History of the Plymouth Colony

An engraving of the pilgrims at Plymouth rock
An engraving depicts the arrival of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, on the coast of what became Massachussetts, 1620.  Getty Images

Established in December 1620 in what is now Massachusetts, the Plymouth Colony was the first permanent settlement of Europeans in New England and the second in North America, coming just 13 years after the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.

While perhaps best known as the source of the tradition of Thanksgiving, the Plymouth Colony introduced the concept of self-government into America and serves as the source of important clues for what would become the foundation of American government.

The Pilgrims Flee Religious Persecution

In 1609, during the reign of King James I, members of the English Separatist Church—the Puritans—emigrated from England to the town of Leiden in the Netherlands in a futile attempt to escape religious persecution. While they were accepted by the Dutch people and authorities, the Puritans continued to be persecuted by the British Crown. In 1618, English authorities came to Leiden to arrest congregation elder William Brewster for distributing flyers critical of King James and the Anglican Church. While Brewster escaped arrest, the Puritans decided to place the Atlantic Ocean between them and England.

In 1619, the Puritans obtained a land patent to establish a settlement in North America near the mouth of the Hudson River. Using money loaned to them by the Dutch Merchant Adventurers, the Puritans—soon to be Pilgrims—obtained provisions and passage on two ships: the Mayflower and the Speedwell.

The Voyage of the Mayflower to Plymouth Rock

After the Speedwell was found to be unseaworthy, 102 Pilgrims, led by William Bradford, crowded aboard the 106-foot Mayflower and set sail for America on September 6, 1620.

After two difficult months at sea, land was sighted on November 9 off the coast of Cape Cod. Prevented from reaching its initial Hudson River destination by storms, strong currents, and shallow seas, the Mayflower finally anchored off Cape Cod on November 21. After sending an exploratory party ashore, the Mayflower docked near Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts on December 18, 1620.

Having sailed from the port of Plymouth in England, the Pilgrims decided to name their settlement Plymouth Colony.

The Pilgrims Form a Government

While still aboard the Mayflower, all of the adult male Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact. Similar to the U.S. Constitution ratified 169 years later, the Mayflower Compact described the form and function of Plymouth Colony’s government.

Under the Compact, the Puritan Separatists, although a minority in the group, were to have total control over the colony’s government during its first 40 years of existence. As leader of the Puritan congregation, William Bradford was chosen to serve as Plymouth’s governor for 30 years after its founding. As governor, Bradford also kept a fascinating, detailed journal known as “Of Plymouth Plantation” chronicling the voyage of the Mayflower and the daily struggles of the settlers of the Plymouth Colony.

A Grim First Year in the Plymouth Colony

Over the next two months, storms forced many of the Pilgrims to stay aboard the Mayflower, ferrying back and forth to shore while building shelters to house their new settlement. In March 1621, they abandoned the safety of the ship and moved ashore permanently.

During their first winter, more than half of the settlers died of a disease that afflicted the colony. In his journal, William Bradford referred to the first winter as the “Starving Time.”

“ … being the depth of the winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases which this long voyage and their inaccommodate condition had brought upon them. So there died some times two or three of a day in the foresaid time, that of 100 and odd persons, scarce fifty remained.”

In stark contrast to the tragic relationships that were to come during America’s western expansion, the Plymouth colonists benefited from a friendly alliance with local Indigenous peoples.

Shortly after coming ashore, the Pilgrims encountered an Indigenous man named Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, who would come to live as a trusted member of the colony.

Early explorer John Smith had kidnapped Squanto and taken him back to England where he was forced into enslavement. He learned English before escaping and sailing back to his native land. Along with teaching the colonists how to grow the vitally-needed native food crop of maize, or corn, Squanto acted as an interpreter and peacekeeper between Plymouth’s leaders and local Indigenous leaders, including Chief Massasoit of the neighboring Pokanoket tribe.

With the help of Squanto, William Bradford negotiated a peace treaty with Chief Massasoit which helped ensure the Plymouth Colony’s survival. Under the treaty, the colonists agreed to help protect the Pokanoket from invasion by warring tribes in return for the Pokanoket’s help to grow food and catch enough fish to feed the colony.

And help the Pilgrims grow and catch the Pokanoket did, to the point that in the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims and the Pokanoket famously shared the first harvest feast now observed as the Thanksgiving holiday.

Myles Standish

English soldier and colonist Myles Standish who accompanied the pilgrims to America on the 'Mayflower' in 1620 and became the military leader of Plymouth Colony.
English soldier and colonist Myles Standish who accompanied the pilgrims to America on the 'Mayflower' in 1620 and became the military leader of Plymouth Colony. Archive Photos/Getty Image

One of the iconic figures of early colonial period American history, Myles Standish served as the first and only military leader of the Plymouth colony. He is believed to have been born around 1584 in Lancashire England. As a young soldier, Standish fought in the Netherlands, where he first connected with the British religious exiles who would go on to become known as the Pilgrims. He sailed to America with them in 1620 and was selected as their leader as the established the New England Plymouth colony.

Standish gained the respect and friendship of local Indigenous tribes by learning their language and customs, established trade with them, and even assisting them in raids against hostile tribes. In 1627, he led a group that succeeded in purchasing the colony from its original London investors. A year later, he helped break up the nearby Merry Mount colony of Thomas Morton when it became too religiously permissive to suit the strict Puritan Plymouth settlers. From 1644 to 1649, Standish served as assistant governor and as treasurer of the Plymouth colony. Standish died at his home in Duxbury, Massachusetts, on October 3, 1656, and was buried in Duxbury's Old Burying Ground, now known as the Myles Standish Cemetery.

Actress Enid Bennett and E. Alyn Warren in a scene from the movie "The Courtship of Myles Standish."
Actress Enid Bennett and E. Alyn Warren in a scene from the movie "The Courtship of Myles Standish.". Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Though glorified in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Courtship of Miles Standish, and often cited as a highlight of Plymouth colony lore, there is no historical evidence for the story that Standish asked Mayflower crewmember and Duxbury founder John Alden to propose marriage for him to Priscilla Mullins.

The Legacy of the Pilgrims

After playing a major role in King Philip’s War of 1675, one of several Indian Wars fought by Britain in North America, the Plymouth Colony and its residents prospered. In 1691, just 71 years after the Pilgrims first set foot on Plymouth Rock, the colony was merged with the Massachusetts Bay Colony and other territories to form the Province of Massachusetts Bay.

Unlike the settlers of Jamestown who had come to North America seeking financial profit, most of the Plymouth colonists had come seeking the freedom of religion denied to them by England. Indeed, the first cherished right ensured to Americans by the Bill of Rights is the “free exercise” of every individual’s chosen religion.

Since its founding in 1897, the General Society of Mayflower Descendants has confirmed more than 82,000 descendants of the Plymouth Pilgrims, including nine U.S. presidents and dozens of notable statespersons and celebrities.

Besides Thanksgiving, the legacy of the relatively short-lived Plymouth Colony lies in the Pilgrims’ spirit of independence, self-government, volunteerism, and resistance to authority that have stood as the foundation of American culture throughout history.