Exploration and Settlement


Were the Pilgrims explorers?

The Pilgrims were early settlers who sought religious freedom and self-government in the New World. Since theirs was a religious journey, they described themselves as pilgrims. In fact, they were Separatists, Protestants who separated from the Anglican Church to set up their own church. In 1609 they fled their home in Scrooby, England, and settled in Holland. Fearing their children would lose contact with their own culture (becoming assimilated into the Dutch culture), the group decided to voyage to America to establish their own community. In 1620 they arrived on the rocky western shore of Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts. Their transatlantic crossing had taken 66 days aboard the Mayflower. Two babies were born during the passage, bringing the number of settlers to 102, only some 35 of whom were Pilgrims; the rest were merchants. On November 21 the Pilgrims drafted the Mayflower Compact, an agreement by which the 41 signatories (the men aboard the Mayflower) formed a body politic that was authorized to enact and enforce laws for the community. Religious leader John Carver (1576–1621) was voted governor. Though their colonial charter from the London Company specified they were to settle in Virginia, they decided to establish their colony at Cape Cod, well outside the company’s jurisdiction. By December 25 the Pilgrims had chosen the site for their settlement and began building at New Plymouth.

The first year was difficult and the Pilgrims faced many hardships: 35 more colonists arrived aboard the Fortune, putting a strain on already limited resources; sicknesses such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and scurvy claimed many lives, including that of Governor Carver; and the merchants in the group challenged the purity of the settlement. Having secured a new patent from the Council of New England in June 1621, the lands of New Plymouth Colony were held in common by both the Pilgrims and the merchants. But this communal system of agriculture proved unsuccessful, and in 1624 William Bradford (1590–1657), who had succeeded Carver as governor, granted each family its own parcel of land. The Wampanoag Indians, who had previously occupied the land settled by the Pilgrims, proved friendly and were helpful advisers in agricultural matters. In 1626 the Pilgrims bought out the merchants’ shares and claimed the colony for themselves. Though they were inexperienced at government before arriving in America and had not been formally educated, the Pilgrims successfully governed themselves according to the Scriptures, and Plymouth Colony remained independent until 1691, when it became part of Massachusetts Bay Colony—founded by the Puritans.


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