Changing New England

FOOD grew scarce in the winter of 1621-22. Edward Winslow was sent off in the shallop to seek help from an English fishing fleet operating off the Maine coast. “What this small boat brought, divided among so many, came to but little. Still, by God’s blessing it sustained them till harvest. It amounted to a quarter of a pound of bread a day for each person; and the Governor had it given out daily, otherwise, had it been in their own custody, they would have eaten it up and then starved. In this way with what else they could get they made fair shift till their corn was ripe (232).”

The fishermen told the colonists thatindians had attacked James­town at Easter and massacred 400 of its 4,000 inhabitants. With so many homesteads scattered outside the town, the people of James­town had been unable to protect themselves. The grim news decided the Pilgrims to convert the gun-platform into a fort: “This summer they built a fort with good timber, a handsome building and a good defence, made with a flat roof and battlements, on which their ordnance was mounted, and where they kept constant watch especially in time of danger. It served them also as a meeting house and was fitted accordingly for that use. It was a big undertaking for them at this period of weakness and want, but the dangerous times necessitated it. And the continual rumours about the Indians here, especially, the Narragansetts, and also the news of the great massacre in Virginia, made all hands willing to complete it (233).”

The harvest of 1622 proved to be a poor one, and people grew so hungry that even public whippings did not stop them stealing corn from the storehouse: “Now the welcome time of harvest approached, in which all had their hungry bellies filled. But it amounted to but little compared with a full year’s supply, partly because they were not yet used to the culture of Indian corn (they had no other), partly owing to their many other employments.; but chiefly their weakness for want of food prevented them from cultivating it as they should have done. Again., much was stolen even before it became eatable, and much more afterwards—and though many were well whipped when they were caught stealing a few ears of corn, hunger drove others to it, whom conscience did not restrain (234).” The situation was not helped by the arrival of sixty more settlers in the summer, who, like the Fortune passengers the year before, neglected to bring adequate provisions of their own.

Luckily, an English ship sailed in from Jamestown, and the colonists were able to buy beaver skins, beads and knives; these could be exchanged for food from the Indians. “Behold now another providence of God. A ship comes into the harbour in charge of a Captain Jones, fitted out by some merchants to discover all the harbours between here and Virginia and the shoals of Cape Cod, and to trade along the coast where they could. This ship had supplies of English beads which were then good trade, and some knives—though the Captain would sell none except at high prices and in large quantities. But they were so glad of the chance that they were willing to buy at any rate—even at a premium of 100 per cent, if not more, and even then to sell coat-beaver at three shillings per pound, which a few years after fetched twenty shillings. By this means they were able againto trade for beaver and other things, and intended to buy what corn they could (235).”

In the spring of 1623, the settlers “began to consider how to raise more corn, and obtain a better crop than they had done, so that they might not continue to endure the misery ofwant. At length after much debate, the Governor, with the advice of the chief among them, allowed each man to plant corn for his own household, and to trust to themselves for that ; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. So every family was assigned a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number with that in view—for present purposes only, and making no division for inheritance—all boys and children being included under some family.

“This was very successful. It made all hands very industrious, so that much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could devise, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better satisfaction. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to plant corn, while before they would allege weakness and inability; and to have compelled them would have been thought great tyranny and oppression (236).” Private enterprise clearly held out more hope than the idea of the commune.

Eighty-seven more settlers arrived in the summer of 1623, aboard the Anne and the Little James. Twenty-nine were from the Leyden community. The newcomers included two of William Brewster’s daughters, Patience and Fear, and many wives and children who had been left behind for safety’s sake in 1620. One of the women arrivals was a widow, Alice Southworth of Sturton-le-Steeple in England, who within a few weeks married William Bradford, Plymouth’s young Governor.

The wedding feast of 14th August was a great occasion. One of the new arrivals, Emmanuel Aitham, wrote home that “we had about twelve pastry venisons, besides others, pieces of roasted venison and other such good cheer in such quantity that I could wish you some of our share. For here we have the best grapes that ever you saw, and the biggest, and divers plums and nuts.” The feast was some compensation for the new settlers’ sudden realization that food in the Plymouth Colony was going to be scarce indeed. Five Indian chiefs attended the wedding, with one hundred and twenty braves. In deference to Puritan sentiment, Masasoit only brought one of his five wives.

After a few weeks, the chartered Anne was loaded up with exports of furs and clapboard for England, and the smaller vessel, the Little James stayed behind for use as a fishing boat. In September another ship arrived carrying Captain Robert Gorges (son of Sir Fer dinando), ready to found a plantation at Wessagusset in Mas­sachusetts Bay. But the project was to fail.

Although planting in the spring had been delayed by a six-week drought, a good harvest was reaped that year. On their Thanksgiving Day in November, 1623, the Colonists felt that the roots of the settlement were becoming secure at last. But the harvest had not been taken without a hard struggle: “Notwithstanding all their great pains and industry and the great hopes of a large crop, the Lord seemed to blast and take away the same, and to threaten further and more sore famine unto them by a great drought which continued from the third week in May till about the middle of July, without any rain and with great heat . . . insomuch as the corn began to wither away, though it was set with fish, the moisture whereof helped it much . . . Upon which they set apart a solemn day of humiliation to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer in this great distress. And He was pleased to give them a gracious and speedy answer, both to their own and the Indians’ admiration that lived amongst them.

“For all the morning and greatest part of the day it was clear weather and very hot and not a cloud or any sign of rain to be seen, yet toward evening it began to overcast and shortly after to rain, with such sweet and gentle showers as gave them cause of rejoicing and blessing God. It came without either wind or thunder or any violence, and by degrees in that abundance as that the earth was thoroughly wet and soaked therewith. Which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn and other fruits as was wonder­ful to see and made the Indians astonished to behold. And after­wards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with inter­change of fair warm weather [as] caused a fruitful and liberal harvest. . . For which mercy in time convenient they also set apart a day of thanksgiving (237).” The Mayflower settlers had been allotted larger portions of land than the arrivals from the Fortune which seemed only fair; every piece of land was taxed to pay for the Colony’s officers and fishermen.

In 1624 Captain John Smith paid a visit to Plymouth and drew this picture of the settlement: “At Plymouth there is about 180 persons, some cattle and goats, but many swine and poultry, thirty-two dwelling houses whereof seven were burned the last winter, and the value of five hundred pounds in other goods. The town is empaled about an half a mile in compass. In the town, upon a high mount, they have a fort, well built with wood, loam and stone, where is planted their ordnance. Also a fair watch-tower, partly framed for the sentinel. The place it seems is healthful for the last three years, notwithstanding the great want of most necessaries’ having not one died of the first planters (238).”

In the same year that Smith was writing, Edward Winslow had brought back from England the Plymouth Colony’s first domestic cattle: three heifers and a bull. Until now the Colonists had only had goats, hens and pigs. The Charity cargo also contained much needed clothing. Winslow was accompanied on the voyage from England by the Reverend John Lydford, who was to be Plymouth’s first ordained minister. Their original minister, John Robinson, had stayed behind in Leyden. Those who settled in Plymouth after the Pilgrim Fathers adamantly refused to subsidize Robinson’s outward passage, or indeed the passages of any of the other Leyden Puritans. Many of the Plymouth newcomers had little time for the Puritanism of the Pilgrim Fathers whose consciences they deeply offended.

In 1625, Winslow returned from a second winter in England. He brought with him a letter from the merchant adventurers who had financed the Mayflower voyage, urgently demanding goods in payment toward the £1,400 so far borrowed to settle the Colony.

The adventurers, it seems had financial troubles of their own. The two ships which arrived at Plymouth in 1625, the White Angel and the Little James carried cargoes of cattle, horses (the Colony’s first), shoes, stockings, clothing and other items. The Colonists were made to buy all these at market price plus forty per cent carriage, as they had no other sources of supply. True, they were allowed to offset the cost by exporting furs and clapboard; but as the Colonists were also made to bear thirty per cent export shipping expenses, the true cost of their purchases was seventy per cent above par. Such were the risks of sea voyages. Compelled to pay such heavy premiums, it is little wonder that the Pilgrims stayed in debt for so long.

In the spring of 1627, Isaac Allerton returned from London, bringing a financial offer from the merchant adventurers. By this time, the adventurers had invested some £7,000 in the Plymouth Colony, and they now suggested that the settlers buy themselves out through a mortgage. After much discussion, the 180 settlers agreed to repay the sum of £1,800 in instalments of £200 each year. The agreement was a fair one, but it placed a heavy strain on such a small community (which so far only had thirty-two houses). All the property, held in common, was now divided amongst the settlers. The Governor and certain other Colonial officers were given their houses free. The other shareholders (heads of families) were each allotted some livestock, and twenty acres of land apiece. Those who had invested money in 1 620 were now recompensed with an extra share for each £10 put in. Apart from this, all the settlers were treated on an equal basis, whether they had arrived with the Mayflower or on later voyages.

Isaac de Rasieres, Secretary of the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (now New York) landed at Buzzard’s Bay, New Ply­mouth, and stayed in the Colony for several days during 1628. He found that “the houses are constructed of clapboards with gardens also enclosed behind and at the sides with clapboards, so that their houses and courtyards are arranged in very good order, with a stockade against sudden attack; and at the end of the streets there are three wooden gates.

“In the centre, on the cross street, stands the Governor’s house, before which is a square stockade upon which four patereros (cannon) are mounted so as to enfilade the streets. Upon the hill they have a large square building with a flat roof, built of thick sawn planks stayed with oak beams, upon the top of which they have six cannon, which shoot iron balls of four and five pounds, and command the surrounding countryside.

“The lower part they use for their church, where they preach on Sundays and the usual holidays. They assemble by beat of drum, each with his musket or firelock, in front of the captain’s door; they have their cloaks on and place themselves in order, three abreast, and are led by a sergeant with beat of drum. Behind comes the Governor in a long robe; beside him, on the right hand, comes the Preacher with his cloak on, and on the left hand the Captain with his sidearms and cloak on, and with a small cane in his hand; and so they march in good order, and each sets his arms down near him. Thus they are constantly on their guard night and day (239).”

By the time Isaac de Rasieres was writing, the survival of the Plymouth Colony was no longer in doubt. The last of the Leyden Pilgrims arrived aboard the Talbot and Mayflower (not the original ship) in 1629. In the coming years New Plymouth slowly expanded to become Old Plymouth Colony, stretching from Cape Cod to Narragansett Bay, and from Scituate to Nantucket Sound. Over the years dozens of small ships arrived at Plymouth carrying settlers
from England, not all of whom earned the approval of the Pilgrim Fathers: they included released convicts, adventurers and speculators as well as families searching for a more saintly home. Some of these journeyed on to found settlements from Maine to the Connecticut Valley, which were later formed into new and separate colonies.

The region of New England, as it was now known, flourished from the 1630s. In 1630 alone more than a thousand settlers arrived from England to escape the anti-Puritan policies of the eleven years of King Charles l’s personal rule (1629.-40). By the middle of the century Massachusetts, the largest settlement counted 15,000 inhabitants. Indeed, so many new Puritan settlers arrived under the sponsorship of John Winthrop and the new (1629) Massachusetts Bay Company that the Plymouth Pilgrims feared they would be overwhelmed, and that their Separatist religious ideals would be shattered.

In 1643 Plymouth sought greater strength and unity by joining the New England Confederation; it was never to obtain its own charter as a separate colony. The other members of the Confedera­tion were Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Haven. Although they each retained control over their own affairs, they promised to come to each other’s aid if attacked. Massachusetts would provide a hundred armed men, the others forty-five each.

By 1643 many people were moving out of Plymouth town itself. Indeed, William Bradford was the only Pilgrim leader to remain. Sadly, he wrote, “Thus was this poor church left, like an ancient mother grown old and forsaken of her children … Her ancient members being most of them worn away by death; and these of later times being like children translated into other families, and she like a widow left only to trust in God. Thus she that had made many rich became herself poor (240).” Bradford was to die in 1657 at the age of sixty-seven, leaving behind him a thirty-year term as Governor, and an estate of £900, which incidentally made him the Colony’s richest man. He was succeeded as Governor by Thomas Prence of nearby Duxbury.

The struggle had been a hard one for the Pilgrims. Not until 1648, when Plymouth contained a thousand citizens, did the original Pilgrims finally discharge their debts to the London merchants who had made the Mayflower voyage possible. The cost had been enormous. It has been estimated that £20,000 of beaver skins were eventually needed to repay the £1,800 mortgage. By this time much of the character of the settlement was changing. New towns like Duxbury, Marshfield, Sandwich, Barnstable and Yarmouth were appearing. The whole of Plymouth was falling under the spell of the thriving city of Boston nearby. The slave trade, legalized in 1641, and other commerce dominated community life as much as religion once had.

With the exception of a few men like the Reverend Roger Williams, who arrived from Cambridge University, the Colonists began to persecute the Indians with far more violence than they themselves had known in Stuart England. To many Puritans the Indians were pagan savages, beyond hope of salvation without the grace of God. Better to send them to the stake than allow them to continue in sin.

The Puritan settler, Cotton Mather, once saw seven hundred Indian captives “frying in the fire, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof. But the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they [the Puritans] gave praise thereof to God.” Driven by persecution from their homes in the Old World, the settlers brought those same moods of violence and persecution into their own community. It was the irony of seventeenth-century America.

After Chief Masasoit died in 1661, the western towns of Plymouth came under heavy Indian attack. A number of incidents led to full-scale war in 1675, and the Plymouth Colonists had to seek the help of forces from Massachusetts. After months of terrible slaughter, the Indian leader Philip (Masasoit’s heir) was decapitated, and the Indian forces scattered.

At last, in 1691, Plymouth was incorporated by King William III of England into Massachusetts, to be governed from Boston. The Pilgrim’s Colony had never won a royal charter of its own, and in an age of rapid growth in New England could not defend her
independence. Plymouth may have lost its own political identity but this little coastal town could still claim to have been the prototype of all the other Puritan settlements in North America.

Let us end with two contrasting opinions about the Pilgrims, put forward by modern writers. Professor Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard declared that “the story of their patience and fortitude, and the workings of the unseen force which bears up heroic souls in the doing of mighty errands, as often as is read or told, quickens the spiritual forces in American life, strengthens faith in God, and confidence in human nature (241).” But the novelist, Norman Mailer, violently disagreed: “We are sick, we’re very sick, maybe we always were sick, maybe the Puritans carried the virus and were so odious the British were right to drive them out, maybe we’re a nation of culls and weeds and half-crazy from the start.”

Perhaps the real truth is to be found, after all, in Professor Morison’s words: “The place of the Pilgrim Fathers in American history can best be stated by a paradox. Of slight importance in their own time, they are of great and increasing significance in our own time—through the influence of their story on American folk­lore and tradition. And the key to that story, the vital factor in this little group, is the faith in God that exalted them and their small enterprise to something of lasting value and enduring interest (242).

As William Bradford himself wrote of Plymouth, “As one candle may light a thousand, so the light-here kindled has shown to many, nay in some sort to our whole nation (243).”