Untold lives blog

06 October 2020

The truth behind the myth: the colonial legacy of the Mayflower voyage - No.3 The first 20 years of Plymouth Colony

The colonists signed the Mayflower Compact, the first governing document of Plymouth Colony, before they disembarked the ship.  This was to establish legal order and quell dissenting views between the separatists and the other passengers on how the colony should be run.

The colonists settled at an abandoned settlement of the Patuxet people in Wampanoag territory.  They had raided this settlement shortly after their arrival, desecrating graves in their search for corn stores.  It became Plymouth Colony.  Construction began in December but most people stayed on the ship.  Many succumbed to disease and, by the spring, only 47 survived.  Local people made contact in March 1621 and it was only because of the help of Tisquantum, the sole survivor of the Patuxet people, that the colonists survived.

The arrival of the Plymouth colonists put Massasoit, Sachem of the Wampanoags, in a vulnerable position.  He had already witnessed the devastating effects of disease and colonisation on his people and the neighbouring Narragansetts were threatening.  He had little choice but to sign a peace treaty and ally with the English colonists, which he did at the end of March 1621.

That is not to say, however, that the Plymouth colonists maintained peace with other local Native American tribes in the years that followed.  Tensions in the region heightened as the English founded more colonies, encroaching on native territories.  The Plymouth colonists were perpetrators of violence and brutality towards some communities, namely the Massachusetts at Wessagusset in 1623 and the Pequots in the 1630s.

The first printed account of Plymouth Colony

 Title page of 'Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimouth'  1622Edward Winslow and William Bradford, Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimouth, 1622, C.33.c.7 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Written by Edward Winslow and William Bradford, this is the earliest printed account of the establishment of Plymouth Colony.  It functioned as a promotional tract, an appeal for investment and an attempt to gloss over the hardships and uncertainties facing the colony in its first two years.

The Mayflower Compact is printed, for the first time, in this account.  This was to give the impression of law and order within the colony and to emphasise that there was a unified mind-set across the colonists, separatist or otherwise.

This account also emphasises the devout nature of Plymouth Colony.  However, a mention of the whaling opportunities in the area lets slip the economic factors behind its establishment.  The colony quickly got involved with the profitable fur trade.  These things tend to be glossed over in the Pilgrim tradition.

This account also emphasises that relations between the local people and the English were cordial, ignoring any tension and conflict caused by their invasion of Wampanoag land.  Indeed, this relation’s description of the sharing of food between the Wampanoags and the English has become celebrated as the First Thanksgiving, but this is a mythologised 19th century reinterpretation of events.

Winslow and Bradford’s account also introduces us to Tisquantum of the Patuxet people.  Tisquantum had been abducted by English explorer Thomas Hunt and sold into slavery.  He escaped, returning to America to find his tribe wiped out by disease.  He worked ceaselessly to establish peace between the colonists and the local people, living in the colony for 20 months and acting as a translator, advisor and diplomat for Massasoit.  Tisquantum is often depicted as a ‘noble savage’ but he should be remembered as a practical advisor and skilled diplomat.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

 

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