in London in 1617 over the visit of Pocahontas, the exotic Jamestown Powhatan princess. 
Positive relations with the Wampanoag was further evidenced when Plymouth held its now famous “Thanksgiving feast” in the fall of 1621. Despite later embellishments to the story, it was never called a Thanksgiving Day by the colonists (which would have been a day of fasting and prayer) and was not a regularly repeated event. The Pilgrim Edward Winslow wrote that the governor desired “that we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labours,” so he sent four men fowling. It is unclear if inviting the Indians was ever part of the plan, but somehow the word got out and “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer….And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.” 
However, all did not go as smoothly with other tribal groupings, often exacerbated by the actions of “rough and unruly” men. Under the former investor, Thomas Weston, a group left Plymouth and set up their own settlement called Wassagusset (Weymouth). When food became scarce, they stole from natives associated with Wituwamat, a brave believed to have murdered French traders. In retaliation, that tribal group threatened to attack and wipe out Wessagusset. Feeling obligated to defend them, Captain Standish and his Plymouth soldiers decided to take the offensive and tricked the Indians into a blockhouse where they were murdered. The soldiers cut off the head of the leader which they displayed at their fort in Plymouth as a warning. The Pilgrim leaders were disapproving, but forgiving to Standish. Relations were soothed with the skilled healing of Massasoit by Edward Winslow. 
Yet, in 1636, only 16 years after Plymouth was founded, its citizens joined its Puritan neighbors in the horrific Pequot Wars where over 700 of the Pequot tribe were either killed or sold into slavery in the West Indies. The famous Powhatan Uprising in Jamestown had occurred 15 years after its settlement. Both groups had wanted peaceful relations with the native tribes when they first arrived and naively hoped that the “barbarians” would eagerly embrace Protestant Christianity, but soon found irreconcilable differences. We still need to work on our relationships with our First Peoples.
The relationship between the colonists and their Adventurer investors became increasingly strained. In 1626, the company of Plymouth Adventurers broke up, no longer able to sustain the debts and loses. Three of them went on to combine with eight of the colony’s leaders in a joint project as “Undertakers” to buy out the assets and debts through shipments of furs, particularly beaver fur, for which they received a monopoly for six years. The Undertakers finally focused on the emigration of the remaining Leiden Separatists, believing their group could still “begin a new world and lay the foundations of sound piety and humanity for others to follow.” In 1629, nine years after the first Pilgrims had come, a second Mayflower arrived with most of the remaining Leiden group, and, by 1630, almost 300 had come. However, it was felt that those successful in Holland could later make it on their own, so the “weakest and the poorest” from Leiden had been sent, further straining the colony’s limited resources. The debts incurred by the Undertakers were not fully resolved until 1642. 
However, even with this great influx of believing immigrants, the isolated and pious community they had once imagined had been tainted by the realities of colonization. William Bradford wondered that “so many wicked persons and profane people should so quickly come over into this land and mix themselves amongst them…seeing it was religious men that began the work and they came for religion’s sake.” The Plymouth Colony continued independent until 1691 when it was made part of the English Province of Massachusetts Bay, but it had already been overshadowed by other events. In 1630, the Great Migration of Puritans started, founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony to Plymouth’s north. After the victory of the Puritan forces in the English Civil War, it became less clear what the Separatists were separating from.
As William Bradford reflected on his journey with these Saints, he lamented, ” Oh sacred bond, whilst inviolably preserved. How sweet and precious were the fruits….But that subtle serpent hath slyly wound in himself under fair pretenses of necessity…to untwist these sacred bonds and ties….I have been happy… to see and, with much comfort, enjoy the blessed fruit of this sweet communion, but it is now part of my misery in old age, to find and feel the decay and want thereof….” Yet, he charged the rising generation to be the “best and most godly expositors…those shining lights that God hath raised up.” When William Bradford died in 1657, there were 11 towns and over 2,000 people in the Plymouth Colony. 
Both Jamestown and Plymouth were founded on dreams. One hoped for opportunities to advance, own land, and create wealth under a responsible and responsive government; the other, to build a virtuous community of faith. Neither dream was fully realized. Yet, the vestiges of those dreams remain intertwined in our complex national character–fostering free enterprise tempered with moral responsibility and social equality under a representative government. They should be viewed as complementary, not competing or exclusionary stories of our founding.
Nest Post: Envisioning the Invisible: the Lynnhaven House of Adam and Sarah Thorowgood (finally!)
: Bunker, Nick, Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), 4.
: Bailyn, Bernard, The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 323-325. Whittock, Martyn, Mayflower Lives: Pilgrims in a New World and the Early American Experience (New York: Pegasus Books, 2019), 23-30.
: Bailyn, 325-326.
: Haile, Edward Wright. ed., Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony (Champlain, VA: Round House, 1998), 9-12. Stratton, Eugene Aubrey, Plymouth Colony: Its History & People 1620-1691 (Provo, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 1986), 19.
: Bunker, 25-30. Haskell, Alexander B., For God, King, & People: Forging Commonwealth Bonds in Renaissance Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 238.
: Bailyn, 327. Haile, 12-14, 19-20.
 Bailyn, 329-337.
: Bunker, 287.
: Bunker, 281-282.
: Stratton, 21-22. Deetz, James and Patricia Scott Deetz, The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony (New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 2000), 37. Pilgrim Hall Museum, The Mayflower Passengers (Plymouth, Massachusetts, Pilgram Hall, 2020), chart.
: Stratton, 27-29. Whittock, xi-xiii.
: Stratton, 23-24. Bailyn 345-350. Bunker, 349.
: Bunker, 288, 293-296. Stratton, 20.
: Deetz, 1-5.
: Bailyn, 339-340. Bunker, 329-330. Haskell, 236
: Bailyn, 347-349. Bunker, 4-5. Stratton, 20, 27.
: Bailyn, 353-357, 364. Whittock, 37-41.