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The Economic History of the
Puritan Settlement at Plymouth Plantation

The Economic History of
the Puritan Settlement
at Plymouth Plantation

Source: William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, Modern Library College Editions.

In William Bradford's life and his history of the Plymouth Plantation we have the essential story of the Puritan movement and its settlement in America. William Bradford was born in Yorkshire, England in 1590. His father died when William was one year old. His mother remarried when William was four and William was sent to live with his paternal grandfather. His grandfather died two years later and William came back to live with his mother, but she died shortly after his return and he was sent to live with his father's brothers. William obviously had a difficult early life and perhaps might have been troubled with worries that he was a jinx for those who cared for him.

The religous climate of the times was an important factor in William's life. Northern Europe went through the Protestant Reformation in reaction to the corruption and venality of the hierarchy of the Catholic church. England had separated from the Church of Rome but more for political reasons than religious ones. King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon, but the Pope was not likely to grant an annulment of the marriage because of political links with the Spanish Crown. Henry then declared himself head of the national church of England. This move not only enabled him to get rid of his old wife in order to get a new wife, but it also justified his confiscation of Catholic church properties. The Church of England, the Episcopal Church, remained essentially the same as the Catholic Church in ritual and services.

There were many in England that objected not only to the ties between the Catholic Church and the Pope in Rome but also to the theology of Catholicism. These objectors saw Catholicism as a blasphemous distortion of true Christianity. Around England groups of these objectors congregated into their own churches and selected their own pastors. One such church formed in the little town of Scrooby near where William Bradford lived. He joined the church when he was fourteen and became a full member when he was sixteen. These churches of objectors to the Catholic-Episcopal faith became known as Puritans. Initially this term was applied derisively to the people whom members of the Episcopal Church considered as having a severe holier than thou attitude. But despite the derisiveness of the term the dissenters accepted it with pride.

About the same time Puritanism was forming in England John Calvin established a theocratic community in Geneva. The ideas and example of Calvinistic Geneva inspired zealots in Protestant movements throughout northern Europe.

The Puritans in England were not much of a threat to the Establishment as long as they did not promote separatism, but separatism became the goal of many Puritan church groups. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I many reforms of the National Church of England were carried out but Puritans were not satisfied.

In 1608 when William Bradford was about 18 his church in Scrooby decided to leave England to maintain their faith. It was not an easy thing for the Puritans to migrate. A license was required to leave the country and such a license was denied to religious dissenters such as Puritans. Puritans had to arrange illegal transport and this put them in danger of being cheated entirely of the money they paid and robbed of the possessions they carried with them. They were even betrayed to the authorities who imprisoned them for a month or so. All of these things happened to a large company of Puritans.

After being robbed and betrayed by Englishmen some Puritans arranged for a Dutch ship captain to give them transport. While the Dutchman's intentions were honest it worked out that the Puritan men were taken on board before the women and the arrival of the English authorities forced the Dutch captain to leave before the Puritan women and children could be boarded.

At best the rates for illegal transport were extraordinarily high.

After such difficulties as mentioned above 125 members of the Scrooby church, including William Bradford made it to Amsterdam.

After about a year in Amsterdam the Puritans from Scrooby relocated to the city of Leyden. There the Puritans worked in such occupations that were open to them. William Bradford became a silk weaver.

The Puritan congregation from Scrooby spent eleven or twelve years in Leyden. There had been a truce between the Dutch Protestants and the Spanish Catholics during that time. The decision of the Puritans to migrate to America may have been prompted by the fear of what might come at the end of that truce. If war errupted the Puritans would be caught up in it. If the Spanish won the war the Puritans faced the strong possibility that they would be persecuted as heretics by the Spanish Inquisition.

The Puritans in Leyden sent representatives to London to negotiate with the Virginia Company, the businessmen who organized the Virginia colony, for permission to settle within the territories claimed by them. An independent businessman, Thomas Weston, prevailed upon these represenatives to instead enter into a contract with him and a group of adventurers to establish a colony in the Hudson River valley. Weston and the venture capitalists would finance the transport of the Puritan and in return the Puritans would sent back such things as furs to Weston and the company.

The original plan called for two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, to carry the Puritans to America. The Speedwell was not seaworthy and all of the Puritan passengers had to board the Mayflower, 101 in total. The passage was a difficult one and took sixty five days. They arrived at Cape Cod in November of 1620, far north of their intended destination and late in the season. It took a month for the group to find a suitable place of settlement, which they called Plymouth.

The Mayflower remained with the group for a couple of months to provide shelter for the settlers. Bradford's wife Dorothy fell overboard during this time and Francis Murphy states that most historians feel that it was a suicide prompted by the prospect of spending the rest of her life in such a bleak location.

The governor of the venture, John Carver, died in 1621 and William Bradford was elected governor, an office he filled for thirty three years. The office of governor involved being the business manager, the judge and the treasurer as well as being chief administrator of the colony. It was not an easy time. Half of the colonists died within six months of the landing. Bradford himself nearly died of illness.

The Mayflower was sent back to England empty, much to the consternation of Thomas Weston and the venture capitalists. The commericial relationship between the Plymouth colony and the stockholders in London was not an easy one. In 1630 the legal status of the colony was changed and a patent was granted to the Plymouth Plantation from the London Council on New England.

In the early days of the settlement an Indian came to the colonists and spoke to them in broken English. His name was Samoset and he told them that he had learned English from some English fishermen who came to the coast of his homeland to the northeast in what became Maine. Samoset was quite helpful to the colonists in providing information about the country. Samoset also told them of another Indian, called Squanto, who had been to England and spoke much better English than he did.

Squanto's story was unique. He and other members of his tribe were kidnapped by an English ship captain in 1614. The ship captain sold the captives as slaves in Spain. Squanto's master took him through France to England. In England Squanto was employed by a merchant in London for voyages to Newfoundland and elsewhere. Squanto escaped from that ship in 1618 and made his way back to his tribal area only to discover that the rest of his tribe had been wiped out in an epidemic in 1617. He was the only member of his tribe left. He made his way to the Plymouth Plantation and served the colony as interpreter and emissary. Alice Kehoe, in her book America Before the European Invasions says there is evidence that the technique of putting a small fish in with each grain of corn planted was something that Squanto learned in France while he was in Europe.

The real story of the bountiful harvest that was celebrated by the holiday of Thanksgiving is not widely known. Click here for the real story of Thanksgiving.


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