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Early Modern Britain

Plymouth: AD 1579-1620 To Be a Pilgrim

by Laura Quigley, taken from Bloody British History: Plymouth, 2 June 2013

The pilgrims of the Mayflower were not the first English settlers in the New World, but they were amongst the first to survive the ordeal. In 1579, Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed the first English base in Newfoundland, comprising mainly Portuguese and French fishing villages, but he sank with his ship in a storm before making it home.

Sir Walter Raleigh, one of Plymouth's favourite courtiers, then took possession of North Carolina in the name of Queen Elizabeth I in 1585 or 1596. The first settlement there left one hundred and eight emigrants starving. They were then massacred by native Americans. A second settlement simply disappeared: only the bones of a single man were ever found.

The third wave of settlers, led by John White, again disappeared. John briefly visited Plymouth to get supplies and returned to the American settlement to find everyone in his colony had vanished - including his wife and their daughter. Search parties found no trace, but there is a story that pale, red-haired children were born to a native tribe not far north of John White's settlement... These small groups were easy prey to the natives.

In 1605, Captain Weymouth arrived in Plymouth, having explored the St George's River and Penobscot in the New World and returning with five native Americans on board (taken by force during failed negotiations with their tribes). Tisquantum, Manida, and Shetwarroes were handed over as a prize to the commander of the Hoe Fort, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who taught them English and forced them to stay with him for three years. Two of the natives, Manida and Shetwarroes, then helped the Plymouth Co Corporation establish a settlement in Maine, but the capture, kidnap, and treatment of these first allies did little to secure the natives' trust. Cold, disease, and famine eventually brought yet another failed colony limping back to Plymouth.

On board the Mayflower
Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower - little did they realise what horrors awaited them on the coast of the New World (courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ61-206)

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A splash of blood

Captain John Smith, an adventurer, created a more positive impression with the natives, although not until he was saved by Pocahontas, the big-hearted daughter of the great chief Powhatan. Smith was dragged before Chief Powhatan and his head placed on a rock, ready for the tribe to beat his brains out. Suddenly, Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas, just twelve years old, laid her own head on Smith's - kill him and you kill your favourite daughter too, she told him. Powhatan conceded and let the Englishman live.

Pocahontas was subsequently captured by the English, as part of hostage negotiations, and she eventually married John Rolfe, a tobacco farmer. She became a Christian and changed her name to Rebecca. In June 1616, Pocahontas (or Rebecca Rolfe, as she was now known) arrived in Plymouth with sixteen of her Powhatan tribe, including Tomocomo, a shaman, who tried to keep a tally of the English he saw by marking notches on a stick, but soon grew tired of it - these English were just too many to count. Probably this was the first time the native Americans realised that these English settlers were to become a serious threat through sheer weight of numbers.

As she was about to return to her native land, Pocahontas died of a mysterious illness, leaving her infant son in the care of Sir Lewis Stucley (remembered by history as the man who betrayed Sir Walter Raleigh to his death at the hands of King James I's headsman). Pocahontas' shaman friend Tomocomo returned to his homeland unimpressed by the English and his brief meeting with King James I, who had not even offered him a present.

With King James on the throne, Plymouth's fortunes worsened. Elizabeth had been no friend to religious nonconformists in the town, but her Plymouth 'pirates' were her fortune and she was always ready to turn a blind eye where money was concerned; her favourite, Drake, was of Puritan stock after all. James I instead decided to make peace with Catholic Spain and enforced religious conformity throughout England, and a small group of Puritans with links to Plymouth's Puritan merchants found themselves forced to flee to the Netherlands to avoid King James' militia. In time even the Netherlands became unsafe, and the desperate group of pilgrims applied for a grant of land in Virginia where they might live and worship freely.

The pilgrims chartered two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, but the latter failed to live up to its name. By the time they berthed in Plymouth to repair the leaking Speedwell, it was agreed that the voyage would be made only on the Mayflower, carrying just one hundred and two men, women, and children, a quarter of the original number. Half of these weren't even Puritans but 'strangers' who were replacing Puritan settlers who had decided against the voyage at the last minute. It is impossible now to imagine how they could contemplate taking three pregnant women and twenty-three children on such a perilous venture. Their allies in Plymouth were hospitable, and prayers for a successful voyage were offered. They were not answered: the Mayflower set off across the Atlantic on 6 September 1620, and into a nightmare.

For sixty-five days, the Mayflower fought her way across the Atlantic in terrifying storms, and the nauseated passengers crowded into a warren of small rooms between the leaky decks, barely 1.5 metres high. Their late departure left them travelling in November, rather than the balmy summer they had planned. They were out of firewood, two of the settlers were already dead, and scurvy was setting in.

The pilgrims were weavers, tailors, and shoemakers - not adventurers, but men with the skills required to carve out a settlement in the wilderness. Their success was founded on stoic resolve to create not just a settlement but a new way of living, under the leadership of John Carver, a man of humility, who would successfully bring together the disparate factions on board to work to a common cause.

With inadequate maps amidst stormy conditions, the navigator was sailing 'blind', and they arrived not at their destination too many kilometres to the north, at Cape Cod. An attempt to sail south nearly brought destruction in the Pollack Rip, a treacherous maze of shoals and sandbars. Surviving only by a fortunate change in the wind, they limped back to Cape Cod. Though beautiful, it was a sandy harbour, a wilderness which was inadequate for a plantation. They were 750 kilometres from the nearest English settlement, and it was starting to snow. New England snow.

Pocahontas saves Captain Smith
Pocahontas saving Captain Smith, although this would appear to be a ritualised 'mock execution', performed by Chief Powhatan (centre left) in order to adopt Smith as a weroance a subject tribal leader (courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-02687)

A splash of blood

They had to steal from the natives' stores of corn to stay alive. The nearest tribes had good reason to hate the English on their 'floating islands': the crew of a previous ship had captured many of their men and had shot them in cold blood. The pilgrims' first attempt to explore and find a decent location for their settlement put them at the mercy of a rain of arrows as the natives opened fire.

On 20 December 1620, the pilgrims finally decided upon a permanent settlement near Plymouth Rock. The land had much to commend it - a fifty metre-high hill gave them defence and a good view, and there was an unusually good supply of fresh water. What they couldn't see was the area's infected history. Three years before the pilgrims landed, the area had been populated by around 1,500 natives, the shores dotted with hundreds of wigwams and fields of corn. But 1619, just before the arrival of the pilgrims, an epidemic hit the land, one which left only skulls and bones dotted around Plymouth Rock. The pilgrims had unfortunately chosen a site of pestilence, and during the next four months half of the pilgrims would perish.

But still the survivors were determined to flourish. One indentured servant on the voyage, John Howland, managed to survive falling off the Mayflower in the midst of the Atlantic. He'd gone on deck, desperate for some air, and the gales tossed him overboard. Even though he was pulled under the stormy waters, John wouldn't let go of a trailing rope and they managed to bring him back on board. He went on to have ten children and an astonishing eighty-eight grandchildren, all of the same hardy constitution as their grandfather.

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Images and text copyright © The History Press and author(s). This is an excerpt from a History Press publication produced with permission and in conjunction with the History Files.


Bloody British History at the History Press