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The Pilgrims and the Founding of Plymouth Colony

I am a retired engineer and small business owner who has authored over 70 books on history and various topics.

Painting "Pilgrims Going To Church" by George Boughton, 1867.

Painting "Pilgrims Going To Church" by George Boughton, 1867.

Plight of the Puritans

The story of the Pilgrims’ journey to America has its roots in 1558 when the English monarch Queen Elizabeth I decreed that the Anglican Church was to become the official church of England. It was a time of great conflict between Catholics and Protestants that began when Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII, forced a separation from the Catholic Church in the 1530s. The Anglican Church was torn by rival factions; the English Catholics wanted the church to adhere to traditional Catholic practices while the Protestants, who followed the teaching of French preacher John Calvin, wanted to return the church to the “pure” Christianity of the New Testament of the Bible.

The struggle between the two groups resulted in some compromise in the church’s doctrine; however, the monarch was still the head of the church.
The radical Protestants felt that the Anglican Church was still too influenced by its Catholic roots and wanted to “purify” the church, so they were called Puritans. The Puritans embraced the Calvinist doctrine, believing God was all-powerful and humans by their very nature were weak and wicked. They also believed that an individual’s fate, to spend eternity with God or in eternal torment, was predestined. Calvinists believed in the “priesthood of the believer,” and that the church congregation should choose their leaders from the members, without influence from authorities in Rome or the Anglican Church.

The Puritans wanted all vestiges of the Catholic Church removed from the Church of England, and only the “visible saints,” or those who have demonstrated their godliness to fellow Puritans, could be members of the church. The Puritans felt it was wrong for their members to have to share their church with the broader population of England, and that the Church of England was hindering the rapid changes brought on by the Protestant Reformation. Out of this group of Puritans came a more extreme group, called Separatists, who wanted to completely separate from the Church of England.

The Search for Religious Freedom

One such small group of Separatists, whom we today call the Pilgrims, worshiped at a home called Scrooby Manor in Nottinghamshire, England. It was here that the group of Separatists met in secret each Sunday to worship under the minister John Robinson. The Pilgrims had severed all ties with the Church of England in 1606, and within two years a group of 125 left England for Holland, seeking a place with religious freedom. The group ended up in the city of Leiden, where they enjoyed the religious freedom of the city; however, they did not like the loose morals of the people in the city. Many of the Pilgrims were farmers and they found little opportunity to prosper in the crowded city. They also feared that their children would lose their English identity and take up the Dutch customs and language.

The Pilgrims realized they had little chance of establishing a separate godly society in Holland, so they decided look for a home in America, where they hoped they could worship as they pleased and prosper. Their plan was a bold one; with the exception of the English colony in Jamestown, Virginia, other attempts at building a permanent colony had failed. And Jamestown could hardly be considered a success as during the first year, 70 of the 108 settlers had died and it would be years before the colony prospered.

English businessmen had established an organization in the new land of America called the Virginia Company, with the aim of establishing colonies in the Chesapeake Bay area of America. The company sold special patents to settlers who were willing to establish private plantations in Virginia. This would allow the Pilgrims to farm and govern themselves. The Pilgrims found financial backers from Thomas Weston and a group of London merchants called the Merchant Adventurers, who agreed to finance the Pilgrims’ expedition with the idea of making money off the goods they could ship back to England.

To begin their new life in Virginia, the Pilgrims sold most of their possessions in Leiden and purchased a ship, the Speedwell, to take them to Southampton, England, and then on to America. The group hired an additional ship named the Mayflower so they could take more of their congregation to Virginia. A group of about thirty Pilgrims left Delfshaven, Holland, in July 1620 for Southampton. There they met the Mayflower, which had about 70 non-Separatists who were going to Virginia to work as laborers. The Speedwell had a multitude of leaks and had to be abandoned, leaving only the Mayflower to transport them to their new homes in America.

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor

Journey of the Mayflower

On September 6, 1620, the overcrowded Mayflower left Plymouth, England, for a more than two-month voyage across the Atlantic. Leaders of the group included John Carver, William Bradford, Edward Winslow, and William Brewster. The group had not properly provisioned the ship for the long journey and establishing a colony in America.

The delay of the leaking Speedwell had cost them valuable time, which would force their arrival in Virginia just as winter was setting in. On board the ship were 102 passengers and about 30 crew members. The Pilgrims called those on board who were not Pilgrims “Strangers,” because they had not received God’s salvation. This group consisted of, among others, John Alder, a cooper (barrel maker), and Myles Standish, a soldier hired to organize the defense of the group.

Their provisions for the long trip were held in the lowest level of the ship, called the “hold.” The passengers were living in an area 75 feet long and not even five feet high–a dank and dark space that separated the hold from the upper deck. To provide some privacy for the passengers, they erected thin-walled cabins to live in and store their chests of clothes, food, pillows, blankets, and the ubiquitous chamber pots. As days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, supplies began to run low; fresh water, firewood, and edible food were scarce.

When they got down to their last keg of beer, concern spread among the passengers. Due to the notoriously poor quality of 17th-century drinking water, beer was a staple of a healthy diet. As the beer was rationed, signs of scurvy started to appear--bleeding gums, loose teeth, and slow healing wounds.

During the voyage weather was not good and the seas were rough, with one storm almost sinking the ship. The Mayflower was blown off course to the north and ended up reaching the coast of America at Cape Cod, in present day Massachusetts, instead of Virginia. The rocky coastline, failing winds, and lack of provisions didn’t allow them to sail southward to Virginia. With no alternative, the Pilgrims and the others aboard the ship agreed that this would be their new home. While on board the ship, conflict broke out between the Strangers and Pilgrims over life in the new colony.

The Mayflower Compact

The would-be-colonists agreed on a form of government they called the Mayflower Compact. This agreement, signed by nearly all of the freemen on board, would provide a new system of government that would function for decades to come.

They envisioned building a self-sustaining agricultural community that would be a refuge for those seeking religious freedom from England. Forty-one free adult men aboard the Mayflower signed the document on November 21, 1620. They turned to their own congregational church for guidance to develop a form of government based on a consensus within the members of the colony. The colonists, both the Pilgrims and the non-Pilgrims, formed a “body politic,” which would select and submit to leaders chosen by the majority. This was similar to the Congregational churches, which elected their own ministers and governed themselves. In the name of King James I of England, the settlers agreed to “…solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and of one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation.” The compact was put into practice when the colony elected John Carver as the first governor.

Painting “Embarkation of the Pilgrims” by Robert Weir in 1857

Painting “Embarkation of the Pilgrims” by Robert Weir in 1857

The New World

Arriving in Cape Cod, William Bradford wrote, “Being thus arrived at safe harbor, and brought safe to land,…they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who brought them over the vast and furious ocean.” Landing parties were sent out to search the area for food and a good site to build their colony. The first landed on Cape Cod, a strip of land that juts out from the mainland. The landing party found a stash of Indian corn that had been left there by the Indians as part of a burial ground. The men took the corn, which would help sustain them through the harsh winter. They then sailed further into the harbor and landed at a spot on the map called Plymouth. Since they had left Plymouth, England, and arrived at the location on their map prepared by the explorer John Smith and published in 1614 with the name Plymouth, they believed this was the providence of God. The Mayflower dropped anchor on December 21, 1620. The sickly and starving colonists came ashore to their new home and began the process of building a new colony.

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The Pilgrims decided to establish their colony in an area that had been cleared and abandoned by the Patuxet Indians. One colonist remarked, “Thousands of men have lived here, which died in a great plague not long since; and pity it was and is to see so many goodly fields, and so well seated, without men to dress and manure the same.” During the years 1617 to 1619, a contagion, possibly bubonic plague brought by English fisherman and traders, had killed 90 percent of the Indian population and left them in a fragile state. That first winter was also devastating for the colonists as nearly half of them died from disease or malnourishment.

Map of Southern New England, 1620–22, showing Native peoples and English settlements

Map of Southern New England, 1620–22, showing Native peoples and English settlements

First Meeting With the Indians

The colonists were very fearful of the Indians based on the horror stories they had heard back in Europe. Their first meeting with the local natives came in March 1620 when a Wampanoag Indian, named Samoset, came into their camp with a greeting of “Welcome, Englishmen.” Though the settlers had seen a few Indians in the distance in the past, this was their first time making face-to-face contact. Samoset spoke English, which he had learned from English fisherman who had visited the area. The visitor told the Pilgrims about a great plague that had come upon the land and killed most of his people. “There is neither man, woman, nor child remaining, as indeed we have found none,” wrote William Bradford of that time, “so that there is none to hinder our possession or to lay claim unto it.”

The first visit with the natives greatly assuaged the fears of the colonists, who realized they were peaceful and could be of help. On March 22, 1621, John Carver, the first Plymouth governor, met with the Wampanoag chief Massasoit and agreed to mutual defense treaty. Bradford wrote of his impression of Massasoit: “a very lust man in his best years, an able body, grave of countenance, and spare of speech…His face was painted with deep red like mulberry and he was oiled both head and face.” The weakened state of the tribe made them much more agreeable to working with the newcomers for their mutual benefit. From the Indians, the Pilgrims learned to plant the Indian corn they had pilfered and where to catch fish. From Massasoit’s vantage point, the alliance with the English with their lethal guns would help him gain strength against the rival Narragansett Indians.

The Pilgrims set to work building their new homes, which consisted of two rows of plank houses on “Leyden Street.” While the men built the new colony, the women and children remained on board the Mayflower anchored in harbor. Over time a governor’s house and a wooden stockade was added. On top of a nearby hill the settlers built a flat house to serve as a place for worship and meetings. After nearly four months in Plymouth Harbor, in late spring the Mayflower set sail for England.

Samoset comes "boldly" into Plymouth settlement; woodcut designed by A.R. Waud and engraved by J.P. Davis in 1876

Samoset comes "boldly" into Plymouth settlement; woodcut designed by A.R. Waud and engraved by J.P. Davis in 1876

Setting Up a Government and the Mayflower Compact

The Mayflower Compact provided the Plymouth colony a “General Court” made up of nearly all of the adult men, excluding servants, who met several times per year. The General Court elected the governor and his assistant, and passed laws for the colony. Members were expected to attend all meetings of the General Court or face heavy fines for their absence. Over the years this requirement was relaxed and the members allowed colony-wide proxy voting in 1652.

William Bradford dominated the political life in Plymouth for over three decades, being elected governor thirty times between 1621 and 1656. The governor was a powerful figure, charged with executing laws and having the power to arrest, while the General Court had the sole right to tax, declare war, and make legislation. The Plymouth colony never received a legal charter from England, though it did obtain two patents issued by the Council for New England in 1621. The Mayflower Compact holds an important place in history as the first document in North America to establish self-government based on majority rule.

The painting “Mayflower Compact” by Jean Ferris depicts passengers of the Mayflower signing the Mayflower Compact

The painting “Mayflower Compact” by Jean Ferris depicts passengers of the Mayflower signing the Mayflower Compact

The First Thanksgiving

With the help of Squanto and the other Indians, the Pilgrims recovered from their desperate first winter. With techniques they learned from the Indians, they were able to produce a bountiful harvest by the fall of 1621. To celebrate the harvest, the 53 remaining settlers hosted Chief Massasoit along with 90 of the Wampanoags for three days of eating, games, Indian dances, and relaxation. The Wampanoags brought with them five deer, while the Pilgrims contributed fowl, pumpkins, and corn. Though the exact date of the feast is not known, it was sometime between September and November.

One of the Pilgrims, Edward Winslow, wrote of the event in a letter back to a friend in England dated December 11, 1621: “Our harvest being gotten in, our Governour sent foure men fowling, so that we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours…many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest King Massassoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere which they brought to the Plantacion…” When the festivities ended, the Pilgrims and Massasoit’s people promised to make the feast an annual event.

Painting “The First Thanksgiving, 1621” by Jean Ferris, circa 1912

Painting “The First Thanksgiving, 1621” by Jean Ferris, circa 1912

Life in Plymouth Colony

Not long after the Mayflower returned to England, Governor Carver suddenly died. The colonists elected William Bradford to replace John Carver. Bradford would go on to lead the colony for many of its early formative years. With the majority of the Pilgrims having an agricultural background, the colony’s farms began to thrive. Land was allocated to each colonist, who initially received 100 acres of land, with 1,500 acres for common use. As family situations changed, the acreage was assigned on a yearly basis.

By 1624 the colony had become self-sustaining in food production. In addition to agriculture, there was the fur trade, which turned out to be very profitable and allowed Plymouth Colony to negotiate a payment scheme to pay off their debt with the Merchant Adventurers. In 1627, Plymouth Colony dissolved their arrangement with the Merchant Adventurers, allowing every man to be assigned a permanent, private allotment. The colony’s assets and debts were divided among the colonists, with single men receiving one share, twenty acres and livestock, and heads of families receiving one share per family member.

Unlike the earlier Jamestown settlement in Virginia, which was set up for exportation of products back to England, the Pilgrims intended Plymouth to be a family settlement. Bound together by their faith and a social covenant, life in Plymouth revolved around family, farming, and religion. Every individual had their role in the community to support the greater good. Those who chose not to participate or openly challenged the Separatist religious doctrine were severely punished or even driven from the community.

New Colonists Arrive

Once word reached England of the land available in New England, the Merchant Adventurers sent a second ship named the Fortune, which arrived in November 1622. On board the ship was 37 new colonists for Plymouth. The new settlers arrived with few supplies, which created a hardship for the existing people of Plymouth. Among the passengers were several of the original Leiden congregation who couldn’t make the first voyage.

To set up a new colony, the Merchant Adventurers sent seven men, who arrived in Plymouth in May 1622. They scouted out a new site for a settlement in the area. Not long after that, two additional ships arrived in Plymouth with 60 men for the new colony. The men spent much of the summer in Plymouth and moved north to settle in what is now Weymouth, Massachusetts. This new colony was short-lived due to a bloody conflict with the Indians in the area. The men returned to Plymouth and became part of the community. The skirmish with the Indians did much to diminish trade with the local tribes. In a letter back to the Merchant Adventurers Bradford wrote: “We had much damaged our trade, for there where we had most skins the Indians are run away from their inhabitants.”

Over the next several years ships kept arriving from England with colonists who were anxious to start their new lives. Some of the new arrivals were not ready for the harsh life in the remote colony and returned to England. By 1630 it is estimated that the colony had reached a population of 300.

The Pequot War

As the number of English grew in the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, so did the friction with the Indians. In 1636 things came to a head as a Pequot Indian was accused of murdering a colonist. This sparked a series of raids and counter-raids between the colonists and the Pequot Indians. The colonists from the Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies banded together in May 1637 and set fire to a Pequot village on the Mystic River in Connecticut. As the Indians fled their burning huts, the Puritans shot and killed them, including the women and children. In less than an hour, hundreds of Indians were dead with only a handful escaping. The Pequot survivors of the massacre easily recognized the motives of the Puritans: “We see plainly that their chiefest desire is to deprive us of the privilege of our land, and drive us to utter ruin.” Governor William Bradford saw the incident differently, writing: “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to enclose their enemies in their hand and given them so speedy a victory over so proud insulting an enemy.”

The remainder of the Pequots were hunted down and either killed or captured during 1637. Those who did survive the Puritans’ war of extermination were enslaved for the use of their captures or sold into slavery in the West indies. Only about half of the three thousand prewar Pequots survived the war. In 1638, the Colonial leaders officially dissolved the Pequot tribe.

A woodcut print depicting a birds-eyes view of the Battle of Mistick Fort, May 1637

A woodcut print depicting a birds-eyes view of the Battle of Mistick Fort, May 1637

Praying Towns

As word of the Pequot slaughter reached England, so did the condemnation from the church members in England. Reverend John Robinson rebuked his former parishioners by letter from England for “the killing of those poor Indians…Oh, how happy a thing it had been, if you had converted some before you had killed any!” The scolding words from their godly brethren spurred the Puritans to begin evangelism of the Indians. The process of converting the Indians to Christianity was led by Reverend John Eliot. According to Eliot, the Indians should be kept in “praying towns” where they could be supervised and instructed in the faith. And as a consequence of consolidation of the Indians into towns, more land would be available for colonization. Most of the New England colonists had little interest in the praying towns for Indians and the arrangement was confined to Massachusetts. The stronger tribes, mainly the Narragansett, Mohegan, and Wampanoag, resisted moving to the towns and remained living as they had for time untold. A colonist conceded that these Indians avoided the praying towns because “they can live with less labour, and more pleasure and plenty, as Indians, than they can with us.”

Certain tribes of Indians did find the praying towns appealing, especially the weaker tribes of the Massachusett, Nipmuck, and Pennacook. These tribes had been hard hit by the English invasion and the diseases they brought with them. They sought Christianity as a way to understand the disasters that had befallen them and as their only hope to preserve their tribal identity. Most of the Puritans continued to distrust the praying town Indians, believing they were simply playing the part of good Christian Indians for sheer survival. The coming war in 1675 would put to a test the true nature of both the Puritans and the praying town Indians.

King Philip's War

The Indians and the colonists held an uneasy co-existence for many years; relations were helped by the prosperous fur trade that enriched both parties. The unceasing growth of the English colonies spreading out from Boston and Plymouth encroached on the Indian lands and depleted the valuable beaver population. The Indians were pushed into virtual poverty and forced to concede to the English laws and customs. By 1675 the Indians and the colonists knew each other well–and feared each other greatly.

Among the Wampanoag Indians, the son of Massasoit, who helped the original Pilgrims, rose to power at the death of his father. The new leader, Metcom or--as he was called by the English--King Philip, formed an alliance among the remaining tribes in southern New England. Metcom, sensing war with the English was inevitable, prepared for it. The event that triggered what became known as King Philip’s War occurred in the spring of 1675 when the Plymouth colonists provoked a confrontation by seizing, trying, and hanging three Wampanoag warriors. The three were accused of killing John Sassamon, a “praying Indian” who had attended Harvard and served as an English spy. Sassamon had warned the colonists that Philip was planning an attack. The hanging of the three warriors caused a firestorm throughout the colonies, as young Wampanoag warriors began attacking isolated colonial homesteads, looting, killing, and burning.

The colonists responded with indiscriminate attacks on Indians in the region, not discerning friend from foe. As a result, the colonists provoked the ire of the largest and most powerful tribe, the Narragansett. Though Metacom was pointed to as the mastermind of all Indian attacks in the region, most were uncoordinated responses to the colonists’ attacks on the guilty and innocent tribes. The Indians had learned one thing from the brutal Pequot War: the English took no prisoners. Unlike the earlier war, the Indians were now armed with flintlock muskets and were proficient with their use.

During the summer and fall of 1676, all hell broke loose as Indian raiding parties attacked 52 of the region’s 90 settlements, with many completely destroyed. The inland colonists became refugees, descending upon the coastal towns seeking shelter. When the colonists would counterattack an Indian raid, the Indians would simply vanish into the forest, frustrating the English soldiers. Not only did the Indians seek to drive the colonists from their land, they also destroyed every vestige of the English civilization, burning houses, barns, churches, and crops. With the war going poorly, the Puritans felt that God had turned his back on them, scourging them for their sins in New England. By early 1676, the colonial leaders became desperate, realizing this war with the Indians could easily be lost and lead to their extermination. The colonists called upon the Pequot, Mohegan, and praying town Indians for help.

With the help of their Indian allies, the war turned in the favor of the colonists. Their Indian allies taught the colonists how to avoid ambushes and seek out and destroy rebel camps deep in the forest. The colonists abandoned standard European war practices involving complicated mass maneuvers and learned the way of the guerrilla fighter. John Eliot remarked on the changes in the military practices since the Pequot War, “In our fist war with the Indians, God pleased to show us the vanity of our military skill, in managing our arms after the European mode, [but] now we are glad to learn the skulking way of war.”

"Philip, King of Mount Hope," a line engraving colored by hand by the American engraver and silversmith Paul Revere

"Philip, King of Mount Hope," a line engraving colored by hand by the American engraver and silversmith Paul Revere

The End of King Philip’s War and Aftermath

The tactic of stealthy quick attack and then retreat into the woods had made the Indians very effective against the English. Always on the move, the warring Indians ran out of food and ammunition. The rebels were driven from their camps, putting them constantly on the run. Unable to make guns or ammunition or purchase them from the colonists, the rebel resistance collapsed in the summer of 1676. Metacom met his demise at the hand of a praying town Indian who served the New English. Metacom’s head was cut off and put on display atop a post on the brick watch tower in Plymouth, where it would remain for the next twenty years.

The war had been devastating to both the Indians and the English. The English lost about a thousand people while the Indians lost approximately a quarter of their population. The Puritans had little mercy on their vanquished foe, executing the chiefs and selling the others into slavery in the West Indies or the Mediterranean. The reverend Increase Mather attributed the war to a just and angry God provoked by the Puritans’ prewar degeneracy: “Christians in this land have become too like onto the Indians, and then we need not wonder if the Lord hath afflicted us by them.” The remnants of the Indian population sank further into marginalization in New England. While the colonists returned to rebuild their ravaged communities, newcomers flocked to the region to take over the vacant land of the dead or exiled Indians. New England’s colonial population grew rapidly from 52,000 in 1670 to 92,000 in 1700.

Pilgrims and the New World

The End of Plymouth Colony

The growing number of English in the New World prompted the British Crown to take a much larger interest in their subjects living in the American colonies. To bring the colonies under royal control, the Massachusetts Charter was revoked in 1684. Two years later, King James II consolidated all of New England plus New York and New Jersey into one viceroyalty known as the “Dominion of New England.” As a result, assemblies were abolished, the mercantile Navigation Acts were enforced, and Puritan domination came to an end. The British crown issued a new charter for Massachusetts in 1691 but denied the Puritans the right to self-governance. Plymouth Colony was refused its own charter and was brought into the charter of Massachusetts, thus ending the colony’s 71-year history as an independent province. By the time Plymouth Colony merged with Massachusetts Bay Colony, the population had swollen to 7,000. Today, Plymouth, Massachusetts, is a thriving coastal city of 60,000 residents. The town is the oldest in New England and one of the oldest in the United States.

“Plimoth Plantation” is a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It attempts to replicate the original settlement of Plymouth Colony

“Plimoth Plantation” is a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It attempts to replicate the original settlement of Plymouth Colony


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© 2020 Doug West


Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on March 31, 2020:

Wonderful informative read, Doug. Blood was spilled on both sides and everyone should share in that historical blame as Americans because these two groups, English and Native Americans, started as friends. It's a good lesson for us to remember in our country. Great write up. As always, filled with facts and interesting comments from the people who made history. Stay safe and God bless your talents.

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