Plymouth Colony Women’s Rights

Pilgrim Mothers?

There is so much made of the Pilgrim Fathers of Plymouth Colony, but what about the Pilgrim Mothers? Those brave women are only mentioned in conjunction with their husbands and their children. Their lives are seen only in brief glimpses. The women themselves are almost invisible.

Plymouth Colony Life
The Pilgrims continued to follow the laws of England concerning females, marriage and the family. They brought with them traditional attitudes about the proper status and roles of women. Women were considered to be the “weaker vessels,” not as strong physically or mentally as men, and less emotionally stable.

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Pilgrims—Not Puritans!

English Separatists

The men and women who founded Plymouth Colony were not Puritans. The Puritans were a totally different sect—they wanted to reform the Church of England. They established the Massachusetts Bay Colony a decade later.

The people who sailed into Plymouth Harbor on the Mayflower in 1620 weren’t Pilgrims either. They were Separatists, because they wanted to make a complete break from the Church of England—they believed that it was too corrupt to be reformed.

They were persecuted for their beliefs by the English monarchy and to a lesser degree by the Puritans. In 1608, a few congregations fled to Holland. They were referred to as pilgrims because of their sojourns in search of religious freedom. At some point, the word was capitalized, and they have been known as Pilgrims throughout history.

Although they were able to worship freely in Holland, it was difficult for them to make a living. When they discovered that their children were slipping away from the Separatist faith and were becoming more Dutch than English, they began to make plans to travel to the New World.

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Elizabeth Fisher Hopkins

The Year: 1621
Not much is known about Mayflower passenger Elizabeth Hopkins. She married Stephen Hopkins in either 1617 or 1618 at Whitechapel, England, and had a daughter Damaris born sometime around 1619. Elizabeth was Stephen Hopkins’ second wife. The name of his first doesn’t appear in any records.

In 1620, Stephen Hopkins brought his wife and their baby Damaris on the Mayflower—and his children from his first marriage, Constance and Giles. Elizabeth gave birth to a son, Oceanus, while they were at sea.

Stephen had been recruited by the Merchant Adventurers to provide leadership for the colony and to assist in the colony’s ventures. He was a member of a group the Pilgrims called “strangers,” which comprised more than half the passengers on the Mayflower.

These strangers signed on in London to help defray the cost of sending a ship to the New World and to further the chances of the colony’s survival. They included merchants, craftsmen, skilled workers and indentured servants, and three young orphans. All were common people, and about one-third of them were children.

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Eleanor Billington

The Year: 1621

Eleanor Billington ,wife of John Billington and mother of Francis and John Billington II, all Mayflower passengers, was born about 1582. Eleanor was one of only five adult women to survive the first winter, and one of only four who were still alive to partake in the harvest celebration in the autumn of 1621.

The Billingtons were not part of the Pilgrim Separatist community. Her family is regarded as being rather ill-behaved. Young Francis Billington shot off his father’s musket in the Mayflower’s cabin while it was anchored at Provincetown Harbor, showering sparks around open barrels of gunpowder.

A few months later, John Billington the younger wandered off into the woods, and was taken by the Nauset Indians to Cape Cod, where he lived for about a month before he was returned.

In March 1621, Eleanor’s husband was brought before the company for “contempt of the Captain’s (Miles Standish) lawful command with opprobrious speeches,” and was sentenced to have his neck and heels tied together, “but upon humbling himself and craving pardon, and it being the first offence, he is forgiven.”

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Priscilla Alden

The Year: 1621

Priscilla Mullins, it is believed, was born in or near Dorking, Surrey, England, and that she was in her teens in 1620 when she, her parents and her brother Joseph came to America on the Mayflower. Her parents and her brother died in the sickness that took so many lives during the first winter at Plymouth Colony, leaving her orphaned. Priscilla probably then moved in with the Brewster family.

Priscilla was one of the surviving women, who became a family, bound together by common needs and sorrows. It can be surmised that she grew close to the other young members of the colony, and possibly to John Alden.

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Mary Chilton

First Woman on Plymouth Rock

The Landing of the Pilgrims
By Henry Bacon

A Chilton family tradition, first recorded in 1744, tells of 12-year-old Mary Chilton racing to the front of the launch that was bringing the Mayflower passengers ashore for the first time. She stepped off the boat and was the first female to set foot on Plymouth Rock.

Mary Chilton arrived at Plymouth with her parents on the Mayflower in 1620. Her father James Chilton, listed as 63 years of age, died aboard the Mayflower while it was anchored at Provincetown Harbor, about a month after they arrived.

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Temperance Flowerdew

The Year: 1609

Temperance Flowerdew survived a hurricane at sea and ate rats for dinner, and she arrived in Jamestown in August 1609, just in time for the winter famine that followed. She lived through that harrowing winter, called the “Starving Time,” when over 80 percent of Jamestown’s residents died of sickness, disease, or starvation.

In 1613, Temperance married Captain George Yeardley. He became one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. The couple had three children: Elizabeth in 1615, Argoll in 1617, and Francis in 1620, who died at a young age.

In 1616, George Yeardley was designated Deputy-Governor of Virginia. He negotiated an agreement with the Chickahominy Indians that secured food and brought peace to the colonists for two years. His term ended in 1617.

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Anne Burras

The Year: 1608

Image: Detail from a painting by Keith Rocco

One of the first English women to arrive and help provide a home life in the rugged Virginia wilderness was fourteen-year-old Anne Burras. She was the first unmarried English woman in the New World, the personal maid of a Mrs. Forrest who came to Jamestown in October 1608 to join her husband, Thomas Forrest.

At that time, Jamestown was a fort of about one acre in size, with one storehouse and one church, described by John Smith as looking like a barn. It was the home of about 200 men. The houses were described as shacks that looked ready to fall apart.

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Virginia Dare

First English Child Born in America

In 1587 an expedition organized by Sir Walter Raleigh established the first English colony of 117 people in the New World – on the island of Roanoke off the northeast coast of present-day North Carolina. On August 18, 1587, just fifteen days after the colonists had arrived and established what would become the Lost Colony of Roanoke, the first English child was born on American soil. Her name was Virginia Dare.

On March 25, 1584, Queen Elizabeth I granted Sir Raleigh a charter to establish a colony in North America, or lose his right to colonization. On what is now called the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Sir Walter Raleigh established three separate colonies on Roanoke Island.

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