The Pilgrims – by George Bancroft


History of the United States, Vol. I, Ch. 12, by George Bancroft

The Pilgrims

Our narrative leads us to the manor-house of Scrooby, in Nottinghamshire, where William Brewster, who had been educated at Cambridge, had been employed in public affairs by an English secretary of state, and had taken part in an embassy to the Netherlands, resided as successor to his father in a small office under the queen. He furthered religion by procuring good preachers to all places thereabouts, charging himself most commonly deepest, and sometimes above his means. The tyranny of the bishops against godly preachers and people, in silencing the one and persecuting the other, led him and many more of those times to look further into particulars, and to see the burden of many anti-Christian corruptions which both he and they endeavored to cast off.

The age of the queen and the chance of favor to Puritans from her successor conspired to check persecution. The Independents had, it is true, been nearly exterminated; but the non-conforming clergy, after forty years of molestation, had increased, and taken deeper root in the nation. Their followers constituted a powerful political party, inquired into the nature of government, in parliament opposed monopolies, restrained the royal prerogative, and demanded a reform of ecclesiastical abuses. Popular liberty, which used to animate its friends by appeals to the examples of ancient republics, now listened to a voice from the grave of Wycliffe, from the vigils of Calvin. Victorious over her foreign enemies, Elizabeth never could crush the religious party of which she held the increase dangerous to the state. In the latter years of her reign her popularity declined, and after her death “in four days she was forgotten.” The accession of King James, on the third day of April, 1603, would, it was hoped, introduce a milder system; for he had called the church of Scotland “the sincerest kirk of the world;” and had censured the service of England as “an evil said mass.”

The pupil of Buchanan was not destitute of shrewdness nor unskilled in rhetoric. He aimed at the reputation of a “most learned clerk,” and So successfully that Bacon pronounced him incomparable for learning among kings; and Sully, who knew him well, esteemed him the wisest fool in Europe. At the mature age of thirty-six, the imbecile man, afflicted with an ungainly frame and a timorous nature, escaped from austere supervision in Scotland to freedom of self-indulgence in the English court. His will, like his passions, was feeble, so that he could never carry out a wise resolution; and, in his love of ease, he had no fixed principles of conduct or belief. Moreover, cowardice, which was the core of his character, led him to be false; and he could vindicate deception and cunning as worthy of a king; but he was an awkward liar rather than a crafty dissembler. On his way to a country where the institution of a parliament existed, he desired “to get rid of it,” being persuaded that its privileges were not an ancient, undoubted right and inheritance, but were derived solely from grace and favor. His experience in Scotland had persuaded him that Presbyterian government in the church would, in a monarchy, bring forth perpetual rebellions; and while he denied the divine institution of bishops, and cared not for the profits the church might reap from them, he believed they would prove useful instruments to turn a monarchy with a parliament into absolute dominion.

The English hierarchy had feared in their new sovereign the approach of a “Scottish mist;” but the borders of Scotland were hardly passed before James began to identify the interests of the English church with those of his prerogative. “No bishop, no king,” was a maxim often in his mouth, at the moment when Archbishop Whitgift could not conceal his disappointment and disquiet of mind, that the Puritans were too numerous to be borne down. While James was in his progress to London, more than seven hundred of them presented a petition for a redress of ecclesiastical grievances; and a decent respect for the party in which he had been bred, joined to a desire of displaying his talents for theological debate, induced him to appoint a conference at Hampton court.

The conference, held in January, 1604, was distinguished on the part of the king by a strenuous vindication of the church of England. Refusing to discuss the question of its power in things indifferent, he substituted authority for argument, and, where he could not produce conviction, demanded obedience: “I will have none of that liberty as to ceremonies; I will have one doctrine, one discipline, one religion in substance and in ceremony. Never speak more to that point, how far you are bound to obey.”

The Puritans desired permission occasionally to assemble, and at their meetings to have the liberty of free discussions; but the king interrupted their petition: “You are aiming at a Scot’s presbytery, which agrees with monarchy, as well as God and the devil. Then Jack and Tom and Will and Dick shall meet, and at their pleasure censure me and my council, and all our proceedings. Then Will shall stand up and say, It must be thus; then Dick shall reply and say, Nay, marry, but we will have it thus; and, therefore, here I must once more reiterate my former speech, and say, The king forbids.” Turning to the bishops, he avowed his belief that the hierarchy was the firmest supporter of the throne. Of the Puritans, he added: “I will make them conform, or I will harry them out of the land, or else worse,” “only hang them; that’s all.”

On the last day of the conference, the king defended the necessity of subscription, concluding that, “if any would not be quiet and show their obedience, they were worthy to be hanged.” He approved the high commission and inquisitorial oaths, despotic authority and its instruments. A few alterations in the Book of Common Prayer were the only reforms which the conference effected. It was determined that a time should be set, within which all should conform, or be removed. He had insulted the Puritans with vulgar rudeness and indecorous jests, and had talked much Latin; a part of the time in the presence of the nobility of Scotland and England. “Your majesty speaks by the special assistance of God’s spirit,” said the aged Whitgift, just six weeks before his death. Bishop Bancroft, on his knees, exclaimed that his heart melted for joy, “because God had given England such a king as, since Christ’s time, has not been;” and, in a foolish letter, James boasted that “he had soundly peppered off the Puritans.”

In the parliament which assembled in 1604, the party for the reform of the church asserted their liberties with such tenacity and vigor that King James began to hate them as embittering royalty itself. “I had rather live like a hermit in the forest,” he writes, “than be a king over such a people as the pack of Puritans are that overrule the lower house.” “The will of man or angel cannot devise a pleasing answer to their propositions, except I should pull the crown not only from my own head, but also from the head of all those that shall succeed unto me, and lay it down at their feet.” At the opening of the session, he had offered “to meet the Catholics in the midway;” while he added that “the sect of Puritans is insufferable in any well-governed commonwealth.” At the next session of parliament he declared the Roman Catholics to be faithful subjects, but the Puritans worthy of fire for their opinions. Against the latter he inveighed bitterly in council, saying ” that the revolt in the Low Countries began for matters of religion, and so did all the troubles in Scotland; that his mother and he, from their cradles, had been haunted with a Puritan devil, which he feared would not leave him to his grave; and that he would hazard his crown but he would suppress those malicious spirits.”

The convocation of the clergy were very ready to decree against obstinate Puritans excommunication and all its consequences. Bancroft, the successor of Whitgift, required conformity with unrelenting rigor; King James issued a proclamation of equal severity; and it is asserted, perhaps with exaggeration, yet by those who had opportunities of judging rightly, that in the year 1604 alone three hundred Puritan ministers were silenced, imprisoned, or exiled. The oppressed resisted the surplice, not as a mere vestment, but as the symbol of a priest, ordained by a bishop, imposed upon a church, and teaching by authority. The clergy proceeded with a consistent disregard of the national liberties. The importation of foreign books was impeded, and a severe censorship of the press was exercised by the bishops. The convocation of 1606, in a series of canons, asserted the superiority of the king to the parliament and the laws, and admitted no exception to the duty of passive obedience. The English separatists and non-conformists became the sole protectors of the system which gave to England its distinguishing glory. “The stern and exasperated Puritans,” writes Hallam, “were the depositaries of the sacred fire of liberty.” “So absolute was the authority of the crown,” said Hume, “that the precious spark of liberty had been kindled and was preserved by the Puritans alone; and it was to this sect that the English owe the whole freedom of their constitution.” The lines of the contending parties were sharply drawn. Immediate success was obtained by the established authority; but the contest was to be transmitted to another continent. The interests of human freedom were at issue on the contest.

In the year of this convocation, “a poor people” in the north of England, in towns and villages of Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, and the borders of Yorkshire, in and near Scrooby, had “become enlightened by the word of God.” “Presently they were both scoffed and scorned by the profane multitude; and their ministers, urged by the yoke of subscription,” were, by the increase of troubles, led “to see further,” that not only “the beggarly ceremonies were monuments of idolatry,” but “that the lordly power of the prelates ought not to be submitted to.” Many of them, therefore, “whose hearts the, Lord had touched with heavenly zeal for his truth,” resolved, “whatever it might cost them, to shake off the anti-Christian bondage, and, as the Lord’s free people, to join themselves by a covenant into a church estate in the fellowship of the gospel.”

“The gospel is every man’s right; and it is not to be endured that any one should be kept therefrom. But the evangel is an open doctrine; it is bound to no place, and moves along freely under heaven, like the star, which ran in the sky to show the wizards from the east where Christ was born. Do not dispute with the prince for place. Let the community choose their own pastor, and support him out of their own estates. If the prince will not suffer it, let the pastor flee into another land, and let those go with him who will, as Christ teaches.” Such was the counsel of Luther, on reading ” the twelve articles” of the insurgent peasants of Suabia. What Luther advised, what Calvin planned, was carried into effect by this rural community of Englishmen.

The reformed church chose for one of their ministers John Robinson, “a man not easily to be paralleled,” “of a most learned, polished, and modest spirit.” Their ruling elder was William Brewster, who “was their special stay and help.” They were beset and watched night and day by the agents of prelacy. For about a year they kept their meetings every sabbath in one place or another; exercising the worship of God among themselves, notwithstanding all the diligence and malice of their adversaries, till the peaceful members of “the poor persecuted flock of Christ,” despairing of rest in England, resolved to go into Holland, “where, they heard, was freedom of religion for all men.”

The departure from England was effected with much suffering and hazard. The first attempt, in 1607, was prevented; but the magistrates checked the ferocity of the subordinate officers; and, after a month’s arrest of the whole company, seven only of the principal men were detained a little longer in prison.

Reverend John Robinson
Reverend John Robinson

The next spring the design was renewed. An unfrequented heath in Lincolnshire, near the month of the Humber, was the place of secret meeting. Just as a boat was bearing a part of the emigrants to their ship, a company of horsemen appeared in pursuit, and seized on the helpless women and children who had not yet adventured on the surf. “Pitiful it was to see the heavy case of these poor women in distress; what weeping and crying on every side.” But, when they were apprehended, it seemed impossible to punish and imprison wives and children for no other crime than that they would not part from their husbands and fathers. They could not be sent home, for ” they had no homes to go to; ” so that, at last, the magistrates were “glad to be rid of them on any terms,” “though, in the mean time, they, poor souls, endured misery enough.” Such was the flight of Robinson and Brewster and their followers from the land of their fathers.

Their arrival in Amsterdam, in 1608, was but the beginning of their wanderings. “They knew they were Pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to Heaven, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.” In 1609, removing to Leyden, ” they saw poverty coming on them like an armed man ;” but, being ” careful to keep their word, and painful and diligent in their callings,” they attained “a comfortable condition, grew in the gifts and grace of the spirit of God, and lived together in peace and love and holiness.” “Never,” said the magistrates of the city, ” never did we have any suit or accusation against any of them ;” and, but for fear of offence to King James, they would have met with public favor. “Many came there from different parts of England, so as they grew a great congregation.” “Such was the humble zeal and fervent love of this people toward God and his ways, and their single-heartedness and sincere affection one toward another,” that they seemed to come surpassingly near “the primitive pattern of the first churches.” A clear and well-written apology of their discipline was published by Robinson, who, in the controversy on free-will, as the champion of orthodoxy, “began to be terrible to the Armim’ans,” and disputed in the university with such power that, as his friends assert, “the truth had a famous victory.”

William Brewster
William Brewster

The career of maritime discovery had, meantime, been pursued with intrepidity and rewarded with success. The voyages of Gosnold, “Waymouth, Smith, and Hudson; the enterprise of Raleigh, Delaware, and Gorges; the compilations of Eden, Willes, and Hakluyt—had filled the commercial world with wonder; Calvinists of the French church had sought, though vainly, to plant themselves in Brazil, in Carolina, and, with De Monts, in Acadia; while weighty reasons, often and seriously discussed, inclined the pilgrims to change their abode. They had been bred to the pursuits of husbandry, and in Holland they were compelled to learn mechanical trades; Brewster became a teacher of English and a printer; Bradford, who bad been educated as a farmer, learned the art of dyeing silk. The Dutch language never became pleasantly familiar to them, and the Dutch manners still less so. They lived but as men in exile. Many of their English friends would not come to them, or departed, from them weeping. “Their continual labors, with other crosses and sorrows, left them in danger to scatter or sink.” “Their children, sharing their parents’ burdens, bowed under the weight, and were becoming decrepit in early youth.” Conscious of ability to act a higher part in the great drama of humanity, they, after ten years, were moved by “a hope and inward zeal of advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in the remote parts of the New World; yea, though they should be but as stepping-stones unto others for performing so great a work.”

“Upon their talk of removing, sundry of the Dutch would have them go under them, and made them large offers;” but an inborn love for the English nation and for their mother tongue led them to the generous purpose of recovering the protection of England by enlarging her dominions. They were “restless” with the desire to remove to “the most northern parts of Virginia,” hoping, under the general government of that province, “to live in a distinct body by themselves.” To obtain the consent of the London company, John Carver, with Robert Cushman, in 1617, repaired to England. They took with them “seven articles,” from the members of the church at Leyden, to be submitted to the council in England for Virginia. These articles discussed the relations which, as separatists in religion, they bore to their prince; and they adopted the theory which the admonitions of Luther and a century of persecution had developed as the common rule of plebeian sectaries on the continent of Europe. They expressed their concurrence in the creed of the Anglican church, and a desire of spiritual communion with its members. Toward the king and all civil authority derived from him, including the civil authority of bishops, they promised, as they would have done to Nero and the Roman pontifec, “obedience in all things, active if the thing commanded be not against God’s word, or passive if it be.” They denied all power to ecclesiastical bodies, unless it were given by the temporal magistrate. They pledged themselves to honor their superiors, and to preserve unity of spirit in peace with all men. “Divers select gentlemen of the council for Virginia were well satisfied with their statement, and resolved to set forward their desire.” The London company listened very willingly to their proposal, so that their agents ” found God going along with them;” and, through the influence of “Sir Edwin Sandys, a religious gentleman then living,” a patent might at once have been taken, had not the envoys desired first to consult “the multitude” at Leyden.

On the fifteenth of December, 1617, the pilgrims transmitted their formal request, signed by the hands of the greatest part of the congregation. “”We are well weaned,” added Robinson and Brewster, ” from the delicate milk of our mother country, and inured to the difficulties of a strange land; the people are industrious and frugal. We are knit together as a body in a most sacred covenant of the Lord, of the violation whereof we make great conscience, and by virtue whereof we hold ourselves straightly tied to all care of each other’s good, and of the whole. It is not with us as with men whom small things can discourage.”

The messengers of the pilgrims, satisfied with their reception by the Virginia company, petitioned the king for liberty of religion, to be confirmed under the king’s broad seal. But here they encountered insurmountable difficulties. Of all men in the government of that day, Lord Bacon had given the most attention to colonial enterprise. The settlements of the Scotch in Ireland enjoyed his particular favor. To him, as ” to the encourager, pattern, and perfecter of all virtuous endeavors,” Strachey at this time dedicated his “Historic of Travaile into Virginia”; to him John Smith, in his “poverty,” turned for encouragement in colonizing New England, as to “a chief patron of his country and the greatest favorer of all good designs.” To him Sir George Villiers, the favorite of James, addressed himself for advice, and received instructions how to govern himself in office.

The great master of speculative wisdom knew too little of religion to inculcate freedom of conscience. He saw that the established church, which he cherished as the eye of England, was not without blemish; that the wrongs of the Puritans could neither be dissembled nor excused; that the silencing of ministers, for the sake of enforcing the ceremonies, was, in the scarcity of good preachers, a punishment that lighted on the people; and he esteemed controversy ” the wind by which truth is winnowed.” But Bacon was formed for contemplative life, not for action; his will was feeble, and yet, having an incessant yearning for vain distinction and display, he became a craven courtier and an intolerant statesman. “Discipline by bishops,” said he, ” is fittest for monarchy of all others. The tenets of separatists and sectaries are full of schism, and inconsistent with monarchy. The king will beware of Anabaptists, Brownists, and others of their kinds; a little connivency sets them on fire. For the discipline of the church in colonies, it will be necessary that it agree with that which is settled in England, else it will make a schism and a rent in Christ’s coat, which must be seamless; and, to that purpose, it will be fit that by the king’s supreme power in causes ecclesiastical, within all his dominions, they be subordinate under some bishop and bishoprick of this realm. This caution is to be observed, that if any transplant themselves into plantations abroad, who are known schismatics, outlaws, or criminal persons, they be sent for back upon the first notice.”

These maxims prevailed at the council-board, when the envoys from the independent church at Leyden preferred their requests. “Who shall make your ministers?” it was asked of them; and the avowal of their principle, that ordination requires no bishop, threatened to spoil all. To advance the dominions of England, King James esteemed “a good and honest motion; and fishing was an honest trade, the apostles’ own calling;” yet he referred the suit to the prelates of Canterbury and London. Even while the negotiations were pending, a royal declaration constrained the Puritans of Lancashire to conform or leave the kingdom; and nothing more could be obtained for the wilds of America than an informal promise of neglect. On this the community relied, being advised not to entangle themselves with the bishops. “If there should afterward be a purpose to wrong us,” thus they communed with themselves, “though we had a seal as broad as the house-floor, there would be means enough found to recall or reverse it. We must rest herein on God’s providence.”

Better hopes seemed to dawn when, in 1619, the London company for Virginia elected for their treasurer Sir Edwin Sandys, who from the first had befriended the pilgrims. Under his presidency, so writes one of their number, the members of the company in their open court “demanded our ends of going; which being related, they said the thing was of God, and granted a large patent.” As it was taken in the name of one who failed to accompany the expedition, the patent was never of any service. And, besides, the pilgrims, after investing all their own means, had not sufficient capita. to execute their schemes.

In this extremity, Robinson looked- for aid to the Dutch. He and his people and their friends, to the number of four hundred families, professed themselves well inclined to emigrate to the country on the Hudson, and to plant there a new commonwealth under the command of the stadholder and the states general. The West India company was willing to transport them without charge, and to furnish them with cattle; but when its directors petitioned the states general to promise protection to the enterprise against all violence from other potentates, the request was found to be in conflict with the policy of the Dutch republic, and was refused.

The members of the church of Leyden, ceasing “to meddle with the Dutch, or to depend too much on the “Virginia company,” now trusted to their own resources and the aid of private friends. The fisheries had commended American expeditions to English merchants; and the agents from Leyden were able to form a partnership between their employers and men of business in London. The services of each emigrant were rated as a capital of ten pounds, and belonged to the company; all profits were to be reserved till the end of seven years, when the whole amount, and all houses and land, gardens and fields, were to be divided among the share-holders according to their respective interests. The London merchant, who risked one hundred pounds, would receive for his money tenfold as much as the penniless laborer for his services. This arrangement threatened a seven years’ check to the pecuniary prosperity of the community; yet, as it did not interfere with civil rights or religion, it was accepted.

Pilgrims departing on Mayflower at Leyden
Pilgrims departing on Mayflower at Leyden

And now, in July, 1620, the English at Leyden, trusting in God and in themselves, made ready for their departure. The ships which they had provided—the Speedwell, of sixty tons, the Mayflower, of one hundred and eighty tons—could hold but a minority of the congregation; and Robinson was therefore detained at Leyden, while Brewster, the governing elder, who was an able teacher, conducted “such of the youngest and strongest as freely offered themselves.” A solemn fast was held. “Let us seek of God,” said they, ” a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance.” Anticipating the sublime lessons of liberty that would grow out of their religious tenets, Robinson gave them a farewell, saying:

“I charge you, before God and his blessed angels, that you follow me no farther than you have seen me follow the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord has more truth yet to break forth out of his holy word. I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of the reformed churches, who are come to a period in religion, and will go at present no farther than the instruments of their reformation. Luther and Calvin were great and shining lights in their times, yet they penetrated not into the whole counsel of God. I beseech you, remember it—’tis an article of your church covenant—that you be ready to receive whatever truth shall be made known to you from the written word of God.”

“When the ship was ready to carry us away,” writes Edward Winslow, ” the brethren that stayed at Leyden, having again solemnly sought the Lord with us and for us, feasted us that were to go, at our pastor’s house, being large; where we refreshed ourselves, after tears, with singing of psalms, making joyful melody in our hearts, as well as with the voice, there being many of the congregation very expert in music; and, indeed, it was the sweetest melody that ever mine ears heard. After this they accompanied us to Delft-Haven, where we went to embark, and then feasted us again; and, after prayer, performed by our pastor, when a flood of tears was poured out, they accompanied us to the ship, but were not able to speak one to another for the abundance of sorrow to part. But we only, going aboard, gave them a volley of small shot and three pieces of ordnance; and Lo, lifting up our hands to each other, and our hearts for each other to the Lord our God, we departed.”

In August the Mayflower and the Speedwell left Southampton for America. But as they were twice compelled, to put back by the dismay of the captain of the Speedwell, at Plymouth “they agreed to dismiss her, and those who were willing returned to London, though this was very grievous and discouraging.” Having thus winnowed their numbers, the little band, not of resolute men only, but wives, some far gone in pregnancy, children, infants, a floating village of one hundred and two souls, went on board the single ship, which was hired only to convey them across the Atlantic; and, on the sixth day of September, 1620, thirteen years after the first colonization of Virginia, they set sail for a new world.

Had New England been colonized immediately on the discovery of the American continent, the old English institutions would have been planted with the Roman Catholic hierarchy; had the settlement been made under Elizabeth, it would have been before activity of the popular mind in religion had awakened a corresponding activity in politics. The pilgrims were Englishmen, Protestants, exiles for conscience, men disciplined by misfortune, cultivated by opportunities of wide observation, and equal in rank as in rights.

The eastern coast of the United States abounds in convenient harbors, bays, and rivers. The pilgrims, having selected for their settlement the country on the Hudson, the best position on the whole coast, were conducted to the least fertile part of Massachusetts. After a boisterous voyage of sixty-three days, during which one person had died and one was born, they espied land; and, in two days more, on the ninth of November, cast anchor in the first harbor within Cape Cod. On the eleventh, before they landed, they formed themselves into a body politic by this voluntary compact:

MayflowerCompact“In the name of God, amen; we, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign King James, having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do, by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and, by virtue thereof, to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most convenient for the general good of the colony. Unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”

Governor John Carver
Governor John Carver

This instrument was signed by the whole body of men, forty-one in number, who, with their families, constituted the one hundred and two, the whole colony, “the proper democracy,” that arrived in New England. In the cabin of the Mayflower humanity recovered its rights, and instituted government on the basis of “equal laws” enacted by all the people for “the general good.” John Carver was immediately and unanimously chosen governor for the year.

Men who emigrate, even in well-inhabited districts, pray that their journey may not be in winter. “Wasted by the rough voyage, scantily supplied with provisions, the English fugitives found themselves, in the last days of the year, on a bleak and barren coast, in a severe climate, with the ocean on one side and the wilderness on the other. The nearest French settlement was at Port Royal; it was five hundred miles to the English plantation at Virginia. As they attempted to disembark, the water was found so shallow that they were forced to wade; and, in the freezing weather, this sowed the seeds of consumption. The bitterness of mortal disease was their welcome to the inhospitable shore.

The spot for the settlement remained to be chosen. The shallop was unshipped, and it was a real disaster to find that it needed repairs. The carpenter made slow work, so that sixteen or seventeen days elapsed before it was ready for service. But Standish and Bradford and others, impatient of the delay, determined to explore the country by land. “In regard to the danger,” the expedition “was rather permitted than approved.” Much hardship was endured; but no beneficial discoveries could be made in the deep sands near Paomet creek. The first expedition in the shallop was likewise unsuccessful; “some of the people that died that winter took the original of their death” in the enterprise; “for it snowed and did blow all the day »and night, and froze withal.” The men who were set on shore ” were tired with marching up and down the steep hills and deep valleys, which lay half a foot thick with snow.” A heap of maize was discovered; and further search led to a burial-place of the Indians; but they found “no more corn, nor anything else but graves.”

On the sixth, the shallop was again sent out, with Carver, Bradford, Winslow, Standish, and others, and eight or ten seamen. The spray of the sea froze as it fell on them, and made their clothes like coats of iron. That day they reached Billingsgate point, half way to the bottom of the bay of Cape Cod, on the western shore of Wellfleet harbor. The next morning the party divided; those on land find a burial-place, graves, and four or five deserted wigwams, but neither people nor any place inviting a settlement. Before night they all met by the sea-side, and encamped near Namskeket, or Great Meadow creek.

On the eighth they rose at five; their morning prayers were finished, when, as the day dawned, a war-whoop and a flight of arrows announced an attack from Indians. They were of the tribe of the Nausites, who knew the English as kidnappers; but the encounter was without further result. Again the boat’s crew give thanks to God, and steer their bark along the coast for the distance of fifteen leagues. But no convenient harbor is discovered. The pilot, who had been in these regions before, gives assurance of a good one, which may be reached before night; and they follow his guidance. After some hours’ sailing, a storm of snow and rain begins; the sea swells; the rudder breaks; the boat must now be steered with oars; the storm increases; night is at hand; to reach the harbor before dark, as much sail as possible is borne; the mast breaks into three pieces; the sail falls overboard; but the tide is favorable. The pilot, in dismay, would have run the boat on shore in a cove full of breakers. “About with her,” exclaimed a sailor, “or we are cast away.” They get her about immediately; and, passing over the surf, they enter a fair sound, and shelter themselves under the lee of a small rise of land. It becomes dark, and the rain beats furiously. After great difficulty, they kindle a fire on shore.

The light of the morning of the ninth showed them to be on a small island within the entrance of a harbor. The day was spent in rest and repairs. The next day was the ” Christian sabbath,” and the pilgrims kept it sacredly, though every consideration demanded haste.

On Monday, the eleventh of December, old style, on the day of the winter solstice, the exploring party of the forefathers land at Plymouth. That day is kept as the origin of New England.

The spot, when examined, promised them a home, and on the fifteenth the Mayflower was safely moored in its harbor. In memory of the hospitalities which the company had received at the last English port from which they had sailed, this oldest New England colony took the name of Plymouth. The system of civil government had been established by common agreement; the church had been organized before it left Leyden. As the pilgrims landed, their institutions were already perfected. Democratic liberty and independent Christian worship started into being.

On the ninth of January, 1621, they began to build—a difficult task for men of whom one half were wasting away with consumptions and lung-fevers. For the sake of haste, it was agreed that every man should build his own house; but, though the winter was unwontedly mild, frost and foul weather were great hindrances; they could seldom work half of the week; and tenements rose slowly in the intervals between storms of sleet and snow.

Myles Standish
Myles Standish

A few years before, a pestilence had swept away the neighboring tribes. Yet when, in February, a body of Indians from abroad was discovered hovering near, though disappearing when pursued, the colony was organized for defense, with Miles Standish as its captain. But dangers from the natives were not at hand.

One day in March, Samoset, an Indian who had learned a little English of the fishermen at Penobscot, entered the town, and, passing to the rendezvous, exclaimed in English: “Welcome, Englishmen.” He was the envoy of Massassoit himself, “the greatest commander of the country,” sachem of the tribe possessing the land north of Narragansett bay, and between the rivers of Providence and Taunton. After some little negotiation, in which an Indian, who had been carried to England, acted as an interpreter, the chieftain came in person to visit the pilgrims. With their wives and children they amounted to no more than fifty. He was received with due ceremonies, and a treaty of friendship was completed in few and unequivocal terms. Both parties promised to abstain from mutual injuries, and to deliver up offenders; the colonists were to receive assistance, if attacked; to render it, if Massassoit should be attacked unjustly. The treaty included the confederates of the sachem; it is the oldest act of diplomacy recorded in New England; was concluded in a day; and was sacredly kept for more than half a century. Massassoit needed the alliance, for the powerful Narragansetts were his enemies; his tribe desired an interchange of commodities; while the emigrants obtained peace, security, and a profitable commerce.

Massasoit signs treaty
Massasoit signs treaty

On the third of March, a south wind had brought warm and fair weather. “The birds sang in the woods most pleasantly.” But spring had far advanced before the mortality grew less. It was afterward remarked, with modest gratitude, that, of the survivors, very many lived to an extreme old age. A shelter, not less than comfort, had been wanting; the living had been scarce able to bury the dead; the well too few to take care of the sick. At the season of greatest distress there were but seven able to render assistance. Carver, the governor, at his first landing, lost a son; by his care for the common good, he shortened his own days; and his wife, brokenhearted, followed him in death. Brewster was the life and stay of the plantation;

William Bradford becomes next Governor
William Bradford becomes next Governor

but, he being its ruling elder. William Bradford, its historian, was chosen Carver’s successor. The record of misery was kept by the graves of the governor and half the company.

After sickness abated, privation and want remained to be encountered. Yet, when in April the Mayflower was dispatched for England, not one returned in her, while just before autumn new emigrants arrived. In July, an embassy from the little colony to Massassoit, their ally, performed through the forests and on foot, confirmed the treaty of amity, and prepared the way for a trade in furs.

The influence of the English over the aborigines was rapidly extended. A sachem, who menaced their safety, was compelled to sue for mercy; and, in September, nine chiefs subscribed an instrument of submission to King James. The bay of Massachusetts and harbor of Boston were explored. The supply of bread was scanty; but, at their rejoicing together after the harvest, the colonists had great plenty of wild fowl and venison, so that they feasted Massassoit with some ninety of his men.

Canonicus, the sachem of the Narragansetts, whose territory had escaped the ravages of the pestilence, at first desired to treat of peace; in 1622, a bundle of arrows, wrapped in the skin of a rattlesnake, was his message of hostility. But, when Bradford sent back the skin stuffed with powder and shot, his courage quailed, and he sued for amity.

The returns from agriculture were uncertain so long as the system of common property prevailed. After the harvest of 1623, there was no general want of food; in the spring of that year, each family planted for itself; and parcels of land, in proportion to numbers, were assigned for tillage, though not for inheritance. This arrangement produced contented labor and universal industry; “even women and children now went into the field to work.” In the spring of 1624, every person obtained a little land in perpetual fee, and neat cattle were introduced. Before many harvests, so much corn was raised that the Indians, preferring the chase to tillage, looked to the men of Plymouth for their supply.

The fur trade was an object of envy; and Thomas Weston, who had been active among the London adventurers in establishing the colony, desired to engross its profits. In 1622, a patent for land near Weymouth, the first plantation in Boston harbor, was easily obtained; and sixty men were sent over. Helpless at their arrival, they intruded themselves, for most of the summer, upon the unrequited hospitality of the people of Plymouth. In their own plantation, they were soon reduced to necessity by their want of thrift and injustice toward the Indians; and a plot was formed for their destruction. But Massassoit revealed the design to his allies; and the planters at Weymouth were saved by the wisdom of the older colony and the intrepid gallantry of Standish. It was “his capital exploit.” Some of the rescued men went to Plymouth; some sailed for England. One short year saw the beginning and decay of Weston’s adventure.

The partnership of the Plymouth men with English merchants proved oppressive; for it kept from them their pastor. Robinson and the rest of his church at Leyden were longing to rejoin their brethren; the adventurers in England refused to provide them a passage, and attempted, with but short success, to force upon the colony a clergyman more friendly to the established church. Offended by opposition, and discouraged at the small returns from their investments, they became ready to prey upon their associates in America. A ship was dispatched to rival them in their business; goods, which were sent for their supply, were sold to them at an advance of seventy per cent. The curse of usury, which always falls so heavily upon new settlements, did not spare them; for, being left without help from the partners, they were obliged to borrow money at fifty per cent and at thirty per cent interest. At last the emigrants purchased the entire rights of the English adventurers; and the common property was equitably divided. For a six years’ monopoly of trade, eight of the most enterprising men assumed all the engagements of the colony; so that the cultivators of the soil became really freeholders; neither debts nor rent-day troubled them.

Hardly were they planted in America when their enterprise took a wide range; before Massachusetts was settled, they had acquired rights at Cape Ann, as well as an extensive domain on the Kennebec; and they were the first of the English to establish a post on the Connecticut. But the progress of population was very slow; and at the end of ten years the colony contained no more than three hundred souls. Robinson died at Leyden; his heart was in America, where his memory will never die. The remainder of his people, and with them his wife and children, came over, so soon as means could be provided to defray the costs.

The frame of civil government in the old colony was of the utmost simplicity. A governor was chosen by general suffrage, whose power, always subordinate to the common will, was, at the desire of Bradford, in 1624, restricted by a council of five, and, in 1633, of seven, assistants. In the council, the governor had but a double vote. There could be no law or imposition without consent of the freemen. For more than eighteen years “the whole body of the male inhabitants” constituted the legislature; the state was governed, like a town, as a strict democracy; and the people were frequently convened to decide on executive not less than on judicial questions. At length, in 1639, after the increase of population, and its diffusion over a wider territory, each town sent its committee to a general court.

The men of Plymouth exercised self-government without the sanction of a royal charter, which it was ever impossible for them to obtain; it was, therefore, in themselves that their institutions found the guarantee for stability. They never hesitated to punish small offenses; it was only after some scruples that they inflicted capital punishment. Their doubts being once removed, they exercised the same authority as the charter governments. Death was, by subsequent laws, made the penalty for several crimes, but was never inflicted except for murder. House-breaking and highway robbery were offenses unknown in their courts, and too little apprehended to be made subjects of severe legislation.

“To enjoy religious liberty was the known end of the first comers’ great adventure into this remote wilderness;” and they desired no increase but from the friends of their communion. Yet their residence in Holland had made them acquainted with various forms of Christianity; a wide experience had emancipated them from bigotry; and they were never betrayed into the excesses of religious persecution, though they sometimes permitted a disproportion between punishment and crime. In 1645, a majority of the house of delegates were in favor of an act to “allow and maintain full and free toleration to all men that would preserve the civil peace and submit unto government; and there was no limitation or exception against Turk, Jew, Papist, Arian, Socinian, Nicolaitan, Familist, or any other;” but the governor refused to put the question, and so stifled the law.

It is as guides and pioneers that the fathers of the old colony merit gratitude. Through scenes of gloom and misery they showed the way to an asylum for those who would go to the wilderness for the liberty of conscience. Accustomed “in their native land to a plain country life and the innocent trade of husbandry,” they set the example of colonizing New England with freeholders, and formed the mould for the civil and religious character of its institutions. They enjoyed, in anticipation, the fame which their successors would award to them. “Out of small beginnings,” said Bradford, “great things have been produced; and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone to many, yea, in Borne sort to our whole nation.” “Let it not be grievous to you” —such was the consolation offered from England to the pilgrims in the season of their greatest sufferings—” let it not be grievous to you that you have been instruments to break the ice for others. The honor shall be yours to the world’s end.” “Yea, the memory of the adventurers to this plantation shall never die.”

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Americanist History is researched, compiled, and edited (with occasional introductory and explanatory notes) by Steve Farrell, Editor In Chief of The Moral Liberal. Mr. Farrell has modernized much of the spelling in this selection of George Bancroft’s History of the United States.

Formatting, spelling modernization, and other editing (previous scanned copies had numerous spelling errors which were corrected by as seemed consistent with the text), as well as the Americanist History collection as a whole, Copyright © 2013 Steve Farrell.

The Original Copyright of George Bancroft’s History of the United States is held in the Public Domain.