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American First Years

The company was plagued by financial difficulties; these delayed departure of the voyage until August 1620. When the ships finally left England, they were short of supplies and dangerously late in attempting the ocean crossing. The Speedwell, overloaded and leaky, was forced to return to Plymouth, accompanied by the Mayflower. Then, both groups, a total of 102 passengers, crowded onto the Mayflower for the voyage. On November 11, 1620, the Mayflower landed at Provincetown Harbor, well north of its destination in Virginia. The settlers spent a month exploring the area for the best place to settle and, on December 16, arrived at Plymouth Bay.

The first winter in Plymouth was severe and resulted in the deaths of nearly half the company. Spring brought the first native visitors. Samoset, a member of the Massasoit tribe, ventured into the settlement in March. He introduced them to Squanto, one of the few remaining Patuxet Indians; the two men helped the settlers, teaching them how to plant and harvest corn. Squanto lived in Plymouth until his death in 1622. In November 1621, the Fortune arrived from England, bringing thirty-six new settlers and a land patent. John Pierce was named the grantee for the land. The terms of the patent included 100 acres per person, 1,500 acres for public purposes, freedom to trade and fish along the coast, and the authority to make laws. The patent did not specify land boundaries.

Settlers continued to arrive in the early years of the colony. Many did not share the Pilgrims’ religious convictions but had paid their own way to the settlement. The “particulars” were free to work for themselves, but they were shut out of Plymouth government and the Native American trade. Emigration to Plymouth in large numbers continued throughout the 1630s. There was little growth in the colony between 1640 and 1650, but after that period of stability the push for expansion and land resumed. The result was a colony whose boundaries grew ever closer to those of the Native American population. By 1675, the Plymouth Colony boasted a population of 7,500 in an area of 1,600 square miles.

Housing in the Plymouth Colony was generally modest. In the initial stages of settlement, small, crude cottages provided the most basic shelter. As the colony became more settled, solid-frame homes covered with clapboards became the rule. These small one-and-a-half-story homes were the center of family life. Families tended to be small nuclear groups composed of a husband, wife, and their children. Many households also included servants, who, in the early years of settlement, were usually hired or indentured, as slavery existed only on a very small scale. Plymouth’s social life revolved around the church.

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Pilgrims: First Winter, 1620 Photograph

Immigration | Stories of Yesterday and Today

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