Of Plymouth Plantation | Study Guide

William Bradford

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Of Plymouth Plantation | Summary



Origins of the Plymouth Colony: 1607–20

The New Plymouth colony, also known as Plymouth Colony, came about as a response to religious persecution. A group of English Separatists—reformers who wanted to break with the Church of England—were oppressed and finally resolved to leave the country in secret. They fled to Holland, settling first in Amsterdam and then in Leyden (present day Leiden). After about a decade in Leyden, however, the Separatist congregation realized they would never thrive there and decided to relocate to the New World.

After some debate, the Separatists agreed to settle in Virginia, the vast North American territory under the control of the Virginia Company. They planned to move to New England, a remote northeastern region where they could exercise their religious freedom without harassment. From 1617 until early 1620, the would-be colonists were caught up in often-tense negotiations not only with the Virginia Company, but also with the voyage's financial backers in London. Ships were finally hired in mid-1620, and after an abortive first attempt, the Mayflower set sail across the Atlantic in September. The ship arrived at Cape Cod in November, and the coastal area now known as Plymouth was chosen as a site for the settlement.

Early Years: 1620–28

Things at New Plymouth got off to a rocky start, with many colonists dying of hunger or disease during the first winter. Squanto, a Native American who had been in Europe, helped the settlers survive by teaching them to farm, fish, and trap game. Squanto also helped the colonists establish peace with Massasoit, the Wampanoag chieftain who governed the neighboring lands. The first harvest, in 1621, was meager, and supplies were strained by the unforeseen arrival of dozens more colonists. Trade goods were sent back to England for the first time that year, marking the start of the colony's strenuous efforts to appease its financial backers. Some of the new arrivals proved troublesome, and the colonists at New Plymouth often found themselves bailing out those less fortunate and less prepared. Early plans to hold all property in common were abandoned, and lands were divided up privately.

Meanwhile in London, the colony's investors grew uneasy and impatient, proposing various projects by which the colony could repay its debts. An attempt at boat building went passably well, whereas a salt-making enterprise proved disastrous and unprofitable. Eventually, a group of leading colonists agreed to pay off the colony's debts to the investors in exchange for a temporary monopoly on colonial trade. Agriculture and trade continued to grow at New Plymouth, though the presence of increasingly well-armed Native Americans would spell trouble for the colonists down the road.

Growth and Prosperity: 1629–38

The remaining Separatists in Leyden crossed the Atlantic to Plymouth Colony in 1629, fulfilling a long-held promise to do so. The colonists struggled to finalize the terms of their agreement with the London investors and experimented with the establishment of other trading houses along the rivers of southern New England. Isaac Allerton, the colonist sent to manage New Plymouth's trade in England, instead ran up huge expenses on unauthorized projects, including the purchase of two ships, which arrived in 1630 to the surprise of the colonists. He was dismissed from his role as colonial agent, but not until after he had done much harm to the colony's finances. It took more than a decade before the colonies abandoned their efforts to recover the misspent money from Allerton.

Relations with other New England colonies became more important throughout the 1630s. At various times, the New Plymouth colonists attempted to form a military pact with neighboring Massachusetts Bay Colony, but disputes over territory prevented the two colonies from becoming true allies. While visiting London, Edward Winslow was imprisoned on the orders of Archbishop Laud, signaling—to Bradford, at any rate—that New Plymouth still faced a significant threat from the established church. Militiamen from New Plymouth joined those from Massachusetts and Connecticut in the Pequot War (1636–38), wherein they helped the Narragansett tribes defeat their rivals, the Pequots.

The Seeds Scatter: 1639–46

The final chapters of Bradford's chronicle read as a kind of denouement. The colony's continuing financial tangles with its English investors were resolved, though it would take until 1648 for the colonists to finish paying off their debts. In 1639 New Plymouth and Massachusetts finally reached an agreement about their respective borders. A war broke out between the Narragansetts and the Mohegans. The colonists arranged a brief truce and then threatened to intervene directly if an enduring peace were not established. As the New Plymouth Colony grew, the New Plymouth congregation scattered, and the original Plymouth settlement diminished in population and prestige. Bradford's records end on an anticlimactic note, with Winslow having gone to England in 1646 and not yet returned.

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