Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts: America’s First Permanent New England Settlement

This blog is based on educational material from session two of FreedomCivics® – Foundations of American Government.

A New Shore; Pilgrims Continue to Voyage to North America

What steps were necessary before we were ready to begin a new nation? After seeing the success that the young Jamestown settlement was experiencing, European efforts to colonize North America continued with the Plymouth Company. Read on to learn about the struggles and changes they implemented as we move even closer to the declaration of American independence!

Like Jamestown’s Virginia Company of London, the Plymouth Company was founded as a joint stock company by the charter of 1606. Investors financed the settlers’ trip, and the settlers were to repay them from profits made through shipping natural resources to England during the first seven years, after which the company would dissolve. During those years, the land would be held in common, and the laborers would work for a common goal. These contracts were the customary way of enabling people to settle in America who otherwise could not afford the voyage. Still, the Pilgrims disputed the company’s communal policy from the beginning.

The settlers were mostly English Pilgrim families who had sought religious freedom in the Netherlands. They didn’t think the Church of England could be reformed. They were called “separatists” because they separated from the Church of England to form independent local churches. After twelve years in the Netherlands, they wanted to live in a community of like-minded believers in America, where their children wouldn’t be influenced by Dutch culture and where they could prosper economically. The other part of the group was merchant adventurers. In 1620, they set out on the Mayflower for northern Virginia, but stormy weather veered the ship off course to Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Pilgrim Life is Shaped by Novel Challenges

Before going ashore, the Pilgrim leaders drafted the Mayflower Compact. The compact was their governing document, which declared that their primary purpose was to form a government for “the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith,” along with the establishment of the Virginia House of Burgesses the previous year in 1619, it laid the foundation for self-government, and was a beginning step that led to the U.S. Constitution.

Although the colonists didn’t have a charter to settle in Massachusetts, they decided to stay there rather than sail to Virginia. Supplies were dwindling and winter was settling in. Like the Jamestown settlers, the Pilgrims were unprepared for the harsh condition – the cold winter, fierce storms, and “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men,” in the words of their leader William Bradford.

They sailed on and finally found a suitable harbor for the Mayflower near an abandoned Indian site where they settled, naming it New Plymouth. As in Jamestown, about half the group died that terrible first winter from malnutrition, sickness, and exposure to the elements. Also like Jamestown, Plymouth experienced a “Starving Time.” Yet they persevered, built houses, gardens, and grew crops in the spring of 1621.

Taking Steps Towards a New Nation

Pilgrim opposition to the established communal economy, and the breakdown of the system, were evident in the settlement from the beginning. As more settlers arrived, the original communal plan was eventually abandoned in 1623. It simply did not work anymore. One-acre parcels were then allotted to each person, including women and children, and productively increased as it did in Jamestown.

The products shipped to England to pay off the debt to the company’s investors were mainly furs, fish, and timber, but they didn’t make a large profit. In 1627, Governor Bradford and eleven other men contracted to pay off the debt to the Plymouth Company, which was not accomplished until 1642. Finally, the Plymouth Colony merged with the more profitable Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.

The story of America has still hardly begun, but the Jamestown and Plymouth Colonies were pivotal chapters in our country’s inception.

To learn more on this topic, a full text with more information about the first colonies is provided in Session 2 of FreedomCivics® – Foundations of American Government.

FreedomCivics® is a 20-session curriculum that includes discussion questions, activities, resources, quizzes, and a final exam. For more information about the course, please visit or contact us with the information below.

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