Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Pilgrims were not Puritans

Listen to a Podcast of this episode.

We've all heard one story or another about the Pilgrims coming from England landing on Plymouth Rock. They founded what became the Colony of Massachusetts, inspired by a desire to practice their religion freely, eventually pushing out the Indians and eventually developing New England into a Colony with great religious zeal.  Unfortunately, just about all of that is wrong.

Most of the paintings of the first Thanksgiving, like this one, were 
painted centuries later and contain major historical inaccuracies.
Much of our confusion comes from people not understanding the difference between Pilgrims and Puritans.  Sadly, the vision of the Pilgrims died out rather quickly and succumbed to Puritan control of what became New England.

The Pilgrims were actually a rather small and unique group of people  In the early 1600s, less than a Century after King Henry VIII created the Church of England, religion in that country remained very unsettled.   There were many who still wanted to be Catholic. Others were quite happy with the Church of England, which was in many ways similar to the Catholic Church other than having replaced the Pope with the King as the head of the Church. Still others, Puritans, wanted to change the Church of England to make it more like the Lutheran and Calvinist Churches in northern Europe. Distinct from the Puritans were the Separatists  This group wanted to practice a form of Christianity that sought to be much like the early Church of the first or second centuries, although it did have a strong Calvinist influence.  It did not want to change the Church of England.  It wanted to practice its own distinct and separate form of Christianity.
John Robinson
The Pilgrims' Spiritual leader

The Pilgrims, as we call them today were clearly in the separatist camp. Their leader, John Robinson summed up the idea: "The main ends for which the Lord gathereth and preserveth his church upon earth are that he might have a peculiar people, separated unto himself, from all other peoples, to call upon his name in faith and to glorify him, their heavenly Father in their holy conversation, whom he also might glorify in the end of their faith, the salvation of their souls."  In other words, Christians tended to be a small sub-group called by God out from the masses. While the group welcomed others who wanted to be a part of this select group, they did not feel the need to force the rest of the world to worship as they did.  This was a very distinct difference between the separatist Pilgrims and the Puritans in England, as well as those Puritans who later settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in America.

Leaving England

There was no such thing as freedom of religion in England at that time.  Everyone was required to be a member of the Church of England.  Many in the group had been imprisoned or had their property confiscated.  Some had been executed.  As a result, the group, which was centered around the small village of  Scrooby decided to leave England.  Even leaving the country was illegal.  The group made several failed attempts to leave, resulting in many more being imprisoned. On the first successful voyage, only portion of the Pilgrims were able to board a ship, while others, mostly the women and children, were captured by authorities while still on shore, Those who sailed away endured an arduous 14 day voyage -- to Holland (which took 14 days because of terrible weather).

Leiden as it appeared in the early 1600's
Holland was known for its religious tolerance. The group first left in late 1607.  They first located in Amsterdam but eventually settled in Leiden in 1609.  There, they began to work and practice their faith as they wished.  Eventually many of those still imprisoned in England were released and permitted to join the group in Leiden.  The group of about 120 was apparently welcomed by the city and began working mostly in the local weaving trade, or similar urban trades.  They were active in the community and involved with the relatively new University of Leiden.

William Bradford
Governor of Plymouth
After about a decade, the group decided to leave Holland.  There were several factors that led to this decision.  First, while they were still free to practice their religion, the Dutch government began passing several laws restricting the actions of separatist sects such as theirs.  The group saw that things were headed in the wrong direction.  As William Bradford put it: "So they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits."  Notice that Bradford did refer to them as Pilgrims.  It was not a term used to define their community, but they looked on the voyage to the new world as a sort of pilgrimage with a religious purpose.  More often, when referring to members of the community, they would call themselves "saints."

 The primary expressed reasons for leaving were not primarily over religious freedom.  One big factor was that they felt they were losing much of their English culture.  Their children were learning to speak Dutch and would likely integrate into the larger Dutch culture around them if they remained.  Another factor was the hard work of a tradesman in a city was very different from the small town agricultural setting that they left in England.  As Bradford put it "Though their minds were free and willing, yet many were so oppressed with their heavy labors that their bodies bowed under the weight and became decrepit in their early youth; the vigor of nature being consumed in the very bud, as it were." Working sweatshop hours in a factory to make a living was not the dream most of them had for themselves.  Farming was much more attractive to this group raised in an agricultural community.

Planning the Voyage

Once they decided to leave, there was great debate on where to go.  A large contingent wanted to move the group to Guyana in South America.  At the time, the area was disputed by the Spanish and Dutch. It is likely that the Dutch were encouraging the group to go there to help solidify their claim to the area.

In the end, though, the group decided to go to the English colony of Virginia.  At the time, Virginia claimed land all the way up to what is today New York.  There were already a few Dutch settlements around the Hudson River area and the group had received promising reports that the region was ripe for settlement.  Because the area was claimed by England, the group sought English permission to settle there.  They also could not afford the cost of the voyage and needed financial backing.

In order to  accomplish these goals, they convinced investors in England to support them. A group headed by Thomas Weston, known as the Merchant Adventurers agreed to underwrite most of the costs.  Essentially the Pilgrims sold themselves into indentured servitude.  They agreed to work for the company for seven years, sending back fur, lumber, and other valuable goods to repay English investors.  All profits from all work belonged to the investors.  No land would be assigned to any colonist during these first years, as they would live communally on company land.

Travel to the New World

Mayflower: artist's rendering
No contemporary drawings of
the ship exist.
The trip across the Atlantic was a difficult one.  The Pilgrims hoped to have two ships, the larger Mayflower was chartered for the trip.  It was designed as a cargo ship, so passangers had to make due with rather uncomfortable conditions. The group also purchased a smaller ship, the Speedwell so that they would have a vessel to keep with them at the colony.  Unfortunately the Speedwell proved not to be seaworthy.  After several attempts, they had to leave it behind. These failed attempts also delayed final departure until autumn  The trip itself took just over two months, departing from Plymouth England on September 6, 1620 and first sighting land on November 11.  Keep in mind that this was the contemporary dates. During the next century, the calendar would be adjusted by 10 days.  So by the modern calendar, they arrived on Nov. 21, well into the period when the harvest was over and the cold of winter was arriving.

There were 102 passengers on that first trip.  There was also the ship's crew, of which there is no record or specific count, but it is estimated to be between 25 and 50 men (most estimate around 30) comprising the ship's officers and crew.  Only one passenger died on the Atlantic crossing, but one was also born en route, meaning the ship arrived with the same number total.  Another four passengers died on the ship during December as they were searching for a place to settle for winter camp.

It is interesting to note that of the passengers on the Mayflower, a little less than 2/3 were members of the congregation and their families or servants.  The remaining number were families sent by the Merchant Adventurers who financed the trip.  These people were presumably all members of the Church of England and seem to be motivated primarily by the economic opportunities of the project rather than any religious motivations.

Although the initial plan was to settle near what is today New York City, the Mayflower first sighted land near what is today Provincetown Harbor.  They first dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod, many miles from Plymouth Rock.  According to contemporary accounts, they drafted the Mayflower Compact and on that same day, sent a party to shore to search for fire wood, and whatever else they could find. There was no contemporary record of exactly where they first landed, probably because the site would not have had a specific name yet.  But from the description, it was clearly somewhere near the tip of Cape Cod   There was no reference to any landing on Plymouth Rock, first or otherwise, until more than 100 years later.  That seems to be part of the fable created many generations after the fact.  The Compact says very little other than that they agree to remain under the authority of the King, advance the Christian faith, and create "equal and just' laws to run the community that they would create.

Many people think that the Pilgrims named the Plymouth colony after the town in England from which they departed.  This is not the case.  The area had already been explored in 1614 by John Smith (from the Jamestown colony) and named before the Pilgrims arrived.  The name Plymouth was already written on the maps used by the Mayflower.  The Pilgrims simply accepted that name without any thought to changing it.

The Mayflower attempted to travel south along the coast to reach the original destination near modern New York, but weather prevented them from making such a trip safely.  With winter almost upon them, and with food and disease beginning to cause deaths aboard ship, the group spent several more weeks scouting the area for a good place to set up winter camp.  They finally decided to settle at Plymouth

William Bradford, who later became the colony's governor, noted "it was the best they could find, and the season and present necessity made them glad to accept of it."  During the time it took to settle on a spot, winter had made life difficult.  Hunger and disease were beginning to take their toll. Four more passengers died in the space of one week in mid December as the ship continued to look for a winter camp location.  The location was rushed and not focused on the long term benefits of the location.

The Plymouth Colony

The entire group lived communally in the Plymouth colony.  The Pilgrims did not seem to pressure any of the "strangers" as they were sometimes called, to join the congregation or participate in their religion.  While there were no specific guarantees of religious freedom in the colony's laws, the Pilgrims seemed content to allow members of other religious traditions live and work among them, at least in these early years.  Decades later, in 1650, the colony passed mandatory Church attendance laws, after the establishment of Puritan Massachusetts and such laws had been passed there.  It is not clear whether the non-members of the Congregation all attended Church, although it appears that most did so voluntarily.  It is certain that all colonists were not required to become a member of the congregation in those early decades.  The Pilgrims also did not attempt to convert local Indian tribes to Christianity in these early years.

The Colony seemed woefully unprepared to survive the winter.  They did not have enough food and supplies. The planting season was well over by the end of December when they first settled. Perhaps because they initially planned to land near the Hudson River where there were already some small encampments, they hoped to take some assistance from the communities there.  But even so, it does not seem a good plan to dump over 100 hungry colonists on a small encampment of a few dozen people who are not expecting such a large influx of hungry visitors for the winter.

In any event, there were absolutely no colonists in the area they settled.  Some were happy to be outside of the Virginia Colony.  It meant their charter was not valid, but it also meant they would not be governed by the laws of Virginia.  There was some hope to trade with the local natives.  But making contact and establishing trust would prove difficult.  First contact, resulted in an armed battle, although no one was killed.  Other attempts to establish a parlay for discussion usually ended up with the Indians running away.

In some ways, the Pilgrims were very fortunate in where they settled.  There had been a large tribe living in the area which had been wiped out almost completely by disease spread by European explorers who had been in the area in prior years.  The Patuxet tribe had been wiped out.  If there were any survivors, they had fled the area and been absorbed by other tribes.  As a result, the Pilgrims found land that was already cleared and ready for planting.  They also found a number of buried chambers of corn, probably seed corn stored for spring planting.  Some of this may have been abandoned by the Patuxet.  But at least some of the stored corn was owned by the nearby Nauset Tribe.  This food theft may have contributed to some of the early violence between the two groups.

Even so, the first winter was extremely difficult.  Weather and hunger probably contributed to the susceptibility of disease.  Nearly half of the passengers and crew died over the winter.  Many of the survivors were too weak to work or defend the colony.  There were several encounters with natives over the winter, resulting in some undetermined number of Indians killed.  Almost all the adult women died, leaving only four survivors by the fall of 1621.

Relations with the Natives:

The next stroke of fortune for the colony came in March.  A single Indian approached the fortified camp and made clear he wanted to talk.  To everyone's shock the Indian, named Samoset, spoke English and was looking for beer.  He had been in contact with other European ships in recent years.  A week later, Samoset brought others including a man the Pilgrims came to know as Squanto.

Squanto was the only known survivor of the Patuxet tribe that had once lived on this land as part of the tribe that had been wiped out by disease.  Squanto had been captured at around age 20 by an English explorer and taken back to England.  He was trained as an interpreter in hope of future English dealings with the natives.  He returned to the area with Capt. John Smith in 1614, but was immediately recaptured by another Englishman under Smith's command, operating his own scheme to sell Indians as slaves in Spain.  Squanto was transported to Spain as a slave.  A group of friars in Spain freed him and helped him get back to London, where he hoped to find a way back home.  He worked in London for several years as a ship builder before getting work on a ship headed for Newfoundland in 1617. The voyage never got near his home and he ended up returning to London.  Finally, in 1619, he made his sixth trip across the Atlantic to reach him home.  Once there, he learned the devastating news that his entire tribe had been wiped out by disease.  Alone, he began to live with the nearby Wampanoag tribe.

As the new English encampment began to take shape over the winter, the Wampanoag Chief wanted to make contact with this new group.  Who better than the man who spoke their language?  Squanto went to live with the Pilgrim community.  He taught them farming techniques with the native crops, but more importantly, opened a dialogue with the local tribes.  Through him, the Pilgrims were able to apologize to the Nauset for stealing their corn and agree to compensate them, which greatly improved relations.  They also entered into a mutual defense pack with the Wampanoag Indians.  The Wampanoag were being threatened by the nearby Naroganset tribe and hoped the English would be valuable military allies with their technology: guns and armor.

Squanto was invaluable to the Pilgrims.  One has to marvel at the sequence of events that delivered this interpreter to the Pilgrim's front door just when they needed it most.  With no tribe of his own, Squanto quickly became a valued member of the Colony.  At one point, he was captured by the Wampanoag and a group of Colonists risked their lives to rescue him.

Sadly, Squanto died only a year and a half after joining the colony.  It is unclear if he died of disease or was poisoned by a local chief who was jealous of his growing power because of his unique position between the natives and colonists.  In any event, his short service, created decades of good relations between the colonists and Wampanoag.  Warfare would only return a generation later as Puritan influence from Massachusetts and outsider demands for access to more Indian lands resulted in a destructive war.

The First Thanksgiving

At least the first harvest was successful.  There is relatively little known about the first Thanksgiving.  The only contemporary reference comes from a publication written by colonist Edward Winslow:

“And God be praised we had a good increase… Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

One thing we know is that there were not many women.  Remember that only four of the 52 colonists still living were adult women.  The 90 natives that came to the event were apparently all men as well. Deer is mentioned as a major component of the feast, which lasted three days.  There as also the results of a fowling expedition.  Presumably this included wild turkey, but also likely included goose and duck.

I picture this first Thanksgiving as a large scale multi-day barbecue, with deer roasting on an open spit, dozens of men enjoying the celebration, and lots and lots of beer.  Yes, the Pilgrims were major beer drinkers.  A large barley harvest had been grown that year primarily for making beer.  Men, women, and children all consumed large quantities of beer, although it was rather weak and did not typically lead to drunkenness.  There were also shooting contests and other outdoor games.

The Colonists did not call this feast "Thanksgiving".  Giving thanks to God would likely have been a somber event in Church, not a three day man-fest of celebration, games, and eating.  As the feast took place before the second ship reached the colony in early November, most historians believe the event took place some time in October.  It appears to be a celebration but was also a time for bonding between the colonists and the Wampanoag, when the groups could get together and enjoy one another's company.

Relations within the Colony:

Even with some native assistance, the first few years of the colony were particularly difficult.  The Mayflower returned to England in April, leaving the colonists on their own.  They had to plant crops, open up trade talks with natives, build more structures, and begin to figure out how to repay the investors who had sponsored their voyage.  Under the terms agreed, the Colony would live and work communally to provide the English investors with a profitable return on their work.

Work was hard and survival seems to have been the main focus of the colonists.  There is little mention of any religious or sectarian strife between members of the Congregation and other colonists.

One example of inter-religious relations was related by Bradford, now Governor of the small colony. The Pilgrims did not celebrate Christmas, considering it of pagan origin.  But other members of the Colony did wish to remember it, as was traditional in England.  As Bradford recalls Christmas 1621, "On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called them out to work as was used. But the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them."  In other words, Colonists not members of the congregation were permitted to celebrate Christmas, even though the Pilgrims chose to work that day.  Now, Bradford continues in his story to say the Pilgrims returned at lunch time to find the others out playing games.  Bradford stopped the merriment and told them they could celebrate Christmas as their religion respected, but that it was not fair that they play games and relax while others are doing the work necessary for the colony's survival.  Once could argue this was religious intolerance since relaxing on Christmas was part of the minority's tradition.  But it seems more that Bradford was worried that "freedom of religion" might just become an easy excuse for getting out of the work that needed to get done.

Surprisingly, the colony did not have a minister during these early several years.  John Robinson, the minister to the Congregation that moved from Scrooby, England to Leiden in the Netherlands did not make the initial trip because the majority of the congregation remained in Leiden.  He had intended to travel to the colony, but died before a trip could be arranged.  Several Church of England ministers were sent but rejected by the colonists.  The first acceptable minister, Ralph Smith, did not arrive until 1629.

In November 1621 another ship, the Fortune, arrived from England carrying 35 more passengers. Almost all of the passengers were sent by the English investors still focused on making the colony profitable.  The new visitors did not do much for the dearth of female colonists as 34 of the 35 were men.  The ship also carried an angry letter from Thomas Weston demanding to know why the dying colonists had not spent part of the winter collecting valuable trade items to ship back on the Mayflower's return and why they had kept the Mayflower with them for so long..

The new arrivals found the colony so squalid and barren that they considered getting right back on the ship and returning to England.  Many had to be talked out of returning by the ship's captain, who was not authorized to take them home again.  They also arrived without any supplies.  As Bradford put it: "When they were landed they had not so much as a biscuit among them, or any other food, neither had they any bedding, nor many clothes, only some sorry things they had in their cabins, not even a pot or a pan in which to cook food."  The colony, which had barely stocked away enough winter food for the original colonists, had to put everyone on half-rations, and still ran out of food by spring.

Despite these hardships, the colonists spent about two weeks collecting, packing and loading animal furs, oak clapboards, and other trade goods to begin paying down their debt to the investors.  It would have pleased the investors to receive this down payment, had not the ship gotten lost on its return and been captured off the French coast.  French authorities seized all the cargo, but eventually allowed the empty ship and crew to return to England and the frustrated investors.

The Colony did not receive another visit for almost two years, when in the summer of 1623, two ships arrived with 96 more colonists, including more of the congregation from Leiden.  The colony became active in the fur trade, starting a large trading post in what is today Maine to collect more furs to help pay off their debts.  More colonists continued to arrive in the late 1620's.  But after 10 years, the colony had grown to only about 300 people.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony

In 1630, a group of Puritans arrived, founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony nearby in what would become Boston.  The first group included a fleet of ships with over 700 passengers, immediately making the new colony more than double the size of the Pilgrim's in Plymouth Colony.  Over the next ten years the Puritans poured into Massachusetts so that within 10 years, there were nearly 10,000 colonists.  This influx led to war with the Indians in 1637.  The Pilgrims in Plymouth tried to act as peace keepers, but ultimately had to side with and fight along side their fellow colonists against the Indians.

The End of the Plymouth Colony

After the end of the English Civil War, King Charles II began to pay more attention to the North American Colonies.  The English found the large number of small colonies difficult to administer and decided to create the Dominion of New England, which eventually included all the land from what is today New Jersey to Maine.
Charles II essentially 
obliterated Plymouth as 
an independent colony.

The new government met with strong opposition to measures which included new taxes, trade restrictions, challenges to local land claims and attempts to impose the Church of England in the region.  Remember, Charles II had seen his father executed by Puritans in England during the Civil War, and was not a fan of Puritans.  The short-lived Dominion of New England was dissolved by 1691, but the legal authority for the colonies had to be recreated.  As you will recall, the Plymouth Colony founded without a charter because it settled outside of Virginia. The Massachusetts Bay Colony charter had been revoked when New England was established.  Massachusetts leaders were able to get their charter restored and have it include the lands claimed by the Plymouth Colony. As a result, Plymouth was absorbed into Massachusetts and would never again operate independently.


Much of what we remember about the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims comes from the Puritans of Massachusetts, who essentially co-opted the Pilgrims' story into their own. Religiously, there were certainly similarities between the two groups, though politically they were very different.  Because the Pilgrims were such a small group, and remained small, they simply came to be remembered incorrectly as the first wave of Puritan settlement in New England.  The subtle distinctions tend to get lost in the story telling of history.

Listen to a Podcast of this episode.

For Further Reading:


Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick (2007).

Online: - A discussion of the congregation's life in Leiden, Netherlands. - The reports filed by the Pilgrims for their investors in England. - Gov. Bradford's account of the voyage and Colony's foundation - Writings of John Robinson, the congregation's founder.

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