Find out how much you know about the Pilgrims and their voyage. In this lesson, you’ll learn about the misplaced Plymouth Colony, its escaped indentured servants, and the Wampanoag Indians who saved their lives.
Misconceptions About the Pilgrims
Many American children learn about Pilgrims and Indians feasting together for the first Thanksgiving, but you may not know why a harvest was such a big deal to them. You might have heard the name of their ship, the Mayflower, but do you know where it landed? (Hint: it wasn’t Plymouth Rock!) Let’s talk about the people called the Pilgrims, their settlement, and the neighbors who saved their lives.
In September 1620, the Mayflower set sail from England bound for the northern edge of Virginia. Contrary to what you may have heard, it wasn’t full of pilgrims. Actually, a little less than half of its 102 passengers could, truly, be called pilgrims. They were part of a separatist congregation who had left the government-sanctioned Church of England and fled for their lives to Holland. But Holland didn’t work out for them either, so they decided to go to America.
These separatists got the nickname Pilgrims because they were fleeing religious persecution, and because they believed they were led by God to start a religious government.The Pilgrims had gotten permission from the London Company to form a new American colony on their land, north of Jamestown. They would call their settlement Plymouth. They got funding from a separate investment company to whom they were indebted. They prepared for success as best they knew how, hiring the types of people that had proved useful in other colonial attempts, and they filled two ships with appropriate supplies.
But a series of delays and problems forced one of the boats, and a lot of the congregation, back to England. In the end, probably just 41 Pilgrims ended up on the Mayflower; the rest were their hired men, homeless or illegitimate children, indentured servants, and strangers who bought the empty space on board. But since the Pilgrims organized the entire venture, and because they made up the largest group of passengers on the Mayflower, all of the people on board came to be known as Pilgrims. Together, they headed into the rough autumn seas.
Despite popular belief, the Mayflower did not land at Plymouth Rock. The ship first dropped anchor at Cape Cod, which was outside the chartered land of the London Company, to whom some of the passengers were indentured ( meaning they had promised to work for 7 years to pay off the cost of transporting and settling them in the colony). Their charter told them to land at the mouth of the Hudson River, which was at the northern edge of Virginia.Now, they would have to find a new location for Plymouth.
But with winter upon them, the Pilgrims had to live on board the Mayflower while they scouted a permanent site. And as the winter progressed, these cramped shipmates grew increasingly discontent.Even though some people have said the Mayflower got blown off course, it’s entirely possible that the Pilgrims went farther north on purpose. Being outside of the London Company’s domain would mean they weren’t subject to the company’s authority.
And of course, the indentured servants were no longer in the company’s service. Unfortunately, some of those former indentured servants became unruly and threatened to settle out on their own.Knowing that their chances of survival depended on sticking together, they agreed to form a democracy in which all of the men could vote to create laws for the common good of the colony. Known today as the Mayflower Compact, this agreement acknowledged the king and God, but modeled a new concept called the consent of the governed, which means common people voluntarily agree to allow the government to have authority over them. Every man on board signed the Mayflower Compact, which functioned as the colony’s government for more than 70 years.But success didn’t come easy, and nearly half the passengers and crew died of hunger, disease and exposure before the winter was out.
Still, the survivors were determined to make it in the New World, and they remained in America when the ship returned to England in April.One of the colony’s early casualties was their governor, so the settlers elected William Bradford to be their new leader. Among his many accomplishments, Bradford’s diary is our main credible source for information about the colony.Having chosen an abandoned Indian village as the site for Plymouth, they settled in the empty huts. Bradford knew that the colony could only survive if they had a harvest their first year, since there would be no re-supply shipments.
So, he directed that each family plant their own seeds and provide their own food. This task was aided, once again, by their Indian predecessors, who had done all of the hard work of clearing fields for planting. But still, they struggled to get their European crops to grow in New England, and they survived only by raiding food stores the Indians had left behind. This abandoned village must have seemed God-sent to the villagers.
The Pilgrims couldn’t have known what had really happened.
The Wampanoag had lived in the Northeast for thousands of years. But their long history came to an abrupt end when they came in contact with Europeans. Sailors, traders, and fishermen had been exploring much of the coast for more a century before the Pilgrims arrived. One of their most important legacies was smallpox, which killed 90% of the coastal population. The weakened tribes were then attacked by stronger inland tribes, and most of the coastal villages were just abandoned.
By the time the Pilgrims showed up, the Wampanoag were gone from the coast.So, you can imagine the surprise in Plymouth when an Indian strode into the middle of their village one spring day and said, ‘Welcome, Englishmen!’ His name was Samoset, and he had picked up some English from the many sailors and explorers near his home in present-day Maine. After learning a little of their situation, Samoset went back to the village where he was staying and told another man, named Squanto, that he’d found a group of English settlers on the verge of certain death.Years earlier, Squanto had been kidnapped by a ship captain and sold as a slave in Spain. Squanto was redeemed by a priest who taught him to speak both Spanish and English, converted him to Christianity, and set him free. Squanto had made his way back home to America by serving as a translator onboard an explorer’s ship, only to find his village – the exact one where the Pilgrims later settled – to be abandoned.
He was the sole survivor and had taken shelter with another band of Wampanoag.Tradition says that when Squanto learned of the Pilgrims’ situation, he believed that God had prepared him to be their helper. A more secular explanation says that Squanto was commanded by Massasoit – the Chief of his adopted tribe – to secure a mutual defense alliance with the English and their powerful weapons to help the Wampanoag fight against their enemies. Whatever his motive, Squanto went to live in Plymouth, teaching them what crops thrived in the area, how to plant them, and everything else the Pilgrims needed to know to survive in America. His help, undoubtedly, saved their lives and assured the success of the colony.
Relations with the Indians
So, this is why the colonists at Plymouth invited their new friends for a three-day feast and celebration of Thanksgiving after their first successful harvest.
The settlers and the Wampanoag played games and ate deer, fowl, seafood, and vegetables. The tradition was repeated individually by some communities for years. And then during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln declared the last day of November as a day of Thanksgiving for the nation. Finally, during World War II, Thanksgiving became a national holiday.
But the love didn’t last between the Indians and Plymouth Colony. Miles Standish, a British soldier accompanying the Pilgrims, led a pre-emptive strike against one of the Wampanoag’s enemies. Many of the local Indians fled, allowing the English to dominate the region temporarily.
But Plymouth grew, and when they were overwhelmed by the migration of 20,000 Puritan settlers a few years later, open war between the settlers and neighboring tribes ensued.
Let’s review. In December 1620, the Mayflower arrived on the northeastern coast of America with a shipload of people now called Pilgrims. After landing outside the territory of Virginia, the colonists had no legal responsibilities or protection from the company. They wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact, a democratic government for the colony.Half of the colonists died that first winter while they remained aboard the ship, including their governor.
Despite the advantage of building their new community in an abandoned Indian village, they still had trouble in the spring because they couldn’t get their own crops to grow in the New World. They were saved by an English-speaking Indian, named Squanto, who taught them how to survive in Plymouth. Then the new governor, William Bradford, signed a mutual-defense treaty with the local Wampanoag Indians. After their first harvest, they established the tradition of Thanksgiving. But as the colony grew, the settlers found themselves at war with many of the local tribes.