Plymouth Colony was the first English Settlement in Massachusetts (1620-1691).


Plymouth Colony (sometimes "New Plymouth") was an English colonial venture in North America from 1620 until 1691. The first settlement was at New Plymouth, a location previously surveyed and named by Captain John Smith. The settlement, which served as the capital of the colony, is today the modern town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. At its height, Plymouth Colony occupied most of the southeastern portion of the modern state of Massachusetts.

Founded by a group of separatists who later came to be known as the Pilgrims, Plymouth Colony was, along with Jamestown, Virginia, one of the earliest colonies to be founded by the English in North America and the first sizable permanent English settlement in the New England region. Aided by Squanto, a Native American, the colony was able to establish a treaty with Chief Massasoit which helped to ensure the colony's success. The colony played a central role in King Phillip's War, one of the earliest and bloodiest of the Indian Wars. Ultimately, the colony was annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.

Plymouth holds a special role in American history. Rather than being entrepreneurs like many of the settlers of Jamestown, the citizens of Plymouth were fleeing religious persecution and searching for a place to worship their God as they saw fit. The social and legal systems of the colony were thus closely tied to their religious beliefs. Many of the people and events surrounding Plymouth Colony have become part of American mythology, including the North American tradition known as Thanksgiving and the monument known as Plymouth Rock. Despite the colony's relatively short history, it has become an important symbol of what is now labeled "American".

Colonists Origins

English Background

The early 1600s saw the rise of the British Empire in North America as the English began to colonize Virginia, Bermuda, and the Caribbean. A number of key factors motivated this settlement activity:

  1. English Prosperity - England, under the reign of Elizabeth I of England and James I of England had enjoyed nearly sixty years free from any major war or tumult.
  2. Religious Freedom - Several key reformation figures had challenged many of the old traditions of uniformity of state managed system of government. They sought an opportunity to worship God as they thought best.
  3. Thirst for Adventure - Englishmen sought out fame and adventure in a new world.
  4. Relief from Fuedalism - Much of the populace sought escape from the old tenant farmer system and craved the opportunity to own land of their own.
  5. Visions of Wealth - Capitalists of the British Empire saw an opportunity for speedy and ample profit from new world discoveries.

Many English adventures would become pioneers of English colonization in America. But the vast majority of the Plymouth Colonists were Pilgrims seeking religious freedom during the Great Reformation.

Christian Reformation

The late 16th and early 17th centuries witnessed the height of the Great Christian Reformation when many devout Christians would revolt from the established doctrine and organization of the Medieval State Church.

Back in the early 16th century, King Henry VIII wanted his divorce and split England away from the Roman Pope creating the Anglican Church. This led to conflict in subsequent years between Catholics, Anglicans and Protestant Reformers who challenged their concepts and forms of religions.

The 1555 Peace of Augsburg ended a number of religious wards in Europe and recognized various protestant churches established by reigning monarchs. This set the background for a second religious revolt against the established state church.

English Separatists Origins

By the late 1500s in England A number of groups advocated to become completely separated from the Anglican Church. These groups were called "Separatists" and included the Pilgrims, Puritans and others.

These groups were numerous and mostly small number. They sought the right to act totally independent of the church and covenanted with God to more fully keep his Divine Law.

When King James I started his reign in 1603, various forms of these groups, called Separatists (later called Pilgrims), tried to break away from the Church of England. They were heavily persecuted by the state.

They were mix of laborers, artisans, tenant farmers and occasional middle-class gentry. They kept in tight knit groups and accepted persecution as a test of their faith.

Conspicuous for their radical thought and peculiar worship, they tended to attract the unwanted attention of secular and ecclesiastical authorities. Most Seperatists groups congregated in England and Norfolk

Nottinghamshire Seperatists

The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony were a small group of Seperatists that had their origins in Nottinghamshire and the surrounding counties. They met at the Scrooby Manorhouse.

Principal Leaders

Major figures of the Nottinghamshire Group are:

English Persecution

This group was discovered by church authorities from Yorkshire and their leaders were cast into prison for up to a year (circa 1604?).

"taken and clapt up in prison." (and after their release) "their houses were besett and wacht night and day and hardly escaped their hand."

Pilgrim Stay in Holland

Researchers have been carefully checking historical records in Leiden, Holland to see which members originated there and for key life events from 1607 to 1630. Life their was not pleasant either and their were soon desirous of removing to a unique land where they could live totally independent of others. Their attention soon turned to America.

The first pilgrims arrived in 1607 and most of the remainder in 1608. The first group left for Plymouth Colony in 1620 and most of the remainder came in the next ten years afterwards.

Move to Holland

The English persecution caused most of the Pilgrims to migrate to Amsterdam in 1607/1608. In 1608 part of this group migrated to Leiden, Holland to escape intense persecution. Although Holland had religious freedom, they faced economic and language hardships there.

However, the Pilgrims began to become very uncomfortable with life in Holland where their moral and religious standards seemed to be more lax than in England (not to mention that different language and traditions.) They were concerned what kind of environment this would create for their children.  Labor was hard, educational opportunities for their children were few and they stand to lose their language and traditions.  They feared the many temptations here would be a menace to the habits, morals and faith of the younger members of their flock.

Formation of Virginia Company of Plymouth

In 1606, King James grants two charters for settlement in North America. Note their is an overlap in their charter area, but each company was not allowed to start a settlement within 100 miles of an existing settlement of the other.

  • Virginia Company of London - a group of London Merchants that are authorized to colonize between 34 & 41 North Latitude. In 1607 they found the Jamestown Settlement at 37.12 North Latitude.
  • Virginia Company of Plymouth - a group of merchants from Plymouth are authorized to colonize between 38 and 45 North Latitude. In 1620 they finance the Mayflower Expedition which lands at 41.56 North Latitude.

About this time English explorers and fishermen were actively navigating the coast of America and had already established one settlement at Jamestown, (1607). This included one famous founder of Jamestown, John Smith in 1614 who gave the region its name. Their maps and reports gave a new hope to the Pilgrims and they started devising plans to go to a new home devoid of any other civilized people.

They sent two members to England to secure a patent from the Virginia Company of London. Because of dissensions in that group they turned instead to the newly reorganized Virginia Company of Plymouth and obtained a charters as The New England Council. This contract called for them to settle in New England, but what was then called Northern Virginia.

The financial burden of this mission required to enlist help from other London merchants (principally, Thomas Weston). It created a voluntary joint stock company. The Pilgrims were to labor at trade, trucking and fishing for seven years and return all profits to the London merchants. The conditions were quite discouraging but there appeared to be no other alternative. These poor conditions would cause much hardship the first couple of years and were re-negotiated soon after.

Colony Organizers

The following list of people played a very influential role in organizing the Mayflower trip:

  1. Robert Cushman (1577-1625) - Leiden Seperatist - attempted to sail in 1620 on the Speedwell. Arrived in Plymouth in 1621 on Forture but promptly returned to England to coordinate Colony efforts from there. Giant monument to his memory at Burial Hill in Plymouth. His son Thomas Cushman (1608-1691) succeeded Bradford as a leading elder of the Colony.

Immigrant Ships

Voyage of the Mayflower

Many boarded the Speedwell, at Delftshaven.The Leiden Separatists bought the ship in Holland. They then sailed it to Southampton, England to meet the Mayflower, which had been chartered by the merchant investors. In Southampton they joined with other Separatists and the additional colonists hired by the investors.

The two ships began the voyage on August 5, 1620, but the Speedwell leaked badly and had to return to Dartmouth to be refitted at great expense and time. On the second attempt, the two ships sailed about 100 leagues beyond Land's End in Cornwall, but the Speedwell, was again found to be leaky. Both vessels returned to Plymouth where the Speedwell was sold. It would later be revealed that there was in fact nothing wrong with the ship. The crew had sabotaged it in order to escape the year long commitment of their contract.

Eleven people from the Speedwell (including Francis and John Cooke) boarded the Mayflower, leaving 20 people (including Robert Cushman and Philippe de Lannoy) to return to London while a combined company of 103 continued the voyage. For a third time, the Mayflower headed for the New World. She left Plymouth on September 6, 1620 and entered Cape Cod Harbor on November 11, 1620. However, it was not until 21 Dec 1620 before they could decide on their place of landing and four days later they erected their first building at Plymouth Colony.

See also:

Other Ships 1621-1638

Plymouth Colony Immigrant Ship passenger lists (1620-1638) (Does not included ships landing at Salem, Boston, Maine or Virginia or numerous fishing vessels and pirate ships that may have stopped by. See also PackRat Pro for all ships:

Founding of Plymouth Colony

The Mayflower arrived off Cape Cod on 9-Nov-1620 and attempted to sail for Manhattan, but was driven back by strong winds. On 11-Dec-1620, the settlers put ashore at Plymouth Rock.

While in the Harbor, 41 leading settlers signed the Mayflower Compact before putting ashore. This document provided for a early democratic government of the colony and peace between pilgrims and strangers.

John Carver was elected the 1st governor, but he died in the spring of 1621. His successor was William Bradford. Captain Myles Standish was appointed the militia leader.

The Harsh Winter of 1620/21

The miseries suffered by pilgrims in that first year were not due to any inhospitable climate, but for the lateness of the year in which they landed as well as insufficiently planning their provisions. Of the 102 passengers many died during the harsh winter of 1620/21. When the next ship, Fortune, arrived in Nov 1621, only 52 settlers were left at Plymouth Rock. The nearby Wampanoags Indians taught the pilgrims how to plant corn for survival.

During the first winter in the New World, the Mayflower colonists suffered greatly from diseases like scurvy, lack of shelter and general conditions onboard ship. 45 of the 102 emigrants died the first winter and were buried on Cole's Hill. Additional deaths during the first year meant that only 53 people were alive in November 1621 to celebrate the first Thanksgiving. Of the 18 adult women, 13 died the first winter while another died in May. Only four adult women were left alive for the Thanksgiving.

Colony Government

Just before landing ashore, the Mayflower Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Conpact. This acted as a form of constitution for the group and was loosely based on existing congregational compacts that were a common part of their religion.

This contract allowed for one governor and one assistant who were elected annually. The compact was modified several times. In 1668 it was modified to allow voting by any property owner who was in good standing with the community.


The pilgrims of Plymouth Colony get credit for establishing the congregational form of church organization and worship the became prevalent throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut.


The primary economy of early settlers was based on agriculture, fishing, salt-making and trading with Indians.

Since the settlers had no money, they relied on corn (at six shillings per bushell) as their primary currency of exchange.

Colony Difficulties

Plantation Buyout (1624-27)

Either due to poor bookkeeping or other issues, the original investors complain about lack of profits from the colony. The Pilgrims were most anxious to bring over more of the Leiden group and family members, but couldn't get financing to send them over.

In 1626, Isaac Allerton (1586-1658) negotiates a new contract with the investors. This proves inadequate and in 1627, several pilgrims (called Undertakers) arrange a buyout of their contract with the investors. There were about 300 settlers at this time.

During this time, some of the Non-Seperatists migrate to Virginia because of disputes with the Seperatists over the use of Colony funds to bring over more Seperatists and on other matters of religion.

Isaac de Rasieres Report 1627

A year or two after his visit in 1627, a Dutch Trader, Isaac de Rasieres, wrote down a description of Plymouth Colony. He described a community of about 50 families in a town along the slope of a hill with a wooden fortress and cannon at the top. The lower room of the fortress was a church. Clapboard houses lined the principal street (Leyden Street) down to the sea. At the cross street (Main Street) was the home of the governor and a stockade with four cannon.

Rasieres also made the classic report of witnessing the colonists marching together to church. Laws of morality were strictly enforced amongst the colonists and any Indians living in the community. Rasieres noted that the Indians at Plymouth were better behaved than elsewhere.

1629 saw the arrival of more immigrants from England and Holland. The Mayflower II came in Aug 1629 with 35 migrants. The Lyon came in May 1630. The Talbot came in May 1629 with a number of servants.

In 1629 the Higginson fleet stopped by on its way to form the colony at Salem. In 1630 the Winthrop fleet stopped by on its way to Boston Harbor to start the Massachusetts Bay Colony there. These two colonies will quickly surpass the Plymouth Colony in size. Also note that those two groups are Puritans which is quite different religious sect than the Seperatists here at Plymouth.

The Seperatist Church in Plymouth did not have an ordained minister to administer sacraments until 1629. Until then William Brewster was the presiding Elder.

Pestilence of 1633

1629-1630 saw the last surge of arrival by Leiden pilgrims to Plymouth.

29-Oct-1630 Handmaid arrives at Plymouth with 60 immigrants including John and Samuel Eddy.

A great pestilence afflicted both Plymouth Colony, other colonies and nearby Indian encampments wherein many died. At Plymouth this included some 20 adults and an unknown number of children.

1634 Kennebec River Disupte

Kennebec Dispute 1634 was a deadly fight in 1634 between traders of Plymouth Colony and nearby Pistacaqua Colony over indian trading rights on the Kennebec River in Southern Maine territory. Afterwards two prominent leaders of Plymouth (John Alden (c1599-1687) and John Howland (1592-1672)) were implicated in Massachusetts Bay Colony but eventually released.

Immigrant Arrivals to Plymouth Colony

Most of the immigrants to Plymouth Colony between 1620 and 1628 came from the Pilgrim community in Leyden, Holland.

The merchants in London would also send out adventurers to help expand the colony, but they usually left quickly for Virginia or back to England, because they had a hard time adapting to the religious way of life of the Pilgrims.

  • Mayflower - Mayflower Passenger List (1620) - Written 30 years after the fact by Gov William Bradford - but has proven to be very accurate.
  • Fortune - Fortune Passenger List (Nov-1621) - Arrived 1621 with 35 additional settlers - new immigrants and additional family members of the Mayflower settlers
  • Anne - Arrived - July 1623 - ditto - see 1623 Division of Land Census
  • Little James - Arrived Late July 1623 - ditto- see 1623 Division of Land Census
  • Charitie - Arrives April 1624 - ditto
  • Handmaid - Arrives 1630-Oct-29 - 60 passengers including John and Samuel Eddy.
  • Francis - Arrives April 1634

The Fortune - 1621

The Mayflower left Plymouth to return home on 5-Apr-1621. Just before the arrival of the Fortune - the Mayflower Pilgrims celebrate the first Thanksgiving in America.

On 9-Nov-1621, the ship Fortune arrives of Cape Cod with 35 more settlers, but it takes a couple of weeks for them to find Plymouth Colony. Many of these settlers are family members of the earlier arrivals.

This group includes Mr. Robert Cushman, a pilgrim leader who preaches a sermon than leaves for England on 13 Dec 1621.

During this time period the settlers struggled with low food supplies. Various fishing ships and trade ships from Virginia occasionally visit Plymouth.

1623 Pilgrim Immigrants

In July 1623 came the ship Anne and one week later the Little James. Per the 1623 Division of Land Census we can estimate 90 new arrivals from these two ship, about 60 pilgrims and 30 strangers. These include new pilgrims and family members of previous arrivals.

In April 1624, the Charitie makes its 2nd visit to Plymouth with more Pilgrim Settlers. (Does the 1624 census increase over 1623 census tell us the names of these arrivals?)

After the arrival of the Anne and Little James, the colonists implemented the 1623 Division of Land. This document is a valuable census of the approximately 180 persons living in the colony at that time. The original Mayflower Compact put all property in common, but eventually their were complaints of the industrious settlers supporting the lazier ones. This division granted land for private use to each head of household. The colonists still run some operations in common.

Expansion Site of Plymouth Colony

Weymouth Settlement

In July 1622, two ships, (Swan and Charitie) arrive at Plymouth with a different group of adventures. They stay a couple of months before moving to establish a nearby at Weymouth (or Wessagusset). This groups is financed by Mr Wesson. They are joined by a 3rd ship (Sparrow). This groups fares badly with the Indians and is forced to abandon their settlement after a rescue by Plymouth militia.

In Sept 1623, the ship Katherine arrives with a group of settlers financed by Sir Ferdinando Gorges. They stop shortly at Plymouth before continuing onwards to the Weymouth Settlment.

One settler from the Sparrow, Phineas Pratt (1590-1680), after the breakup of the first Weymouth settlment, joins the group at Plymouth and marries Mary Priest, a niece of Isaac Allerton (1586-1658).

Founding Nearby Towns 1633-1643

During this time period a number of towns were founded nearby by the Plymouth settlers

Also during this time rival colonies are growing at Boston, Salem, New Amsterdam (Manhattan/Dutch) and Canada (French).

Colony Economics

For the first years, the colony struggled to survive. However, colonists did start to gain substantial wealth from the trade in beaver pelts. The luxuious fur of these common water rodents became a highly sought after good in Europe.

Historical Genealogical Documents


Mayflower 2016a.jpg

  • Mayflower and Her Passengers by Caleb Johnson - Genealogical research on all Mayflower pilgrims. 292 pages (Pulb 2006).
  • Wikipedia History of Plymouth Colony
  • Book: Plymouth Colony - Its History & People 1620-1691 by Eugene Aubrey Stratton - good genealogical history with many biographical sketches.
  • Genealogy Trails - Mayflower settlers and marriages for two generations
  • Writings of Governor Winslow - the author of several works concerning Plymouth Colony, which are now considered among the most important primary source materials about Plimoth still in existence. These include Good Newes from New England (1624); Hypocrisie Unmasked (1646),; New England's Salamander Discovered (1647); and The Glorious Progress of the Gospel Amongst The Indians of New England (1649). It is believed that he also wrote Mourt's Relation with William Bradford in 1622, although he did not sign the work.


Please do not list people here - but instead use the passenger lists above and/or start a page Resided in Plymouth Colony.