Of Plymouth Plantation | Study Guide

William Bradford

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Of Plymouth Plantation | Book 2, A.D. 1631–32 | Summary



Book 2, A.D. 1631

Edward Winslow returned from England with a large consignment of goods. While there, he attempted to relieve the colony of any responsibility for the two ships purchased without their authorization, but unfortunately both the Friendship and the White Angel ended up charged to the colony's general account. Letters from James Sherley, one of New Plymouth's remaining agents in London, unsuccessfully attempted to paint the situation as a mere misunderstanding. Bradford's own commentary on the Friendship/White Angel affair follows. In it, he blames Isaac Allerton for acting rashly in procuring the boats. Though he stops short of accusing Allerton of fraud, Bradford does suggest Allerton abused his status as agent, though not necessarily maliciously.

Meanwhile, in New England the French robbed the Penobscot trading house, incurring losses as high as hundreds of pounds. The final episode recorded for the year is the arrival, arrest, and deportation of Sir Christopher Gardiner, an Englishman accused of "misbehavior" at Massachusetts Bay Colony. The chapter concludes with several letters concerning Gardiner and his fate.

Book 2, A.D. 1632

After further difficulties with Allerton, Sherley sold the White Angel to him outright on extremely favorable terms. Allerton's creditors gradually attempted to pin his debts on the colony, but the colonial leaders were for the most part successful in disavowing Allerton's actions as unauthorized. Agriculture and trade within the colony continued to flourish, and a boom in livestock led the colonists to seek out larger tracts of land farther from the original New Plymouth settlement. Bradford reports this development with regret, as it had led to the gradual dispersal and decline of the New Plymouth church. An English ship, the Lion, brought over an assortment of goods and returned with a shipment of furs. At the request of the colony's London partners, a copy of Allerton's accounts was also sent over.


How did Allerton manage to pin such a huge debt on the colony—thousands of pounds, all told—and get away with it for so long? There are a few circumstances to consider. First, Allerton was the son-in-law of William Brewster, an immensely respected elder within the congregation that founded New Plymouth. Bradford is likely restraining himself in these reports, partly out of respect for Brewster and his family. Yet at times, as Bradford recounts, Allerton presumed on much more than the good name of his father-in-law. At one point, Bradford recollects, Allerton brought over £200 in "gifts" for Brewster—then charged them to Brewster's account as if they had been a purchase.

Another consideration is distance. Allerton was conducting the colony's trade and other negotiations at a distance of more than 3,000 miles from New Plymouth. News traveled slowly by ship: the Mayflower's transatlantic crossing, which took 66 days, was actually relatively fast by the standards of the time. Moreover, ships made the crossing to New England only a few times a year, which is why records of shipping (and the associated letters) tend to appear at the beginning or the end of Bradford's yearly chronicles. The slow pace of communication meant Allerton could count on any compromising information about his activities reaching the colony late, if at all.

A final consideration is the complicated nature of the legal system at the time. New Plymouth and its sister colonies were nominally under English law, and they sometimes proactively enforced laws from the mother country. For example, Bradford strictly enforced the law when he sent deputies to arrest other English colonists for arms dealing with the Native population. Nonetheless, the colonies were in some respects a kind of no-man's-land, with overlapping charters and patents sometimes giving the same rights to multiple colonies. Confusion over jurisdictions could hinder or sometimes completely halt the legal process.

Bradford was well aware of the "friction" between English and colonial legal systems. In Of Plymouth Plantation, he repeatedly reports cases in which English agents seek to enforce the law in the colonies but are bogged down by dealings with local courts and magistrates. Colonial agents traveling to England to press a legal claim were at even greater risk. They could find themselves not only denied but also imprisoned if they ran afoul of the wrong English courtiers. (Edward Winslow, for example, met this fate in 1635, when the Archbishop of Canterbury accused him of unauthorized preaching.) For all these reasons, trying to get Allerton to repay his debts might have seemed more trouble than it was worth.
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