Article

About the Plymouth Colony

An overview of the first permanent Puritan settlement in America

By Oscar Zeichner
  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

Plymouth Colony, the first permanent Puritan settlement in America, was established in December 1620 on the western shore of Cape Cod Bay by the English Separatist Puritans known as the Pilgrims. They were few in number and without wealth or social standing. Although their small and weak colony lacked a royal charter, it maintained its separate status until 1691. The Pilgrims secured the right to establish an American settlement from the London Company. The landfall (Nov. 19, 1620) of their ship, the Mayflower, at Cape Cod put the settlers far beyond that company's jurisdiction, provoking mutinous talk. To keep order, the Pilgrim leaders established a governing authority through the Mayflower Compact (Nov. 21, 1620). The 41 signers formed a "Civil Body Politic" and pledged to obey its laws. Patents granted by the Council for New England in 1621 and 1630 gave legal status to the Pilgrims' enterprise. To finance their journey and settlement the Pilgrims had organized a joint-stock venture. Capital was provided by a group of London businessmen who expected — erroneously — to profit from the colony. During the first winter more than half of the settlers died as a result of poor nutrition and inadequate housing, but the colony survived due in part to the able leadership of John Carver, William Bradford, William Brewster, Myles Standish, and Edward Winslow. Squanto, a local Indian, taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn and where to fish and trap beaver. Without good harbors or extensive tracts of fertile land, however, Plymouth became a colony of subsistence farming on small private holdings once the original communal labor system was ended in 1623. In 1627 eight Pilgrim leaders assumed the settlement's obligations to the investors in exchange for a 6-year monopoly of the fur trade and offshore fishing.

Plymouth's government was initially vested in a body of freemen who met in an annual General Court to elect the governor and assistants, enact laws, and levy taxes. By 1639, however, expansion of the colony necessitated replacing the yearly assembly of freemen with a representative body of deputies elected annually by the seven towns. The governor and his assistants, still elected annually by the freemen, had no veto. At first, ownership of property was not required for voting, but freemanship was restricted to adult Protestant males of good character. Quakers were denied the ballot in 1659; church membership was required for freemen in 1668 and, a year later, the ownership of a small amount of property as well.

Plymouth was made part of the Dominion of New England in 1686. When the Dominion was overthrown (1689), Plymouth reestablished its government, but in 1691 it was joined to the much more populous and prosperous colony of Massachusetts Bay to form the royal province of Massachusetts. At the time Plymouth Colony had between 7,000 and 7,500 inhabitants.

Oscar Zeichner

Bibliography: Adams, J. T., The Founding of New England (1921; repr. 1963); Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647, ed. by S. E. Morison (1952); Deetz, James and Patricia Scott, The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love and Death in Plymouth Colony (2000); Demos, John, A Little Commonwealth — Family Life in Plymouth Colony (1988); Langdon, G. D., Jr., Pilgrim Colony (1966); Morison, S. E., The Story of the Old Colony of New Plymouth (1956); Smith, Bradford, Bradford of Plymouth (1951); Stratton, E. A., Plymouth Colony: Its History and People (1987).

  • Subjects:
    Colonial and Revolutionary America
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