The Pilgrims at Plymouth

The Pilgrims at Plymouth rejoiced in an abundance of food in the autumn of 1621, the first year of their settlement. Thereby their hearts were filled with gratitude, and after the fruits of their labors had all been gathered, the governor sent out huntsmen to bring in supplies for a general and common thanksgiving. That was the first celebration of the great New England festival of Thanksgiving, now annually held in almost every State and Territory of the Union in the month of November. Great quantities of wild turkeys and deer were gathered at Plymouth, and for three days the Pilgrims indulged in rejoicing, firing of guns and feasting--entertaining, at the same time, King Massasoit and ninety of his dusky followers, who contributed five deer to the banquets. Seven substantial houses had been built during the summer; the inhabitants were in good health; a few emigrants from England had come in a second ship, and there were happy homes in the wilderness the ensuing winter. Among the new comers was the Rev. Robert Cushman, one of the founders of the colony, who, in December, 1621, preached the first sermon in New England.

Governor Bradford's chief anxiety, at first, was for the establishment of friendly relations between the English and the Indians. That was already secured with Massasoit and his people; but Canonicus, the haughty chief of the Narragansets, living on Canonicut Island opposite the site of Newport, was loth to be friendly at first. To show his contempt for and defiance of the English, he sent a messenger to Governor Bradford with a bundle of arrows in a rattlesnake's skin. That was at the dead of winter, 1622. It was a challenge to engage in war in the spring. Like the venomous serpent that wore the skin, the symbols of hostility gave warning before striking--a virtue seldom exercised by the Indians. Bradford acted wisely on the occasion. He accepted the challenge to fight the multitude of Indians, by sending the significant quiver back, filled with gunpowder and shot. "What can these things be?" inquired the ignorant and curious Indian mind, as they were carried from village to village in superstitious awe as objects of evil omen. They had heard of the great guns at the seaside, and they dared not keep the mysterious symbols of the governor's anger, but sent them back to Plymouth in token of peace. The pride, if not the hatred, of Canonicus was subdued, and he and other chiefs humbly begged the English for friendship. But the alarmed colony spent the remainder of the winter and spring in fear, for Canonicus could send five thousand warriors to the field, it was said. The English, with much labor, built the fort mentioned in Chapter III of the Second Book, which served, also, for a meeting-house. And when tidings came of the massacre by the Indians in Virginia, in April every man worked diligently. Their houses were all barricaded, and "watch and ward were constantly kept."

Not long after this, the first war between the English and Indians broke out. Weston, a wealthy and dissatisfied member of the Plymouth Company, sent over a colony of sixty unmarried men to plant a settlement on his own account, somewhere on the shores of Massachusetts Bay. He boasted of the superior strength of such a settlement by bachelors to that of Plymouth, which was "weakened by women and children." They were mostly idle and disorderly young men like those who went early to Virginia. Many of them were very dissolute. After living several weeks upon the scanty means of the Plymouth families, they went to the site of Weymouth, where they began a settlement. Idle and wasteful, they were soon compelled to confront gaunt Famine; and beggary and starvation were the alternatives presented to them. They exasperated the Indians by plundering their cornfields and other sources of supplies. The Indians, failing to discriminate between the righteous and the unrighteous, or fearing the vengeance of the other white people if they should destroy the young men at Weymouth, formed a plot for the extermination of all the English in their land. The peril was great, and was discovered only a few days before the fatal blow was to be struck. Massasoit, who had been nursed into health after a deadly sickness, by the brave hands of Edward Winslow, revealed the plot to his benefactor. The Plymouth people immediately sent Captain Standish, with a few soldiers, to protect the offending Englishmen, and in a contest that ensued an Indian chief and several of his followers were killed. The victor carried the chief's head upon a pole, in triumph, into Plymouth, and placed it on the palisades of the fort. When the good Robinson, at Leyden, heard of this, he wrote: "O, how happy a thing it would have been, had you converted some, before you killed any." If they were not "converted," the Indians were very much frightened, and sued for peace. So the settlement of strong unmarried men was saved by the Plymouth people, who were "weakened by many women and children." The childless Lord Bacon, in one of his essays, says: "Certainly the best works and of greatest merit for the public have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men." Weston's experience was the reverse. His colony, too weak to endure, was broken up within a year after it was planted, and the most worthless of its members, happily for the Plymouth people, returned to England.

The Pilgrims and London merchants and others, formed a partnership in making the settlement of the Plymouth colony. The speculation, as such, was a failure. Ill-feeling arose between the two classes of proprietors. The merchants and others wished to dissolve the league, whose prescribed term of existence was seven years. It continued to the end of that time, when the colonists purchased the interest of their partners in England. Then the community system, or the common sharing of labor and its products, was abandoned, and the whole property was divided among the inhabitants. New incentives to industry were thereby created; and very soon the blessings of plenty drawn from the unfruitful soil of New England, rewarded labor there. The cultivators of the soil became free-holders, and general prosperity was soon manifested.

The restless enterprise of the children of the Pilgrims of our day marked the "Fathers." While their number was few and their strength feeble, they stretched forth their hands to grasp other landed possessions. At an early day they acquired rights of domain on Cape Anne and on the borders of the Kennebec. Nothing but the interfering spasms of the dying Plymouth Company, of whom the veteran Gorges was the latest survivor, prevented their extending the jurisdiction of Plymouth over all New England. His efforts to sustain the claims and existence of the Company, and his ambitious aspirations in his old age as governor-general of New England and lord proprietor of Maine, have been already considered in the Fifth Chapter of the Second Book.

The colony had been spared the affliction of a governor sent by Gorges, and from the beginning had enjoyed self-government without the royal sanction. That government was simple. At first the only officers were a governor and one assistant magistrate. In 1624, five assistants were chosen, and in 1630, when the colony numbered about five hundred souls, seven assistants were chosen by the whole people. This pure democracy existed at Plymouth until 1639, a period of nineteen years, when a representative government was established and a pastor was chosen as a spiritual guide.

From the beginning the Pilgrims had cause for uneasiness concerning religious matters. They greatly desired to have their pastor, Mr. Robinson, come over from Leyden, but the greed of their speculating partners in England prevented his transportation to America. He was regarded as the head of the English Non-conformists or Puritans, though away in Holland. To please the Crown and the Church of England, for purposes of gain, these partners persistently opposed his emigration to America in any English vessel, and he never saw his beloved church that was planted in the wilderness. Meanwhile efforts were made, through the deception of false pretences, to bring the Pilgrims under the control of the Church of England, but failed. A hypocrite named Lyford was sent there to preach, and he and a confederate (John Oldham) conspired to overthrow both the political and religious system at Plymouth. Their wickedness was discovered, and on being arraigned before Governor Bradford, Lyford "burst into tears and confessed that he was afraid that he was a reprobate." His confederate was banished, but Lyford was pardoned on making loud professions of penitence. They were insincere; and being caught in seditious tricks again, he was deposed from the ministry and banished from Plymouth.

The Pilgrims regarded Mr. Robinson as their pastor until his death in 1625. Religious services at Plymouth had been conducted, from the beginning, by Elder Brewster, in the form of prayer and exhortation, and were kept up until a regular pastor was provided. Some of their exercises were conducted in a democratic manner. On Sunday afternoons, a question would be propounded by the elder, to which all had a right to speak. In the exercise of private judgment these religious meetings sometimes became the arena of intemperate debates; and after a pastor was called, it was difficult to retain one there, because of the restiveness of the people under even moderate discipline.

Return to Our Country, Vol. I