December 20, 1620 – English Separatists, now known as the “Pilgrims,” chose Plymouth to be the site of their colony in the New World.
In the early 1600s the official state religion in England was Anglican, run by the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church. The head of the Church also just happened to be the King of England. By law, English citizens were required, at least publicly, to support the church’s rules and practices.
Of course, not everyone wanted to be a part of the Anglican Church. Included among those was a group of Protestants called Puritans, so named because they believed the Anglican Church was corrupt and needed to be “purified.” Puritans wanted to live simple lives where they worked hard and spent their free time reading the Bible, praying, and listening to sermons. Parties, music, and dance were out of the question, as was the celebration of holidays, including Christmas or Easter.
While most Puritans believed that it was their duty to change the Church of England to become more “Pure,” some believed that the Anglican Church was beyond repair. These Puritans believed they should completely separate from the Church of England and form their own religious communities. Consequently, they were called “Separatists.”
Not surprisingly, the King of England – the head of the Anglican Church – did not look favorably upon Puritans. In 1607 King James I began jailing Separatists for refusing to attend the Anglican Church services. As a result, many fled to Holland where they could practice their religion openly and freely. Unfortunately, these Separatists soon found the Dutch culture too liberal and corrupting to their children. To them, a new settlement in America was the answer. Only there, they believed, could they form their perfect religious society.
In 1619 a group of Separatists obtained permission from the Virginia Company of London (which then owned the royal charter for colonies in Virginia) to start a new colony by the Hudson River in what is now New Jersey, at the northern tip of “Virginia.” Technically, they were to be a Virginia colony, like Jamestown, under the ultimate control of the Virginia Company.
Since the Separatists did not have enough money themselves to pay for the voyage to America, they got financial backing for the trip from a group of Puritan businessmen who called themselves “The Merchant Adventurers.” The Adventurers agreed to pay for supplies and ships to carry the Separatists over; upon arriving in America these Separatists –these “Pilgrims” – would then work to repay the Company. When that was done, the Pilgrims would then own their land. For the Pilgrims, this meant that they could finally create their own, Puritan utopia.
In August of 1620 the Pilgrims left England with 102 settlers aboard two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. Their leader was William Bradford, who would eventually serve as the colony’s governor. Not all taking the trip were Pilgrims; more than half were what the Pilgrims called “strangers” – non-Puritans recruited by the Adventurers to help settle and govern the new colony.
From the start the voyage was plagued with problems. The ironically named Speedwell began leaking badly, and so all of the Pilgrims had to leave it behind and cram aboard the tiny Mayflower. Food and water ran dangerously low, passengers got sick, and two died along the way. Still, the Pilgrims were determined to keep going.
Finally, on November 9th, 1620, they arrived in America – but not where they had intended. Due either to bad weather, poor sailing, or a secret plan (since by landing outside of Virginia they would not be subject to Virginia colony rules, and the Virginia colony was officially Anglican), the ship ended up hundreds of miles north from its intended destination. Instead of New Jersey, they found themselves in Cape Cod Bay, in modern day Massachusetts.
For the next month they sailed around the Cape Cod area, exploring and looking for a good place to build their settlement. Finally, in early December, they sailed into Plymouth Harbor, in modern day Massachusetts. After several days of exploration, they discovered an abandoned Indian village, and on December 20th decided to make their settlement there. They named the new colony Plymouth Colony. The site was chosen not only because it offered a good defensive position, being on a hill, but also because the prior Indian villagers had already cleared much of the land, which would make farming relatively easy. They began constructing their new village on December 23, 1620.
Unfortunately for the Pilgrims they had arrived in December, far too late to grow any food. Even though they found some hidden caches of Indian corn, which they took (although, to be fair, they did eventually pay back the owners) their supplies were not sufficient to survive the winter, and half of the colonists died from starvation and disease those first few months. As with Jamestown, the first winter was difficult and deadly. To the Pilgrims everlasting good fortune, however, they had settled in territory belonging to the Wampanoag Confederacy. That simple fact would make all the difference.
The Wampanoag Confederation was a loose coalition of several dozen local tribes. From 1616-1619 the Confederation had been devastated by a European introduced epidemic (probably smallpox, tuberculosis, or plague), losing as much as 90% of its population. It was this epidemic, in fact, which had emptied the village (called Patuxet by the natives) in which the Pilgrims had just settled.
To make matters worse, the disaster had not touched the Wampanoag’s longtime enemies just to the west, the Narragansett (in modern day Connecticut). While the Wampanoag leader or sachem, Massasoit (of the Pokanoket tribe), was struggling hold the Confederation together, Massasoit had been forced to submit to the authority of Canonicus, the Narragansett leader — a terribly humiliating act.
As the Pilgrims suffered through their first winter, Massasoit watched and thought about how to deal with the newcomers. He finally decided that he would not only let the Pilgrims stay but try to make them his allies against the Narragansett. Fortunately for Massasoit, he had with him two natives who could speak English.
One was Samoset, an allied chief, who had learned some English from traders. The other was Tisquantum, also known as Squanto. Tisquantum was a local Patuxet Indian who had been kidnapped in 1614 by Thomas Hunt, an English explorer (and associate of John Smith). Hunt brought Tisquantum back to England to be sold as a slave. There, he was freed, learned the English language, customs, and religion, and then five years later managed to gain passage back to America as a guide on an English expedition to Maine, from where he promptly left and walked back down to his home in Patuxet. Finding his village and entire family gone from the epidemic, he came into Massasoit’s circle
On March 17, 1621, in broad daylight, Samoset walked alone, unarmed, into the center of the Puritan settlement. As the nervous Pilgrim men came to confront him, Samoset said in a loud voice, “Welcome, Englishmen!” The Pilgrims, of course, were stunned. Samoset and the Pilgrim leaders held a brief conversation in broken English where Samoset explained that in a few days Massasoit would come to greet them. After spending the night, Samoset then left.
On March 22, 1621, Samoset returned with Massasoit, Tisquantum, and several hundred warriors. Squanto acted as interpreter. After an exchange of gifts, Massasoit and the colony’s governor, John Carver, established a formal treaty. The Wampanoag and the Pilgrims promised that they would not harm the other, and that they would come to each other’s aid in a time of war. Both sides got what they wanted. The Pilgrims received assurances that they would be free from Indian attacks; Massasoit received a valuable ally against the Narragansett.
Tisquantum proved critical to the colony’s survival. After the treaty between Massasoit and Carver was signed, Tisquantum moved to Plymouth and spent the rest of his life there. He not only acted as the colony’s translator, guide, and ambassador to the Wampanoag, but also taught the Pilgrims how to farm in the New England climate. Tisquantum proved so invaluable to the colonists that several years later, when he tried to double-cross and seize power from Massasoit, the colony refused to turn him over to Massasoit to be executed for treason. Tisquantum died soon after that incident of a mysterious and sudden illness — some historians suspect that Massasoit managed to have him poisoned.
With Wampanoag help the little colony was able to survive, and by fall of 1621 the 51 surviving colonists were able to celebrate a three day “harvest festival” along with Massasoit and 90 of his men. Thus began the myth of “Thanksgiving.” Over the next decade more Separatists (and Strangers) emigrated from England to Plymouth and other, new colonies which slowly spread out into New England. This wave of migration in the 1630s, known as the “Great Puritan Migration,” brought more than 14,000 Puritans to Plymouth and the new Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut and Rhode Island colonies.
As these Puritans spread out across New England, taking advantage of the foothold given to the Pilgrims by Massasoit, their religion, belief in English superiority, and need for more and more Indian land inevitably set them on a collision course with the natives. One by one, tribes in the area either gave in to English expansion or were wiped out in brutal warfare.
While Massasoit remained alive, he was able to maintain peaceful relations with the Plymouth colonists, hold on to enough Wampanoag land, and resist English pressure on his people to convert to Christianity. He could not live forever, however. After his death in 1661, it was only a matter of time before the Wampanoag suffered the same fate as all other New England tribes. That time would come in 1675-1676, in King Philip’s War.