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What Really Happened at Plymouth

The first successful settlement in New England was something of an accident. By 1617 the Pilgrims had determined to leave the Netherlands, where their youth were supposedly being corrupted by the “licentiousness” of even the Calvinist Dutch, who, for example, persisted in enjoying the Sabbath as a holiday rather than bearing it as a penance.

Deciding to settle in America, the Pilgrims were offered an opportunity to settle in New Netherland, but preferred to seek a patent from the South Virginia Company, which would provide an English atmosphere in which to raise their children. The Pilgrims formed a partnership in a joint-stock company with a group of London merchants, including Thomas Weston, an ironmonger, and John Peirce, a clothmaker. The company, John Peirce and Associates, received in 1620 a grant from the Virginia Company for a particular plantation in Virginia territory.

In this alliance, each adult settler was granted a share in the joint-stock company, and each investment of 10 pounds also received a share. At the end of seven years, the accumulated earnings were to be divided among the shareholders. Until that division, as in the original Virginia settlement, the company decreed a communistic system of production, with each settler contributing his all to the common store and each drawing his needs from it — again, a system of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Just over a hundred colonists sailed from England on the Mayflower in September 1620. Of these, only forty-one were Pilgrims, from Leyden, Holland; eighteen were indentured servants, bound as slaves for seven years to their masters; and the others were largely Anglicans from England, seeking economic opportunity in the New World.

Bound supposedly for the mouth of the Hudson River, the Mayflower decided instead to land along what is now the Massachusetts coast — outside Virginia territory. Some of the indentured servants began to grow restive, logically maintaining that since the settlement would not be made, as had been agreed, in Virginia territory, they should be released from their contracts. “They would use their own liberty, for none had power to command them.”

To forestall this rebellion against servitude, the bulk of the colonists, and especially the Pilgrims, decided to establish a government immediately, even though on shipboard. No possible period without governmental rule was to be permitted to the colonists. The Pilgrim minority straightway formed themselves on shipboard into a “body politic” in the Mayflower Compact, enabling them to perpetuate their rule over the other majority colonists. This, the first form of government in the New World established by colonists themselves, was by no means a gesture of independence from England; it was an emergency measure to maintain the Pilgrim control over the servants and other settlers.

In mid-December 1620 the Mayflower landed at Plymouth. In a duplication of the terrible hardships of the first Virginia settlers, half of the colonists were dead by the end of the first winter. In mid-1621 John Peirce and Associates obtained a patent from the Council for New England, granting the company 100 acres of land for each settler and 1,500 acres compulsorily reserved for public use. In return, the Council was to receive a yearly quitrent of two shillings per 100 acres.

A major reason for the persistent hardships, for the “starving time,” in Plymouth as before in Jamestown, was the communism imposed by the company. Finally, in order to survive, the colony in 1623 permitted each family to cultivate a small private plot of land for their individual use. William Bradford, who had become governor of Plymouth in 1621, and was to help rule the colony for thirty years thereafter, eloquently describes the result in his record of the colony:

All this while no supply was heard of…. So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length … the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves…. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land … for that end, only for present use…. This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s … that the taking away of property and bringing community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing…. For this community … was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong … had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice…. Upon … all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought … one as good as another, and so … did … work diminish … the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst men…. Let none object this is men’s corruption … all men have this corruption in them…. (William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–47, New York: Knopf, 1952, pp. 120–21.)

The antipathy of communism to the nature of man here receives eloquent testimony from a governor scarcely biased a priori in favor of individualism. Plymouth was destined to remain a small colony. By 1630 its population was still less than four hundred. Its government began in the Mayflower Compact, with the original signers forming an Assembly for making laws, choosing a governor, and admitting people to freemen’s citizenship. The governor had five assistants, elected also by the freemen. This democratic setup signified a very loose control of the colony by the Peirce company, which wanted to accelerate the growth of the colony, and saw the Pilgrim dominance as an obstacle to such growth.

Religious exclusiveness in a colony necessarily hampers its growth; we have seen that Lord Baltimore soon abandoned the idea of Maryland as an exclusively Catholic colony in order to encourage its rapid development. Thus, persecution of non-Separatists for playing ball on Sunday and for daring to observe Christmas as a holiday was hardly calculated to stimulate the growth of the colony.

To inject some variety into the colony, the English merchants therefore sent the Rev. John Lyford, a Puritan within the Church of England, with a group of colonists to Plymouth. As soon as Lyford began to administer the sacraments according to the Church of England, his correspondence was seized by Governor Bradford, and Lyford and his chief supporter, John Oldham, were tried for “plotting against Pilgrim rule both in respect of their civil and church state.”

To the charge of Lyford and Oldham that non-Pilgrims were being discouraged from coming to Plymouth, Governor Bradford replied that strangers were perfectly “free” to attend the Pilgrim church as often as they liked. When Bradford spread the stolen letters, critical of the government, upon the record, Oldham angrily called upon the Assembly to revolt against this tyranny, but no one followed his lead. The Reverend Lyford instantly recanted and groveled in his errors before the court.

Both men were ordered banished from the colony. Oldham went thirty miles north, with a number of the discontented, to found a settlement at Nantasket (now Hull). Included in this company were Roger Conant and William and Edward Hilton, who shortly traveled further north to join David Thompson, a Scottish trader who had established a settlement at what is now Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at the mouth of the Piscataqua River. The Hiltons were later to found the nearby town of Dover, New Hampshire.

In return for his abasement, the Reverend Lyford was put on six months’ probation, but again some critical letters to England were purloined by the government, and this time Lyford was truly expelled and went on to join the Nantasket settlement.

The Pilgrims, however, had not seen the last of the rebellious band. In the spring of 1624, the Pilgrims built a wharf some sixty miles north, on the current site of Gloucester, at Cape Ann in northeastern Massachusetts, only to find the following spring that Lyford, Oldham, and their group had moved there. They had been invited to Gloucester by the Dorchester Company of merchants from western England. The company’s founder, the Rev. John White, a Puritan, had already established a fishing village at Gloucester in 1623. Roger Conant was now installed as superintendent of the community, and Lyford became its pastor.

Upon returning to Gloucester to find the dissidents established there, the first instinct of Plymouth’s military leader, Capt. Miles Standish, was, typically, to demand the surrender of the unwelcome wharf, but cooler heads prevailed and a peaceful compromise was soon reached. The Pilgrims, however, could not make a go of this fishing station and abandoned it at the end of the year. Upon the bankruptcy of the Dorchester Company the following year, the Conant-Oldham group left Gloucester, and moved fifteen miles down the coast to found the town of Naumkeag, later known as Salem. Lyford was its Anglican minister.

In 1625, Thomas Morton, gentleman lawyer and an agent of Sir Ferdinando Gorges, organized another settlement, Merrymount, north of Plymouth at the present site of Quincy, Massachusetts. Merrymount was an Anglican settlement, and the citizens did not comport themselves in the highly ascetic fashion to which the Plymouth Separatists wished them to conform. Apparently Merrymount was merry indeed, and whiskey and interracial (white-Indian) revelry abounded, including the old Anglican (but denounced by the Pilgrims as pagan) custom of dancing around a maypole, a practice which King James I had urged in his Book of Sports (1617).

Plymouth had established friendly relations with the Indians, but Merrymount was now threatening to compete most effectively with Plymouth’s highly lucrative monopoly of the beaver trade with the Indians. Merrymount was also a place where Morton set his servants free and made them partners in the fur trade, and thus it loomed as a highly attractive haven for runaway servants from Plymouth.

The Pilgrims denounced Morton’s colony as a “school of atheism” — “atheism” apparently signifying the use of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the maypole, and selling rum and firearms to the Indians (and buying furs in exchange). The sale of rum and firearms was condemned even though relations with the Indians had been perfectly peaceful. Then, in 1628, Plymouth established a virtual New England tradition of persecution by dispatching Captain Standish with an armed troop to eradicate Merrymount.

Having surrendered on the promise of safe treatment to himself and the settlement, Morton was assaulted by Standish and his men and almost killed, the Plymouth forces “not regarding any agreement made with such a carnal man.” Hauled into a Plymouth court — despite Plymouth’s lack of legal jurisdiction over Merrymount — Morton was almost executed; his death was urged at great length by Miles Standish. Finally, he was deported back to England, with Standish still threatening to kill Morton personally before he could leave the colony. Before deportation, Morton was confined alone for over a month of severe winter at the Isles of Shoals without a gun, knife, or proper clothing.

Despite the destruction of Merrymount, and the failure of other attempts at settlement, the 1620s saw several settlements dot the Massachusetts coast. Most important was the Roger Conant group at Naumkeag; another was a settlement at Boston led by the Puritan minister, Rev. William Blackstone.

In 1627 the inherent conflict between colony and company in Plymouth was finally resolved, by the elimination of the company from the scene. In that year, the seven years of enforced communism by the company expired, and all the assets and lands were distributed to the individual shareholders. Grants of land were received in proportion to the size of the stock, so that the larger shareholders received larger gifts of land.

This complete replacement of communism by individualism greatly benefited the productivity of the colony. Furthermore, the colonists took the happy occasion to buy up the shares of the Peirce company. Plymouth was now a totally self-governing colony. By 1633 the entire purchase price had been paid and the colonists were freed from the last remnant of company, or indeed of any English, control.

There still remained, of course, the overlord Council for New England. In 1630 the Council granted a new patent to the Plymouth Colony, clearly defining its territory, and recognizing its right to freedom of trading and fishing. But Governor Bradford limited the privileges of trade to the original Pilgrim partners — the Old Comers — and kept the patent in his own possession before relinquishing it in 1641.

Plymouth was destined to remain a small colony in which the nominal rulers, the freemen, were rarely consulted, and the governor and the Council imposed an oligarchic rule. But after the Council for New England was dissolved in 1635, Plymouth nevertheless became a fully self-governing colony.

[This article is excerpted from Chapter 18 of Conceived In Liberty, Volume I, now available as a free ebook (PDF).]

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