Plymouth Colony

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Plymouth Colony

Plymouth Colony, settlement made by the Pilgrims on the coast of Massachusetts in 1620.


Previous attempts at colonization in America (1606, 1607–8) by the Plymouth Company, chartered in 1606 along with the London Company (see Virginia Company), were unsuccessful and resulted in the company's inactivation for a number of years. In 1620 the Plymouth Company, reorganized as the Council for New England, secured a new charter from King James I, granting it all the territory from lat. 40° N to lat. 48° N and from sea to sea. Also in 1620 the Pilgrims, having secured a patent granting them colonization privileges in the territory of the London Company, left Leiden and proceeded to Southampton, where the Mayflower was fitting out for Virginia.

The Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England, and in Nov., 1620, sighted the coast of Cape Cod instead of Virginia. In December, after five weeks spent in exploring the coast, the ship finally anchored in Plymouth harbor, and the Pilgrims established a settlement. As the patent from the London Company was invalid in New England, the Pilgrims drew up an agreement called the Mayflower Compact, which pledged allegiance to the English king but established a form of government by the will of the majority. Patents were obtained from the Council for New England in 1621 and in 1630, but the Mayflower Compact remained the basis of the colony's government until union with Massachusetts Bay colony in 1691.

Early Years

During the first winter of the colony, about half of the settlers died from scurvy and exposure, but none of the survivors chose to return with the Mayflower to England. A little corn was raised in 1621, and in October of that year the settlers celebrated the first Thanksgiving Day. However, the arrival of more colonists necessitated half rations, and it was several years before the threat of famine passed.

John Carver, the first governor, died in 1621. William Bradford then assumed the post and served, except for the five years he refused the position, until his death in 1657. A treaty made in 1621 with Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag, resulted in 50 years of peace with that tribe. The Narragansett tribe farther west was hostile, but Bradford averted trouble from that quarter. In 1623, Capt. Miles Standish marched against the Native Americans to the northwest, who were accused of plotting to exterminate the colonists settled at Weymouth by Thomas Weston. The Native Americans were gradually pushed back and deprived of their lands.

A communistic system of labor, adopted for seven years, was abandoned in 1623 by Bradford because it was retarding agriculture, and land was parceled out to each family. A well-managed fur trade enabled the colony to liquidate (1627) its debt to the London merchants who had backed the venture. The colony, which developed into a quasi-theocracy, expanded slowly due to the infertility of the land and the lack of a staple moneymaking crop.

Expansion and Merger

After several years the colonists could no longer be restrained from settling on the more productive land to the north, and settlements such as Duxbury and Scituate were founded. With the growth of additional towns, a representative system was introduced in 1638, using the town as a unit of government and establishing the General Court, along with the governor and his council, as the lawmaking body. By the time the colony joined the New England Confederation in 1643, 10 towns had been established.

Plymouth suffered severely in King Philip's War (1675–76), and but for aid from the confederation might have been destroyed. The colony became part of the Dominion of New England under the governorship of Sir Edmund Andros. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 in England, the territory that had been under Andros's authority was reorganized, and Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Maine were joined (1691) in the royal colony of Massachusetts.


See N. B. Shurtleff and D. Pulsifer, ed., Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England (12 vol., 1855–61, repr. 1968); J. G. Palfrey, History of New England (5 vol., 1858–90, repr. 1966); L. G. Tyler, England in America, 1580–1652 (1904, repr. 1968); H. L. Osgood, The American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century (3 vol., 1904–7, repr. 1957); A. Lord, Plymouth and the Pilgrims (1920); J. T. Adams, The Founding of New England (1921, repr. 1963); C. M. Andrews, The Colonial Period of American History, Vol. I (1934, repr. 1964); G. F. Willison, Saints and Strangers (1945, rev. ed. 1965) and The Pilgrim Reader (1953); S. E. Morison, The Story of the Old Colony of New Plymouth (1956); J. Demos, Little Commonwealth (1970); J. and P. S. Deetz, The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony (2000); N. Philbrick, Mayflower (2006).

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