The most notable settlers of Colonial America were the Pilgrims. The Mayflower, Squanto, Thanksgiving, and their descendants have been widely romanticized and much of their history, the true history of the Pilgrims, is not well-known. Their struggle and sacrifice were real and the study of this group of settlers is fascinating.
Pilgrims History: Origins
The Pilgrims were given the name “Pilgrims” by William Bradford in his book Of Plymouth Plantation, but their origins go back to the Reformation. During the Dark Ages of Europe, the Roman Catholic Church had most of the power and often exploited the common person.
The Church put an emphasis on what an individual did and the different sacraments and traditions in order to gain favor with the Lord. Martin Luther and the Reformers that followed him argued that everyone was saved by grace. This simple concept sent shockwaves through Europe and led to a change in the political landscape. The church was challenged and began to lose power and influence.
In England, Henry VIII sought a divorce from Queen Catherine. When the church would not grant him his divorce he broke from the church and created the Church of England. This led to the rise of Protestantism in England and by the time of the Pilgrims the Church of England was in control of religion in England. However, the Church of England had become corrupt and adopted many of the same traditions as the Catholic Church. This led to division.
There were two main factions of dissenters: The Puritans and the Separatists. The Puritans acquired their name because they believed that they needed to purify the church and the Separatists believed that only a complete separation was possible. These separatists were persecuted for their dissent and fled to Holland. Eventually, they were given the opportunity to settle in the New World.
It was around this time that William Bradford labeled these people Pilgrims.
Pilgrims History: Voyage to the New World
In the middle of July 1620, the Pilgrims boarded the Speedwell and Mayflower. The trip quickly ran into trouble when the Speedwell sprung a leak and had to be deserted. All of the settlers crammed onto the Mayflower for the trip across the Atlantic. The total number of persons on the Mayflower was approximately 130.
The passage was a miserable one, with huge waves constantly crashing against the ship’s topside deck until a key structural support timber fractured. The passengers had already suffered agonizing delays, shortages of food, and other shortages, and were now called upon to provide assistance to the ship’s carpenter in repairing the fractured main support beam.
This was repaired with the use of a metal mechanical device called a jackscrew, which had been loaded on board to help in the construction of settler homes. It was now used to secure the beam to keep it from cracking further, making the ship seaworthy enough.
There were two deaths along the crossing, but that would only be a sign of things to come.
Pilgrims History: Founding of Plymouth
The Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod in September which was just in time for Fall and Winter. There was no time to prepare for winter so the settlers stayed aboard the Mayflower and by the end of that winter, there were only 53 people who survived. The remaining would begin to build what would become known as Plymouth Colony.
On March 16, 1621, the first formal contact occurred with the Indians. An Indian named Samoset, originally from Pemaquid Point in modern Maine, walked boldly into the midst of the settlement and proclaimed, “Welcome, Englishmen!” He had learned some English from interacting with English fishermen and trappers operating in the region. It was during this meeting that the Pilgrims learned how the previous residents of the Native American village of Patuxet had died of an epidemic thought to be smallpox.
They also discovered that the supreme leader of the region was a Wampanoag Native American sachem by the name of Massasoit, and they learned of the existence of Squanto, a Native American originally from Patuxet. Squanto had spent time in Europe and spoke English quite well. Samoset spent the night in Plymouth and agreed to arrange a meeting with some of Massasoit’s men.
Samoset returned to Plymouth on March 22 with a delegation from Massasoit that included Squanto; Massasoit joined them shortly thereafter. After an exchange of gifts, Massasoit and Governor Carver established a formal treaty of peace.
This treaty ensured that each people would not bring harm to the other, that Massasoit would send his allies to make peaceful negotiations with Plymouth, and that they would come to each other’s aid in a time of war.
What became known as the First Thanksgiving was celebrated in late 1621.
Pilgrims History: Religion
The original Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower were considered Separatists in England. These men were believers in the Protestant wing of Christianity and believed separation from the Church of England was necessary.
Future settlers came over to the colony the following years and perhaps they did not adhere to the strict religious beliefs of the Pilgrims, but the original Pilgrims would be labeled Reformed Christians today.
They adhered to the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin and other reformers during the Reformation. They did not believe in the celebration of Christmas or Easter nor did they accept the pristine cathedrals that were built in Europe. They wanted a return to simplicity and a focus on the scriptures and the life of Jesus.
They were different from the Puritans in that they were not as structured, but their beliefs were mostly the same. The Pilgrims were more flexible than the Puritans but lacked the political and economic structure. Massachusetts Bay Colony quickly increased in population and eventually absorbed Plymouth by the time of the American Revolution.
Pilgrims History: Legacy
The Pilgrims are the most celebrated colonists in the New World, which is ironic when you look at the facts. Plymouth did not grow much and was eventually absorbed by the larger Massachusetts Bay and it was not the first settlement in the New World because that title belongs to Jamestown.
It is the story that sucks us in.
Characters such as Myles Standish, John Carver, Chief Massasoit, Samoset, and Squanto are boldly printed names in all the American History textbooks. The Reformed and highly religious Pilgrims survived due to Pagan Indians who taught them how to survive in the New World.
It was an unlikely partnership that lasted until King Philip’s War. Each year Americans celebrate Thanksgiving which is a holiday, which ironically the Pilgrims did not believe in, honoring the survival of the Pilgrims in the New World
Pilgrims History: Online Resources
- Mayflower History – The best-researched website on the Pilgrims.
- Plimouth Plantation – Who Were the Pilgrims
- Magazine of the National Endowment of the Humanities – Who were the Pilgrims that Celebrated the First Thanksgiving
- The History Junkie’s Guide to Plymouth Colony
- The History Junkie’s Guide to Colonial America
- The History Junkie’s Guide to New England Colonies
- Mayflower Compact