Of Plymouth Plantation | Study Guide

William Bradford

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Of Plymouth Plantation | Book 2, A.D. 1626–28 | Summary

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Summary

Book 2, A.D. 1626

Captain Myles Standish returned from England in 1626, bringing with him news of the deaths of two important figures in the colony's early history: Pastor John Robinson and Robert Cushman. Isaac Allerton was sent from Plymouth Colony to continue negotiations with the London investors, with orders not to make any final decisions. Meanwhile, trade at Plymouth continued at a healthy pace, boosted by surplus corn from a series of good harvests.

Book 2, A.D. 1627

Allerton returned in early 1627, having raised funds, procured supplies, and drawn up a preliminary settlement with the London "venturers" ("adventurers" or investors). According to the settlement, the investors were to relinquish any stake in the colony in exchange for £1,800 to be paid back over time. The colony approved the settlement, and a group of leading colonists, including Bradford, agreed to become liable for the debt in exchange for a temporary monopoly on colonial trade. Ownership of colonial assets, including land, was divided by household.

A group of shipwrecked settlers bound for Virginia spent the winter at Plymouth Colony before continuing to their destination. Friendly relations were established with the nearby Dutch colony, and Allerton was sent back to England to ratify the agreement with the investors.

Book 2, A.D. 1628

Under Allerton's supervision, the agreement with the investors was finalized, and agents were appointed to manage the colony's affairs in England. Two of these agents, James Sherley and John Beauchamp, were given power of attorney to act on the colony's behalf in matters of trade and finance. Back in New England, a trading house was built at Kennebec, and trade with the Dutch continued to flourish. Having learned of the value of wampum (seashell beads) to the inland Native American tribes, the various European colonists began dealing in this commodity.

Through these trades, to Bradford's dismay, the Native Americans began to acquire firearms and ammunition in significant quantities. Because trading guns to the Native Americans was illegal under English law, the New Plymouth colonists led an expedition to arrest the Englishmen responsible for doing so. They arrested the ringleader and sent him back to England to stand trial. He escaped and returned to New England not long after.

Analysis

These chapters are unusually dense, even for Bradford. The many letters to and from England contain several important points buried among all the legalese. For one thing, the repayment schedule for the colony's debts seems fairly steep at £400 a year. Larger amounts of trade revenue are frequently mentioned in later years, however, so it may seem that £400 was not a huge amount. It must be remembered this was the amount to be paid over and above the colony's ordinary expenses, such as the supplies they imported from England or bought from other settlers. Moreover, the colony did not ship currency back to England. Rather, they shipped commodities: primarily furs and skins but also clapboard (timber for houses). After these were shipped back to England, the colonists had no control over the prices at which their products were sold. With an ocean separating them from their colonial partners, the agents in England could sell the goods at whatever price they saw fit and then apply the amount to the colony's debts.

Ultimately, Bradford and the other colonists would not be completely free of their debt until 1648. Several more agreements ("settlements" or "compositions") would be made in the interim, some of them included in later chapters of Bradford's history. Allerton, the chief troublemaker as far as the colony's finances go, remained authorized as an agent of the colony until 1630, when Sherley and Beauchamp effectively took over. In later years, Allerton went well beyond the scope of his intended authority, though arguably not of his legal authority. He was eventually dismissed after buying two ships and allowing them to be charged to the colony's account.

By this time, however, Allerton had run up thousands of pounds in debt on the colony's behalf. In principle, he could be held liable for some of these actions if they exceeded his commission as agent. In practice, few serious attempts were made to recover any loss from Allerton personally, and the English agents instead looked to Bradford and company for repayment. The continuing dispute over the colony's debts is pushed into the background of later chapters as other, more urgent developments—wars and plagues, for example—claim page space. Still, most chapters after 1630 contain at least a passing mention of the colony's difficulties in reaching an agreement with its English creditors.

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