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The Pilgrims or Pilgrim Fathers were early European settlers of the Plymouth Colony in present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States. The Pilgrims' leadership came from the religious congregations of Brownist English Dissenters who had fled the volatile political environment in England for the relative calm and tolerance of 16th–17th century Holland in the Netherlands. The Pilgrims held Puritan Calvinist religious beliefs but, unlike other Puritans, they maintained that their congregations needed to be separated from the English state church. As a separatist group, they were also concerned that they might lose their English cultural identity if they remained in the Netherlands, so they arranged with English investors to establish a new colony in North America. The colony was established in 1620 and became the second successful English settlement in North America (after the founding of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607). The Pilgrims' story became a central theme of the history and culture of the United States.
The core of the group that came to be known as the Pilgrims were brought together between 1586 and 1605 by shared theological beliefs, as expressed by Richard Clyfton, a Brownist parson at All Saints' Parish Church in Babworth, near East Retford, Nottinghamshire. This congregation held Puritan beliefs comparable to other non-conforming movements (i.e., groups not in communion with the Church of England) led by Robert Browne, John Greenwood, and Henry Barrowe. As Separatists, they also held that their differences with the Church of England were irreconcilable and that their worship should be independent of the trappings, traditions, and organization of a central church—unlike those Puritans who maintained their membership in and allegiance to the Church of England. William Brewster, a former diplomatic assistant to the Netherlands, was living in the Scrooby manor house, serving as postmaster for the village and bailiff to the Archbishop of York. He had been impressed by Clyfton's services and had begun participating in services led by John Smyth in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire.
The Puritan Separatists had long been controversial. Under the 1559 Act of Uniformity, it was illegal not to attend official Church of England services unless the church had signed the allegiance to the Church of England, with a fine of one shilling (£0.05; about £17 today) for each missed Sunday and holy day. The penalties for conducting unofficial services included imprisonment and larger fines. Under the policy of this time, Barrowe and Greenwood were executed for sedition in 1593.
The Puritans though they differ in Ceremonies and accidentes, yet they agree with us in substance of religion, and I thinke all or the moste parte of them love his Majestie, and the presente state, and I hope will yield to conformitie. But the Papistes are opposite and contrarie in very many substantiall pointes of religion, and cannot but wishe the Popes authoritie and popish religion to be established.
Many Puritans had hoped that a reconciliation would be possible when James came to power which allowed them independence, but the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 denied substantially all the concessions which they had requested—except for an English translation of the Bible. Following the Conference in 1605, Clyfton was declared a non-conformist and stripped of his position at Babworth. Brewster invited him to live at his home.
Archbishop Hutton died in 1606 and Tobias Matthew was appointed as his replacement. He was one of James' chief supporters at the 1604 conference, and he promptly began a campaign to purge the archdiocese of non-conforming influences, both Puritans and those wishing to return to the Catholic faith. Disobedient clergy were replaced, and prominent Separatists were confronted, fined, and imprisoned. He is credited with driving recusants out of the country, those who refused to attend Anglican services.
At about the same time, Brewster arranged for a congregation to meet privately at the Scrooby manor house. Services were held beginning in 1606, with Clyfton as pastor, John Robinson as teacher, and Brewster as the presiding elder. Shortly thereafter, Smyth and members of the Gainsborough group moved on to Amsterdam. Brewster is known to have been fined £20 (about £3.96 thousand today) in absentia for his non-compliance with the church. This followed his September 1607 resignation from the postmaster position, about the time that the congregation had decided to follow the Smyth party to Amsterdam.
But after these things they could not long continue in any peaceable condition, but were hunted & persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken & clapt up in prison, others had their houses besett & watcht night and day, & hardly escaped their hands; and ye most were faine to flie & leave their howses & habitations, and the means of their livelehood.
They lived in Leiden, Holland, a city of 100,000 inhabitants, residing in small houses behind the "Kloksteeg" opposite the Pieterskerk. The success of the congregation in Leiden was mixed. Leiden was a thriving industrial center, and many members were well able to support themselves working at Leiden University or in the textile, printing, and brewing trades. Others were less able to bring in sufficient income, hampered by their rural backgrounds and the language barrier; for those, accommodations were made on an estate bought by Robinson and three partners.
Bradford wrote of their years in Leiden:
For these & other reasons they removed to Leyden, a fair & bewtifull citie, and of a sweete situation, but made more famous by ye universitie wherwith it is adorned, in which of late had been so many learned man. But wanting that traffike by sea which Amerstdam injoyes, it was not so beneficiall for their outward means of living & estats. But being now hear pitchet they fell to such trads & imployments as they best could; valewing peace & their spirituall comforte above any other riches whatsoever. And at length they came to raise a competente & comforteable living, but with hard and continuall labor.
Brewster had been teaching English at the university, and Robinson enrolled in 1615 to pursue his doctorate. There he participated in a series of debates, particularly regarding the contentious issue of Calvinism versus Arminianism (siding with the Calvinists against the Remonstrants). Brewster acquired typesetting equipment about 1616 in a venture financed by Thomas Brewer, and began publishing the debates through a local press.
The Netherlands, however, was a land whose culture and language were strange and difficult for the English congregation to understand or learn. They found the Dutch morals much too libertine, and their children were becoming more and more Dutch as the years passed. The congregation came to believe that they faced eventual extinction if they remained there.
By 1617, the congregation was stable and relatively secure, but there were ongoing issues that needed to be resolved. Bradford noted that many members of the congregation were showing signs of early aging, compounding the difficulties which some had in supporting themselves. A few had spent their savings and so gave up and returned to England. It was feared that more would follow and that the congregation would become unsustainable. The employment issues made it unattractive for others to come to Leiden, and younger members had begun leaving to find employment and adventure elsewhere. Also compelling was the possibility of missionary work, an opportunity that rarely arose in a Protestant stronghold.
Reasons for departure are suggested by Bradford when he notes the "discouragements" of the hard life which they had in the Netherlands, and the hope of attracting others by finding "a better, and easier place of living"; the children of the group being "drawn away by evil examples into extravagance and dangerous courses"; the "great hope, for the propagating and advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world."
Edward Winslow's list was similar. In addition to the economic worries and missionary possibilities, he stressed that it was important for the people to retain their English identity, culture, and language. They also believed that the English Church in Leiden could do little to benefit the larger community there.
At the same time, there were many uncertainties about moving to such a place as America. Stories had come back from there about failed colonies. There were fears that the native people would be violent, that there would be no source of food or water, that exposure to unknown diseases was possible, and that travel by sea was always hazardous. Balancing all this was a local political situation that was in danger of becoming unstable. The truce was faltering in what came to be known as the Eighty Years' War, and there was fear over what the attitudes of Spain might be toward them.
Candidate destinations included Guiana, where the Dutch had already established Essequibo, or somewhere near the existing Virginia settlements. Virginia was an attractive destination because the presence of the older colony might offer better security and trade opportunities. It was thought, however, that they should not settle too near, since that might too closely duplicate the political environment back in England. The London Company administered a territory of considerable size in the region. The intended settlement location was at the mouth of the Hudson River. This made it possible to settle at a distance which allayed concerns of social, political, and religious conflicts, but still provided the military and economic benefits of relative closeness to an established colony.
Robert Cushman and John Carver were sent to England to solicit a land patent. Their negotiations were delayed because of conflicts internal to the London Company, but ultimately a patent was secured in the name of John Wincob on June 9 (Old Style)/June 19 (New Style), 1619. The charter was granted with the king's condition that the Leiden group's religion would not receive official recognition.
Preparations stalled because of the continued problems within the London Company. Competing Dutch companies approached the congregation and discussed with them the possibility of settling in the Hudson River area.
David Baeckelandt suggests that the Leiden group was approached by Englishman Matthew Slade, son-in-law of Petrus Placius, a cartographer for the Dutch East India Company. Slade was also a spy for the English Ambassador. The Puritans' plans were therefore known both at court and among influential investors in the Virginia Company's colony at Jamestown. Negotiations were broken off with the Dutch at the encouragement of English merchant Thomas Weston, who assured them that he could resolve the London Company delays. The London Company intended to claim the area explored by Hudson before the Dutch could become fully established. The first Dutch settlers did not arrive in the area until 1624.
Weston did come with a substantial change, telling the Leiden group that parties in England had obtained a land grant north of the existing Virginia territory to be called New England. This was only partially true; the new grant did come to pass, but not until late in 1620 when the Plymouth Council for New England received its charter. It was expected that this area could be fished profitably, and it was not under the control of the existing Virginia government.
A second change was known only to parties in England who chose not to inform the larger group. New investors had been brought into the venture who wanted the terms altered so that, at the end of the seven-year contract, half of the settled land and property would revert to the investors. Also, there had been a provision which allowed each settler to have two days per week to work on personal business, but this provision had been dropped from the agreement without the knowledge of the Puritans.
Amid these negotiations, William Brewster found himself involved with religious unrest emerging in Scotland. In 1618, King James had promulgated the Five Articles of Perth which were seen in Scotland as an attempt to encroach on their Presbyterian tradition. Pamphlets critical of this law were published by Brewster and smuggled into Scotland by April 1619. These pamphlets were traced back to Leiden, and a failed attempt to apprehend Brewster was made in July when his presence in England became known.
Also in July in Leiden, English ambassador Dudley Carleton became aware of the situation and began leaning on the Dutch government to extradite Brewster. An arrest was made in September, but only Thomas Brewer the financier was in custody. Brewster's whereabouts remain unknown between then and the colonists' departure. Brewster's type was seized. After several months of delay, Brewer was sent to England for questioning, where he stonewalled government officials until well into 1620. One resulting concession that England did obtain from the Netherlands was a restriction on the press, making such publications illegal to produce.
Thomas Brewer was ultimately convicted in England for his continued religious publication activities and sentenced in 1626 to a fourteen-year prison term.
Not all of the congregation were able to depart on the first trip. Many members were not able to settle their affairs within the time constraints, and the budget was limited for travel and supplies. It was decided that the initial settlement should be undertaken primarily by younger and stronger members. The remainder agreed to follow if and when they could.
Robinson would remain in Leiden with the larger portion of the congregation, and Brewster was to lead the American congregation. The church in America would be run independently, but it was agreed that membership would automatically be granted in either congregation to members who moved between the continents.
With personal and business matters agreed upon, supplies and a small ship were procured. Speedwell was to bring some passengers from the Netherlands to England, then on to America where it would be kept for the fishing business, with a crew hired for support services during the first year. The larger ship Mayflower was leased for transport and exploration services.
The Speedwell was originally named Swiftsure. It was built in 1577 at sixty tons, and was part of the English fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada. It departed Delfshaven in July 1620 with the Leiden colonists, after a canal ride from Leyden of about seven hours. It reached Southampton, Hampshire and met with the Mayflower and the additional colonists hired by the investors. With final arrangements made, the two vessels set out on August 5 (Old Style)/August 15 (New Style).
Soon thereafter, the Speedwell crew reported that their ship was taking in water, so both were diverted to Dartmouth, Devon. There it was inspected for leaks and sealed, but a second attempt to depart also failed, bringing them only as far as Plymouth, Devon. It was decided that Speedwell was untrustworthy, and it was sold; the ship's master and some of the crew transferred to the Mayflower for the trip. William Bradford observed that the Speedwell seemed "overmasted", thus putting a strain on the hull; and he attributed her leaking to crew members who had deliberately caused it, allowing them to abandon their year-long commitments. Passenger Robert Cushman wrote that the leaking was caused by a loose board.
Of the 120 combined passengers, 102 were chosen to travel on the Mayflower with the supplies consolidated. Of these, about half had come by way of Leiden, and about 28 of the adults were members of the congregation. The reduced party finally sailed successfully on September 6 (Old Style)/September 16 (New Style), 1620.
Initially the trip went smoothly, but under way they were met with strong winds and storms. One of these caused a main beam to crack, and the possibility was considered of turning back, even though they were more than halfway to their destination. However, they repaired the ship sufficiently to continue using a "great iron screw" brought along by the colonists (probably either a jack to be used for house construction or a cider press). Passenger John Howland was washed overboard in the storm but caught a top-sail halyard trailing in the water and was pulled back on board.
Land was sighted on November 9, 1620. The passengers had endured miserable conditions for about sixty-five days, and they were led by William Brewster in Psalm 100 as a prayer of thanksgiving. It was confirmed that the area was Cape Cod, within the New England territory recommended by Weston. An attempt was made to sail the ship around the cape towards the Hudson River, also within the New England grant area, but they encountered shoals and difficult currents around Cape Malabar (the old French name for present-day Monomoy). It was decided to turn around, and by November 11/November 12 the ship was anchored in what is today known as Provincetown Harbor.
The charter was incomplete for the Plymouth Council for New England when the colonists departed England (it was granted while they were in transit on November 3/November 13). They arrived without a patent; the older Wincob patent was from their abandoned dealings with the London Company. Some of the passengers, aware of the situation, suggested that they were free to do as they chose upon landing, without a patent in place, and to ignore the contract with the investors.
A brief contract was drafted to address this issue, later known as the Mayflower Compact, promising cooperation among the settlers "for the general good of the Colony unto which we promise all due submission and obedience." It organized them into what was called a "civill body politick," in which issues would be decided by voting, the key ingredient of democracy. It was ratified by majority rule, with 41 adult male Pilgrims signing for the 102 passengers (seventy-three males and twenty-nine females). Included in the company were nineteen male servants and three female servants, along with some sailors and craftsmen hired for short-term service to the colony. At this time, John Carver was chosen as the colony's first governor. It was Carver who had chartered the Mayflower and his is the first signature on the Mayflower Compact, being the most respected and affluent member of the group. The Mayflower Compact was the seed of American democracy and has been called the world's first written constitution.
Thorough exploration of the area was delayed for over two weeks because the shallop or pinnace (a smaller sailing vessel) which they brought had been partially dismantled to fit aboard the Mayflower and was further damaged in transit. Small parties, however, waded to the beach to fetch firewood and attend to long-deferred personal hygiene.
Exploratory parties were undertaken while awaiting the shallop, led by Myles Standish (an English soldier whom the colonists had met while in Leiden) and Christopher Jones. They encountered an old European-built house and iron kettle, left behind by some ship's crew, and a few recently cultivated fields, showing corn stubble.
An artificial mound was found near the dunes which they partially uncovered and found to be a Native grave. Further along, a similar mound was found, more recently made, and they stole provisions which had been placed in the graves, as the colonists feared that they might otherwise starve. Baskets of maize were found inside, some of which the colonists pilfered and placed into an iron kettle that they also found nearby, while they reburied the rest, intending to use the corn as seed for planting.
They also found two of the Indian's houses covered with mats, and some of their implements in them; but the people had run away and could not be seen. Without permission they took more corn, and beans of various colours. These they brought away, intending to give them full satisfaction (payment) when they should meet with any of them, – as about six months afterwards they did.
And it is to be noted as a special providence of God, and a great mercy to this poor people, that they thus got seed to plant corn the next year, or they might have starved; for they had none, nor any likelihood of getting any, till too late for the planting season.
By December, most of the passengers and crew had become ill, coughing violently. Many were also suffering from the effects of scurvy. There had already been ice and snowfall, hampering exploration efforts. During the first winter, half of them died.
Explorations resumed on December 6/December 16. The shallop party headed south along the cape, seven colonists from Leiden, three from London, and seven crew, and chose to land at the area inhabited by the Nauset people (roughly present-day Brewster, Chatham, Eastham, Harwich, and Orleans), where they saw some native people on the shore who fled when the colonists approached. Inland they found more mounds, one containing acorns, which they exhumed and left, and more graves, which they decided not to dig.
Remaining ashore overnight, they heard cries near the encampment. The following morning, they were met by native people who proceeded to shoot at them with arrows. The colonists retrieved their firearms and shot back, then chased them into the woods but did not find them. There was no more contact with native people for several months.
The local people were already familiar with the English, who had intermittently visited the area for fishing and trade before Mayflower arrived. In the Cape Cod area, relations were poor following a visit several years earlier by Thomas Hunt. Hunt kidnapped twenty people from Patuxet (the place that became New Plymouth) and another seven from Nausett, and he attempted to sell them as slaves in Europe. One of the Patuxet abductees was Squanto, who became an ally of the Plymouth colony.
The Pokanoket also lived nearby and had developed a particular dislike for the English after one group came in, captured numerous people, and shot them aboard their ship. By this time, there had already been reciprocal killings at Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod. But during one of the captures by the English, Squanto escaped to England and there became a Christian. When he came back, he found that most of his tribe had died from plague.
Continuing westward, the shallop's mast and rudder were broken by storms, and their sail was lost. They rowed for safety, encountering the harbor formed by the current Duxbury and Plymouth barrier beaches and stumbling on land in the darkness. They remained at this spot for two days to recuperate and repair equipment. It was named Clark's Island for a Mayflower mate who first set foot on that island.
Resuming exploration on Monday, December 11/December 21, 1620, the party crossed over to the mainland and surveyed the area that ultimately became the settlement. The anniversary of this survey is observed in Massachusetts as Forefathers' Day and is traditionally associated with the Plymouth Rock landing tradition. This land was especially suited to winter building because it had already been cleared, and the tall hills provided a good defensive position.
The cleared village was known as Patuxet to the Wampanoag people, and was abandoned about three years earlier following a plague that killed all of its residents. The "Indian fever" involved hemorrhaging and is assumed to have been fulminating smallpox introduced by European traders. The outbreak had been severe enough that the colonists discovered unburied skeletons in abandoned dwellings. With the local population in such a weakened state, the colonists faced no resistance to settling there.
The exploratory party returned to the Mayflower, anchored twenty-five miles (40 km) away, having been brought to the harbor on December 16/December 26. Only nearby sites were evaluated, with a hill in Plymouth (so named on earlier charts) chosen on December 19/December 29.
Construction commenced immediately, with the first common house nearly completed by January 9/January 19, twenty feet square built for general use. At this point, single men were ordered to join with one of the nineteen families, in order to eliminate the need to build any more houses than absolutely necessary. Each extended family was assigned a plot one-half rod wide and three rods long for each household member, then each family built their own dwelling. Supplies were brought ashore, and the settlement was mostly complete by early February.
When the first house was finished, it immediately became a hospital for the ill Pilgrims. Thirty-one of the company were dead by the end of February, with deaths still rising. Coles Hill, a prominence above the beach, became the first cemetery, with the graves allowed to overgrow with grass for fear that the Indians would discover how weakened the settlement had actually become.
Between the landing and March, only 47 colonists had survived the diseases that they contracted on the ship. During the worst of the sickness, only six or seven of the group were able to feed and care for the rest. In this time, half the Mayflower crew also died.
William Bradford became governor in 1621 upon the death of John Carver. On March 22, 1621, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony signed a peace treaty with Massasoit of the Wampanoags. The patent of Plymouth Colony was surrendered by Bradford to the freemen in 1640, minus a small reserve of three tracts of land. Bradford served for eleven consecutive years, and was elected to various other terms until his death in 1657.
The first use of the word "pilgrims" for the Mayflower passengers appeared in William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation. As he finished recounting his group's July 1620 departure from Leiden, he used the imagery of Hebrews 11:13–16 about Old Testament "strangers and pilgrims" who had the opportunity to return to their old country but instead longed for a better, heavenly country.
So they lefte [that] goodly & pleasante citie, which had been ther resting place, nere 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on these things; but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits.
There is no record of the term Pilgrims being used to describe Plymouth's founders for 150 years after Bradford wrote this passage, except when quoting him. The Mayflower's story was retold by historians Nathaniel Morton (in 1669) and Cotton Mather (in 1702), and both paraphrased Bradford's passage and used his word pilgrims. At Plymouth's Forefathers' Day observance in 1793, Rev. Chandler Robbins recited this passage.
The name Pilgrims was probably not in popular use before about 1798, even though Plymouth celebrated Forefathers' Day several times between 1769 and 1798 and used a variety of terms to honor Plymouth's founders. Pilgrims was not mentioned, other than in Robbins' 1793 recitation. The first documented use that was not simply quoting Bradford was at a December 22, 1798 celebration of Forefathers' Day in Boston. A song composed for the occasion used the word Pilgrims, and the participants drank a toast to "The Pilgrims of Leyden". The term was used prominently during Plymouth's next Forefather's Day celebration in 1800, and was used in Forefathers' Day observances thereafter.
By the 1820s, the term Pilgrims was becoming more common. Daniel Webster repeatedly referred to "the Pilgrims" in his December 22, 1820 address for Plymouth's bicentennial, which was widely read. Harriet Vaughan Cheney used it in her 1824 novel A Peep at the Pilgrims in Sixteen Thirty-Six, and the term also gained popularity with the 1825 publication of Felicia Hemans's classic poem "The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers".
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