First of the New England Colonies
Plymouth Colony Begins
The people we know as the Pilgrims have become so surrounded with legends and tales that we tend to forget that they were real people – but they were placed in extraordinary situations. And yes, they did wonderfully brave things. Basically, they were English people who had suffered persecution in their homeland, and were searching for a place where they could worship God as they chose.
On December 20, 1620, the Pilgrims dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor. The spot they chose had been named “Plimouth” on a 1614 map made by Captain John Smith, and thus it was named. The men spent three days surveying for a settlement site. They finally decided on a recently abandoned Native American village named Patuxet, largely for its defensive position.
The settlement would be centered on two hills: Cole’s Hill, where the village would be built, and Fort Hill, where a defensive cannon would be stationed. And the local Native Americans had cleared much of the land, which would make planting relatively easy.
Due to a winter storm, everyone remained on the Mayflower for the following two days. And finally on December 23, the men began felling trees and collecting materials to build shelter for their families, returning each night to the ship. Women, children and the infirm remained on board the Mayflower; many had not left the ship for six months.
On January 1, 1621, the leaders of Plymouth Colony made land assignments by counting “how many families there were, willing all single men that had not wives to join with some family as they thought fit, that so we might build fewer houses; which was done and we reduced them to nineteen families,” wrote William Bradford. “We went to labor that day in the building of our town, in two rows of houses for more safety.”
The first structure, a “common house,” took two weeks to complete in the harsh New England winter. In the following weeks, the rest of the settlement slowly took shape. Many of the able-bodied men were too sick to work, and some died of their illnesses. Thus, only seven residences (of a planned nineteen) and four common houses were constructed during the first winter.
They surrounded the entire compound, which they called Plymouth Plantation, with a stockade fence. The first street in Plymouth Colony led from the harbor up the hill to the cannon. At the intersection of the first cross street stood the Governor’s house. Everyone had access to the brook where flagons were filled with drinking water, and where clothing was washed.
The soil wasn’t particularly fertile, and the early onset of winter made for a short growing season. So the colonists adopted Native American crops—maize, squash, pumpkins, beans, and potatoes. They learned farming techniques from the Wampanoag, such as proper crop rotation and the use of dead fish as fertilizer. They also planted Old World crops such as turnips, carrots, peas, wheat, barley, and oats.
Many of the Pilgrims turned to the sea to earn a living. They became fishermen, sailors, and merchants. They took cargoes of fish, timber, and surplus crops to the West Indies, to England, and to Spain, and brought back articles they couldn’t make at home. They harnessed waterpower and established grain mills and sawmills.
Plymouth Colony: 1622
The colonists continued to struggle through the winter. By May 1622 their food supply was completely gone and the harvest was four months away. Edward Winslow stated, “And indeed, had we not been in a place where divers sorts of shell fish may be taken with the hand, we must have perished.”