Comparing Plymouth and Jamestown

By Robert Jennings Heinsohn, PhD


Pilgrim families arrived in Holland in the spring of 1608 and in Plymouth in December 1620. In May 1607, 105 men arrived in Jamestown to establish the first permanent English settlement in North America. While the individuals in both settlements were English, the they were different in many important ways. To fully appreciate our Pilgrim heritage, it is important to understand the differences between Plymouth and Jamestown. This essay identifies major differences and explains how these differences affected the settlements during the first few decades of their arrival.

Sir Walter Raleigh receiving his charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1584. Painting by Dean Cornwell

Royal Charters and Patents

Early Efforts to Colonize North America
Queen Elizabeth granted a patent (Royal Charter) to Sir Humphrey Gilbert (half brother of Sir Walter Raleigh) who led an expedition to Newfoundland in 1583 and claimed it for England. For the next thirty years he tried, but without success, to begin settlements. Eventually he was lost at sea in a storm. A Royal Charter was granted to Sir Walter Raleigh to establish a settlement on Roanoke Island in 1585, and later in 1587. Roanoke is an island in the outer banks of North Carolina in an obscure cove the Spanish could not easily discover. The 1585 venture involving 107 men lasted less than a year because food ran out and they were unable to obtain food from the Indians. The colonists were rescued by Sir Francis Drake and returned to England. In 1587 Raleigh delivered 110 men, women and children under John White, a painter, to Roanoke Island. John White stayed only a month but made detailed drawings of the appearance and housing of the coastal Carolina Algonquian Indians. War between England and Spain prevented White from returning to Roanoke until 1590 when he found the site abandoned and only the word Croatoan carved on a post. Croatoan was the name of neighboring Indians on an island of the same name but owing to bad weather the English were unable to organize a mission to search for the "Lost Colony of Roanoke". In 1602 Bartholomew Gosnold and 20 men tried to establish a trading post on Cape Cod but lacking food abandoned the effort and returned to England.

British land claims on the North American eastern seaboard, from what is now northern Maine to Wilmington, North Carolina was broadly called "Virginia" to honor Queen Elizabeth, the "Virgin Queen". In 1606 King James granted Royal Charters to the Virginia Company of London, and the Plymouth Virginia Company. The patents were identical and covered overlapping areas (with separate extensions north and south) between the 38th and 41st parallels. With use, the names were shortened to, the Virginia Company and the Plymouth Company. The companies were venture capitalists of noblemen, landed gentry, and men prominent in trade and commerce interested in establishing settlements in North America. Land remained the property of the King, the companies were tenants and the colonists were subtenants. In August 1607 the Plymouth Company granted George Popham and 120 colonist's permission to settle at mouth of Kennebec River in Maine. Due to shortage of supplies the settlement was abandoned after 13 months and the Plymouth Company fell into abeyance.

John Smith, played by Dennis Farmer, claims the beach for England during a re-enactment ceremony of the 400th anniversary landing at Jamestown.

In May 1607 the Susan Constant under Christopher Newport, the Godspeed under Sir Bartholomew Gosnold and the Discovery under Sir John Ratcliffe brought 105 men to the shore of the James River in Virginia, 5 miles from the river's mouth on the Chesapeake Bay. Half of the men were well-born gentlemen unaccustomed to physical work and the rigors of living in the wilderness. The settlement was called Jamestown in honor of King James and was under the auspices of the Virginia Company. Colonial authority was exercised by Company Directors in London who had the responsibility of recruiting, transporting, supplying, supervising trade and managing the financial matters of the colonists. Upon landing, the settlers opened sealed directives from the Virginia Company designating 7 men to govern as the Colony Council. The Council consisted of the three ship captains, three prominent men in the expedition and the commoner John Smith, who had been hired by the Virginia Company to manage military activities. The Susan Constant and Godspeed returned to England in June 1607 but the Discovery remained in Jamestown. Sir Edward-Maria Wingfield, well-born principal investor in the Virginia Company was elected president.

To improve Jamestown's economic viability, the Virginia Company was incorporated in 1609 and additional investors were sought. Ownership of the land was conveyed to the company Treasurer who was accountable to the investors. Colony government was placed in the hands of the Treasurer and an advisory council of individuals selected by the Virginia Company. In 1612 the patent's boundaries were expanded to include Bermuda.

These changes failed to fulfill the company's and Crown's expectations and the patent was modified to allow the company to issue subsidiary (or franchise) patents to groups of stockholders who would supply and populate new "particular plantations". If successful, "particular plantations" could apply for permanent patents comprising acreage proportional to the number of settlers. The Virginia Company remained in charge to manage both Jamestown and the "particular plantations". The patent was reorganized in 1618 such that half the governing authority resided with company directors in England and half resided with burgesses elected by the settlers. In 1624 King James dissolved the Virginia Company and Jamestown and "particular plantations" became a Crown Colony, called Virginia, ruled by a Governor chosen by the King.

                                                                                                                               'Pilgrim's Landing'. Painting by Mike Haywood

Sir Edwin Sandys, a Puritan and Treasurer of the Virginia Company persuaded a reluctant King James to allow the Leiden Separatists to settle a "particular plantation" at the northern boundary of the Virginia Colony just below the 41st parallel, presumably the mouth of the Hudson River. In June 1620 a patent was issued to John Pierce, one of the venture capitalists financing the Pilgrim's venture. Ocean storms caused the Mayflower to sail off-course and forced the Separatists to settle in Plymouth along the 41.95st parallel, north of the Virginia Company's jurisdiction and a second patent was sought. The former Plymouth Company was reorganized in 1620 and renamed the Council for New England under Sir Ferdinando Gorges who had undertaken several attempts, but unsuccessfully, to colonize New England since 1605. The Council was approached cautiously and a second Pierce patent was granted in 1622 for a "particular plantation" in Plymouth. While the Council's patent was directly equivalent to the Virginia Company's patent, the Council did not attempt to organize and manage the settlement, but dealt entirely with the subsidiary patent issued to the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims were allowed to pass their own laws providing they conformed to the laws of England. Since the Pilgrims were granted permission to settle as a "particular plantation", rather than through a direct Royal Patent, they had to prove they were a viable settlement before they could apply to the Council for New England for a confirmatory patent. In 1629/30 Isaac Allerton obtained a third patent granted to William Bradford for the lands of the Plymouth Colony, exclusive trading rights and permission to settle the lower reaches of the Kennebec River.

Comparison With support from King James and explicit patents from the Virginia Company, Jamestown's land claim was never in dispute. Eventually Jamestown and nearby "particular plantations" became the Crown Colony of Virginia. The Pilgrims never had the King's support and were only granted a subsidiary patent as a "particular plantation" of the Virginia Company. A second subsidiary patent needed to be obtained since Plymouth lay within the jurisdiction of the Council for New England. Ten years elapsed before the Pilgrims possessed a patent under their own name. Even then, they experienced disputes with other settlements to defend their exclusive trading rights on the Kennebec River in Maine.

Population and Supply Ships






Total Population


Total Population

May 1607

landing James River

105, 40 survive to fall

attempted to leave England


April 1608

supplies & 60 people


arrive Holland

about 300

Spring 1609

3 ships and people




Fall 1609

Smith returns to England




March 1610

starving time

only 60 survive



April 1610

3 ships & 150 people





supplies & 600 people




Dec 1620



Plymouth landing

102, 50% survive to fall

Dec 1621

9 ships & people

over 1200

1 ship & 35 settlers



Indian massacre

400 of 1240 killed






2 ships & 60 people





1 ship with cattle











68 freemen




tax list





able to bear arms list

634 males over age 16

Comparison Jamestown was a deliberate effort to establish a permanent presence in North America and block Spanish expansion. Plymouth was undertaken by a small group of religious dissents persecuted in England who wanted to establish a community governed by Calvinist principles. Jamestown began earlier than Plymouth and was more than ten times larger. Jamestown received considerable political support, supplies and new settlers from the powerful Virginia Company. In spite of a huge loss of life between 1607 and 1610 due to starvation and disease, Jamestown continued to receive supplies and new settlers. After the first year, Plymouth never experienced the huge loss of life experienced by Jamestown and in the ensuing years received meager supplies and few new settlers, primarily Separatist who had remained in Leiden. The Merchant Adventurers were not as reliable as the Virginia Company and in 1626 the financial interests of the Merchant Adventurers were bought by group of Pilgrims who then managed their own trade and supplies.

Religious Orientation

Jamestown – Church of England Conformists
Jamestown was a commercial endeavor organized to profit English investors. Members of the Virginia Company and Jamestown settlers were members of the (Anglican) Church of England. If any were of Puritan persuasion, they were not Separatists and remained conforming members of the Church of England. In 1607 the Jamestown settlers contained an Anglican minister who celebrated communion shortly after landing. During the reigns of King James and King Charles, England was engulfed in the Puritan revolution, however Jamestown remained loyal to the King and the settlers remained conforming members of the Anglican Church even as the church underwent profound change in England. In 1640-50 royalist members of Cromwell's long parliament, including the ancestors of George and Washington and Robert E. Lee, immigrated to Virginia.

Plymouth – Religious Separatists
Pilgrims were Puritans who wished to separate themselves from the Church of England because they found its practices and doctrines heretical to Calvinists principles. Because of actions based on these beliefs, they were persecuted in England and fled to Holland. Plymouth was founded by Puritan Separatists exiled in Leiden, referred to as the Saints,, and other Englishmen, some of which were Puritans who never left England, who were referred to as Strangers. In 1799 a writer called the Leiden Separatists the Pilgrim Fathers, however the Plymouth settlers never referred to themselves as Pilgrims.

Pilgrims selected their minister, elder and deacons. Nonetheless the minister had to be ordained to administer the sacraments of baptism and communion. The Pilgrim's original pastor, John Robinson remained in Leiden to minister to the Separatists who remained in Leiden. It was expected he would travel to Plymouth when the remaining congregation traveled to Plymouth. Unfortunately John Robinson died in 1625 and for many years the Pilgrims were without a permanent minister but were served by its Elder and Deacons. Throughout his life William Brewster was Elder and the authority on religious matters.

Leiden Separatists were a covenantal community agreeing to defend and live in accordance with Calvinist principles. These principles sustained them in exile, during the stressful Atlantic crossing and the horrific early months of 1621 when half of the settlers died. The Strangers who boarded the Mayflower in England, while Puritans, had not shared the communal life in Holland and were not as cohesive a group as the Saints. When anchored in Provincetown Harbor, some of the Strangers wanted to sail on to Virginia since they were beyond the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company while others wanted to remain and prepare for the winter. Owing to the persuasion of Carver, Bradford and Brewster the issue was resolved by drafting the Mayflower Compact, similar to their Puritan covenant, but for political purposes, which all free adult men (and some servants) signed on November 11, 1620 using the Pilgrim's calendar (add 10 days for our calendar). The document stated how they would conduct themselves as a political body and it remained the basis for governance for nearly 70 years.

For several weeks the Mayflower explored the shoreline of Cape Cod Bay and expeditions of men often went ashore to explore the land. On December 11, 1620 an exploring party aboard the shallop sailed to the former Indian village of Patuxet where it was decided the colony should be built. The land had been cultivated by the Indians, there were several fresh water brooks and the site was at an elevation that could defended and from which activity in Cape Cod Bay and the surrounding land could be observed. The exploring party returned to the Mayflower and on December 16 the ship anchored in Plymouth Harbor. The first Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower went ashore on December 18.

Comparison A major difference between the early years of Jamestown and Plymouth was the role religion occupied in the colony's affairs. Jamestown was a secular community governed by Anglican conformists of wealth and prominence. Religious belief and practice were not prominent elements in the colony's existence. Plymouth was a religious community of Puritans committed to pursuing their lives in accord with Calvinist principles. While sharing the same religious principles, Plymouth's political leaders were distinct from its religious leaders. Plymouth's political leaders were elected entirely by the settlers, whereas Jamestown's leaders were English noblemen selected by, and responsible to, the Virginia Company.

Leaders – John Smith and William Bradford

                                                                                        'John Smith,' line engraving from the 18th century, after Simon De Passe

John Smith (1580-1631)
The most influential person in the early years of Jamestown was Captain John Smith. Smith was born to a Lincolnshire farm family in 1580 but orphaned at the age of 13. Within a few years he enlisted in the English army and fought in the Netherlands in its war of independence from Spain. Following this he enlisted in the Austrian army and fought against the Turks. In 1602 he was captured in a battle in Hungary, escaped a year later and returned to England. The Virginia Company hired Smith to manage the colony's military activities with the Indians and Spanish. Smith was a blunt, practical, commoner who distained the well-born gentlemen in Jamestown and incurred their antipathy. While crossing the Atlantic he was put in chains for insubordination. In Jamestown he organized expeditions to explore the wilderness and traded skillfully with the Indians for food. As a soldier he had experience dealing with foreigners, both as allies and adversaries and knew the importance of learning to converse in the foreigner's language. Smith learned to speak the Indian's language better than anyone in Jamestown. Smith was cautious and apprehensive about Indian gestures of friendship and acquired an acute sense to know when the Indians were lying or bluffing. He also understood that as an intruder in Indian lands, it was wiser to be feared than to attempt to be loved. The Virginia Company's orders to maintain peace with Indians was naive, but there were circumstances when attacks were appropriate. Smith kept the Indian chief, Powhatan, off guard through a mixture of diplomacy, boldness, bluff, intimidation with firearms, selected skirmishes, but never wanton massacre. In so doing the Indians were unable to gauge the actual strength of the colony and uncertain what might happen if they molested settlers.

Smith's practical nature led him to impose discipline upon colonists which if left to their natural impulses would have led to their self-destruction. In 1609 he was elected colony president and enforced discipline and work assignments on contentious noblemen, laborers, and tradesmen unfamiliar with the rigors of living in the wilderness. Smith was injured and in October 1609, recalled to England by the Virginia Company and never to set foot in Virginia again. Back in England, Smith was unable to return to Virginia, although he tried. Sponsored by investors in 1615 and 1616, Smith organized expeditions to map the entire North American coastline. The Pilgrims in Holland turned down Smith's offer to serve as their military officer, choosing instead Myles Standish, although they purchased Smith's maps. Smith's 1614 map of New England showed Cape Cod, the Charles River and the Indian village of Patuxet which he named Plimouth. Smith wrote extensively about his military exploits and adventures in North America and in latter years was a recognized expert about the inhabitants, coastline, flora and fauna of North America.

William Bradford (1590-1657)
William Bradford was born to a prosperous, four-generation, land-owing, farm family in Lincolnshire. He was orphaned at the age of 7 and raised first by his grandfather and then his uncles. He was taught to read by the local minister and introduced to the classics in his library. By the age of 12 he was drawn to the Puritan reform movement preached by Richard Clyfton and John Robinson in the nearby town of Babworth. Bradford became friends with the 37-year old Cambridge-educated William Brewster, postmaster in nearby Scrooby who was also drawn to the Puritan reform movement. In 1608 Bradford and Brewster fled to Holland with John Robinson's congregation and in time became leaders of the congregation Pin Leiden. Bradford worked as a fustian (corduroy) worker but rose to prominence in 1612 to become a leader in commerce, a citizen of Leiden and member in a guild. Bradford along with John Carver, William Brewster and Robert Cushman decided which members of the congregation would make the trip to North America. Upon arriving at Provincetown Harbor in November 1620, the Strangers in the company wanted to sail to Virginia while the Saints did not. Carver, Bradford and Brewster resolved the disagreement by composing the Mayflower Compact. These difficult negotiations were the first of many Bradford undertook to maintain peace with the Indians and mediate differences in the colony. In April 1621 Bradford was elected Governor of the Plymouth colony when John Carver died.

Conclusions John Smith was one of the 17th century's important colonial leaders. His concept of colonization was prescient because he understood the need for settlers with the right mixture of talents, i.e. laborers, craftsmen, tradesmen, soldiers and capable leaders. He opposed as foolish, large numbers of raw recruits hoping for the best. Regrettably the Virginia Company was impatient with Smith's impolitic personality, failed to recognize his natural ability and turned to feckless noblemen incapable of leading the colony through threatening times.

William Bradford was another of the century's towering colonial leaders. Bradford was a skillful administrator and politician. When faced with the Pilgrims' near mutiny in November 1620 he, along with Carver and Brewster restored unity creating the Mayflower Compact that continues to inspire America today. For decades following 1620 he retained the Pilgrims' loyalty although challenged many times by events threatening the colony. He knew when to be firm and when to yield. He was a skilled diplomat who practiced compromise to maintain peace with the Indians but was firm in dealing with rival English settlements. As a magistrate he dispensed justice fairly and impartially when disciplining Allerton, dismissing wayward ministers and thwarting bullying London investors. A lasting legacy to the principles by which he governed is demonstrated throughout America in yearly town meetings when people gather to vote how they shall be governed.

Neighboring Indians – Powhatan and Wampanoag

Jamestown - Powhatan Indians and Powhatan (d 1618)
Jamestown was situated in the lands of the Tsenacommacah nation of Algonquian Indians in eastern Virginia. The chief of over two dozen tribes in the nation was called Powhatan by the settlers. The Indians enjoyed peace for many years prior to the arrival of the English, and while cautious in their relationship with settlers, did not fear them. Hostile Europeans who landed in North America decades before 1607 were common knowledge among the Indians. Indians respected strength they believed Europeans had and were awed by their firearms. Nonetheless they tested the settler's strength whenever possible. Settlers sometime stole Indian corn and Indians sometime stole English farm tools. Such theft occasionally led to retaliation resulting in the loss of life on both sides. After the departure of John Smith the Jamestown leaders vacillated between naive peace in which the Indians took advantage of them in trade, or retaliation resulting in wanton killing of Indians.

Plymouth – Wampanoag Indians and Massasoit (d 1662)
Plymouth was settled in the lands of the Wampanoag nation of the Algonquian Indians in southeastern Massachusetts. The chief of the Wampanoag was Massasoit. Several years prior to the Pilgrim's landing the Wampanoag were ravaged by an epidemic. They also feared attack from the Tarrentine Indians from the north, and the Narragansetts from the west. Massasoit recognized common interests he shared with the colonists: his nation needed protection and the colonists needed supplies and knowledge of how to survive in the wilderness. John Carver, first governor of Plymouth and Massasoit agreed to a peace treaty in 1621 in which they swore no to steal from each other, come to each other's aid, and to protect each other from insurrection.

Tolerance the Pilgrims and Wampanoag showed each other and the peace they worked to maintain were unique in the 17th century. From time to time, each had to yield to the other to preserve peace and address concerns of their constituents, but owing to Bradford's and Massasoit's leadership, peace survived for over 40 years, well after the death of each man. Two examples illustrate this good relationship.

Early in 1622 Massasoit interpreted Squanto's attempt to exercise authority over Indians living near Plymouth as insurrection that challenged his authority. By the terms of the peace treaty Massasoit demanded that Bradford either execute Squanto or send Squanto to him for execution. Bradford knew that Indian law demanded that insurrection be punished yet the colony's survival depended on Squanto's assistance. Bradford and Massasoit faced a dilemma. Squanto was invaluable to the Pilgrims' survival and Bradford asked for time to delay his decision and Massasoit agreed. A difficult decision was averted when Squanto died of natural causes during the summer of 1623.

In March 1623 Massasoit became seriously ill and sent word to Bradford for someone to assist him. Edward Winslow and the Indian Hobbamock traveled to Massasoit's village and found him near death. His tongue had swollen; he had not eaten for two days and was seriously constipated. Winslow scraped his tongue, prepared a broth of duck, strawberry leaves and sassafras. Other suffering Indians also drank the broth. Massasoit recovered and became indebted to Winslow, whom thereafter he treated as his special friend, "Winsnow" (being unable to pronounce the letter L).

While commendable, the Pilgrim's tolerance was not inexhaustible. When reciprocated by the Indians, it proved to be a viable policy but was replaced by reprisal when the Pequot Indians of eastern Connecticut raided English settlements. In 1636 the attacks and reprisals erupted into the Pequot War which annihilated the Pequot nation. The Pilgrims' tolerance was also taxed in the 1650's when English Quakers disrupted Pilgrim church services and criticized their beliefs and ministers in scathing terms. Quaker activity was suppressed, but Plymouth did not execute Quakers as was done on a few occasions in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Comparison The early years of Jamestown were characterized by contentious relationships with the Indians whereas Plymouth enjoyed comparative peace. Powhatan and Massasoit were very different Indian leaders. Powhatan lead from a position of strength while Massasoit's position was weak. The English challenged Powhatan's power while Massasoit retained his power through diplomacy with Bradford. Powhatan was a powerful leader who viewed the English as just another threat to his authority. He yielded to English overtures only when forced to do so. He was keen to detect evidence of English weakness and exploited it whenever possible and nearly annihilated the Jamestown settlers on several occasions. Massasoit was an astute political leader who used the peace treaty with the Pilgrims to preserve the tribe.

Indian Assistance – Pocahontas, Samoset and Squanto

                                                                                                                               Pocahontas saving the life of Capt. John Smith.

Pocahontas (d 1617)
Pocahontas was the favorite daughter of one of Powhatan's several wives. For reasons not fully understood, at the age of 12 or 13 she persuaded her father to save John Smith's life after he was captured in the fall of 1607. In 1609 while traveling to a meeting with the Indians, she informed John Smith of a trap and saved his life a second time. In April 1613 she was kidnapped and taken to Jamestown and taught English. While in captivity, she became the first Indian to convert to Christianity and was baptized Rebecca. She met John Rolfe, a widower and rich planter and married him in April 1614. In 1616 Rolfe, Lady Rebecca and their infant son Thomas, traveled to England. She was presented at court, aroused great interest, including having her portrait painted wearing jewels and elegant clothes. Just before Rolfe's return to Jamestown in 1617, she died suddenly and left her son Thomas in the care of Rolfe's uncle.


Vintage postcard depicting Samoset and Squanto meeting the Pilgrims

Samoset and Squanto
Samoset was a Wabanakis Indian returning to Maine from a visit to the Nauset Indians on Cape Cod. Years earlier Samoset learned some English from fisherman in Maine. In March 1621 he surprised the Pilgrims when he walked into Plymouth and addressed them in broken English. Since half of the original Pilgrims died during the previous months, the settlers were in desperate condition. Samoset arranged a meeting between the Pilgrims and Massasoit. As a result Massasoit left one of his tribe, Squanto, to be the Pilgrim's guide and interpreter. Squanto, born in Patuxet had been kidnapped by Captain Thomas Hunt in 1614 and sold into slavery in Spain. He was rescued by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, taken to England and taught English to become a guide and interpreter for a colony Gorges planned in Newfoundland. The settlement never materialized and Squanto was returned to Patuxet in 1618 only to find his village abandoned whereupon he joined the Wampanoag's. The Pilgrims were indebted to Squanto because he taught them how to grow native corn, squash, beans, how harvest wild editable forest plants and in general how to survive in the wilderness. Without Squanto's help it is doubtful the Pilgrims would have survived after 1621. Squanto died in 1623 and Massasoit sent another Wampanoag Indian, Hobbamock and his family to live near the Pilgrims to be their guide and interpreter.

Comparison Pocahontas, Samoset and Squanto played crucial roles in the success of Jamestown and Plymouth. Without their assistance it is debatable whether the settlers would have survived. There is no record describing the personalities of these individuals, yet they must have possessed curiosity and self confidence that grew into an affinity for the English. It is not clear what motivated them or what they received in return, yet their assistance occurred at a time the colonists needed it most.

Business Activities

The goals of the Virginia Company were to discover precious stones and metals, and a water route to the Pacific Ocean. The quest for these goals proved fruitless and the colonists switched to growing and curing tobacco. For centuries tobacco was "drunk" (smoked in our terms) by the Indians of North and South America for ceremonial purposes and a belief in its medicinal value. European explorers brought tobacco to Europe in the 1530's. Sir Walter Raleigh introduced tobacco to England to the disgust of King James who banned its use in his presence. Tobacco was prized by Europeans and became the principal commodity produced by colonists to buy European manufactured goods. By 1612 John Rolfe learned to grow and cure a West Indian variety of tobacco that was preferred by Englishmen. It commanded a high price and it became Jamestown's principal export. Because the variety of tobacco plants was large, and because it was grown easily, surpluses in European markets often occurred causing prices to fall precipitously. Tobacco also commanded a handsome price in the English settlements in New England, the Swedish settlements on the Delaware River and the Dutch in New Amsterdam. After 1619 indentured Englishmen were difficult to procure and Jamestown planters began to use slaves from Africa.

To finance the voyage to North America the Pilgrims entered into a business agreement with approximately seventy English venture capitalists, e.g. manufacturers, craftsmen, merchant-traders, calling themselves Merchant Adventurers who would pay for the hire of a ship, and supplies for the trip and to sustain the Pilgrims in North America. The settlers agreed to engage in fishing, lumbering or whatever means could generate "cash crops" for transport and sale to England. While the waters were rich with fish, the Pilgrims never mastered the skills to derive sufficient profit from fishing. The wilderness provided lumber for export but the financial return was small. Supplies to sustain the colonists were to be sent to the Pilgrims on the return voyage. Robert Cushman was Plymouth's agent in London. The agreement was to last for seven years at the end of which, each colonist over the age of 16 was to receive shares of the company as would each Adventurer. All property in the colony was then to be divided amongst all the shareholders.

Initially the colonists participated in communal farming and fishing, etc. where the output went into a common pot. In 1623 the colony assigned land to the heads of families including servants. Under these terms families were granted certain amounts of land to produce prescribed amounts of produce for the colony but allowed to keep the remainder to use or sell. Within a few years the Pilgrims were producing bumper corn crops which were traded for Indian furs that brought a good price in England. In 1625 John Carver died and Bradford asked Isaac Allerton to be the colony's London agent. In 1626 eight leading men in Plymouth called the Undertakers proposed to the Merchant Adventurers that they would assume the debt of the colony in return for the exclusive right to trade with the Indians and Europe. In 1627 the Pilgrims built a trading post on the Kennebec River in Maine to trade corn for Indian furs. This began a period of profitable trade. Large rates of interest accompanied trade with England and it was discovered that Allerton had incurred a large debt for the Colony and furthermore, was mixing his personal trading products and accounts with those of Plymouth. Bradford dismissed Allerton as the London agent. The colony's debts with London were eventually paid and the colony became financially sound. In time the principal activity in Plymouth was to produce agricultural products for the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Comparison Both colonies were commercial endeavors to produce revenue for investors and both colonies began with minimal financial success. Jamestown's investors expected to find precious stones and metals. When none were found the colony turned to growing and curing tobacco with phenomenal success. Plymouth's investors expected the Pilgrims to export fish but lacking experience in the fishing trades, the Pilgrims turned to exporting furs obtained from Indians in trade for corn.

Evolution of Colony Governance






Edward Maria-Wingfield


Sir John Radcliffe


Captain John Smith


Sir George Percy


Thomas West (Lord De La Warr), Sir Thomas Gates, Sir Thomas Dale


Sir George Yardley


Sir Francis Wyatt

Jamestown was a "company town" in which settlers were employees of the Virginia Company and governance was a top-down system directed from London. Until 1610 members of the Colony Council were all chosen by the Virginia Company and the Council president was elected by other council members. After 1610 the president was replaced by a Governor chosen by the Company Directors in England.

The Virginia Company instructed the Council to "have great care not to offend the naturals" (Indians). Consequently the original settlers did not construct defenses nor did they retaliate when Indians stole tools and molested settlers. John Smith was infuriated and urged martial readiness. Rather than build houses, organize work details and accumulate food supplies, Edward Maria-Wingfield waited for supplies to arrive from England. The Jamestown site was a mosquito-infested swamp and after six months, more than half the 105 settlers died of malnutrition, consuming brackish water, diseases and infections. Gentlemen in the colony were apathetic and inclined to wallow in despair instead of applying themselves to relieve their situation. Wingfield was too trusting of the Indians and proved an ineffective leader. Furthermore he also hoarded food for his personal use which aroused the colonists' ire. John Smith and other Council members voted to remove him as president. Sir John Ratcliffe was elected president and asked Smith to organize work details and expeditions to trade with Indians. While on a trading mission in December 1607 Smith and his party were captured. His colleagues were tortured to death but Smith's life was spared by the intercession of Pocahontas.

By January 1608 only 40 colonists were alive and Ratcliffe and the Council planned to return to England on the Discovery. Luckily, the John & Francis arrived with 60 new settlers and supplies but five days later a fire destroyed most of the new supplies. Indians continued to trade food for metal objects i.e. cooking pots, knives, hatchets, shovels, always hoping to obtain swords and guns which Smith refused to trade. Ratcliffe's overgenerous trading provoked Smith to complain that they would soon run out of items to trade. Radcliffe ordered the colonists to build a stately Governor's house and wasted the colony's time and energy rather than organizing activities the colony needed for survival. Ratcliffe proved ineffective, and the Council voted to appoint John Smith president in September 1608. In April and September in 1608 ships arrived with supplies and settlers including the first women and orders from the Directors of the Virginia Company to
(a) find things of value to send to England
(b) find a route to Pacific Ocean
(c) locate survivors of Roanoke
(d) crown Powhatan as an English prince to King James
Powhatan did not agree to be crowned and soon realized that the English were weak. By the winter of 1608/9 the colony had little food and Powhatan balked at trading hoping through starvation the English would abandon Jamestown.

In the fall of 1609 food was low and the English gentlemen remained unwilling to work. Smith took harsh action and ordered that, "He that will not work shall not eat". Smith then gambled and divided the colony into three groups. One group moved downriver near the Chesapeake Bay, one group moved upriver, near present day Richmond near friendly Indians and the rest of the colonists remained in Jamestown. John Smith put men in better reach of food, but also divided his strength making the settlers vulnerable to attack. Smith was the master of military bravura, Powhatan was confused and did not attack.

Months before, ships returning to London brought news of the colony's desperate condition and Smith's stern leadership. The Virginia Company decided a new and larger collection of practical men was needed. A new charter was written in which the elected colony president would be replaced by a Governor appointed from England. The Directors concluded that Smith was not collegial and should be removed. Thomas West (Lord De La Warr) who had served in the army in the Netherlands was an experienced leader and chosen to be the new Governor for life. The Company organized a promotional campaign to attract new English investors. To broaden support, an appeal was made to convert Indians to Christianity.

In December 1608 a fleet of nine supply ships and hundreds of settlers left England. A storm scattered the fleet and one ship returned to England. The lead ship, Sea Venture, under the command of Lord George Somers with 140 passengers was shipwrecked in Bermuda. Three ships of the original fleet containing provisions and several hundred men, women children arrived in Jamestown in the spring of 1609. In addition to English gentlemen, the group included, laborers, tradesman, German glassmakers and Polish makers of pitch, tar and potash. Within a few weeks a fire destroyed nearly all the colony's supplies.

When the ships arrived, Smith was informed he had been removed as president. The Council met and replaced Smith with Sir George Percy until Thomas West would arrive. On a trip in the summer of 1609 a spark from someone's "match cord" (a smoldering piece of rope used to fire a matchlock rifle) ignited Smith's power bag hanging from his waist. He was badly burned and nearly died. Recuperating slowly from his wounds, and knowing he no longer had the confidence of the settlers, he decided to return to England with the ships in the fall.

Sir George Percy was only 29 but had served briefly fighting in the Netherlands. As a noblemen Percy tried to bring the ways of London dress and dining to the colony even though food stores were precariously low. Powhatan learned of Smith's departure and Percy's ineffectiveness and resumed his effort to drive the colonists from Jamestown. Percy sent a party of colonists under Ratcliffe to trade for food with Powhatan only to have the party, including Ratcliffe, captured and tortured to death. Percy found himself over his head. He depleted supplies and was unable to obtain food from Powhatan. The period of Oct 1609 to March 1610 became known as the starvation time. People were driven to eating cats, rats, mice, and after boiling, eating their leather boots. There was even recorded evidence of cannibalism. In the early spring 1610 only 60 of 500 colonists were alive.

In April 1610 the Council once again decided to abandon Jamestown. As their ship sailed down the James River it was met by Thomas West and his assistants Sir Thomas Gates and Sir Thomas Dale aboard 3 ships with 150 people and supplies. In June 1610 survivors of the shipwrecked Sea Venture arrived in Jamestown on two small ships they built in Bermuda. Among the survivors was Stephen Hopkins, who later returned to England and in 1620 joined the company of Pilgrims sailing aboard the Mayflower. The epic of the Sea Venture was background material for Shakespeare's play The Tempest.

Within a few months Thomas West became ill, returned to England and transferred his responsibilities to his assistants, Sir Thomas Gates and Sir Thomas Dale. Conditions changed dramatically with the arrival of Gates and Dale. Sir Thomas Dale instituted a system of regimentation and of martial law with severe punishment for even small infractions. Everyone rose together, marched to meals with a drumbeat, marched to perform assigned work duties and retired at the same time. Failure to obey resulted in harsh punishment, e.g. being bound all night in an arched position with one's feet drawn backward toward the head. A second offense resulted in whipping. Escape to the Indians, or stealing food was punished by death in slow and conspicuous ways for all to witness. Settlers were not allowed to return to England without permission.

Plans to "win Indians to English ways and Christianity" began poorly since Powhatan no longer feared the English. Thomas Dale retaliated with severity and for a while the Indians no longer menaced the English. In 1611 two fleets of ships arrived with supplies and 600 men women and children. With adequate supplies and disciplined leadership, the colony grew and entered a stable period free from Indian harassment. The marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe received Powhatan's approval and produced a period of amity called the Peace of Pocahontas. Powhatan died in 1618 as was succeeded by his brother Opechancanough.

In 1619 a Dutch ship brought slaves to Jamestown. Governor Yeardley traded food for 20 African slaves which began the slave traffic with Virginia. On Good Friday, March 22 1622, Opechancanough organized a surprise attack. Jamestown survived because an Indian informer warned them but colonists in the surrounding "particular plantations" were not warned and nearly 400 colonists of a total population of 1240 were killed. In 1624 Jamestown became the Royal Colony of Virginia with a Governor appointed by the crown.





November 1620 to 5 April 1621

John Carver

1621-1657, except Asst. Governor to
E. Winslow and T. Prence

William Bradford

1633, 1636, 1644

Edward Winslow

1634, 1638,

Thomas Prence

During the winter and early spring of 1621 over half of the Pilgrims died from respiratory infection, poor food, scurvy, cholera, etc. Only 5 of the 18 married women survived to cook and care for the sick. With the assistance Squanto and friendly relations with the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims learned to survive the wilderness. Over the next four years four ships arrived with supplies and new settlers enabling the Pilgrims to grow corn to trade for Indian furs shipped to England. In 1630 two thousand Puritans arrived under a Charter to the Massachusetts Bay Company to establish a colony at the mouth of the Charles River. The Bay colony grew rapidly while Plymouth remained static. During the 1630's English Puritans rose to prominence in Parliament. The Church of England began to accommodate Puritan practices and the settlers in Plymouth no longer considered themselves Separatists. The Puritan beliefs in both colonies evolved into the New England Congregational style of church organization.

The patent granted to the Pilgrims required settlers to have all the rights and privileges as Englishmen at home. However unlike Jamestown, the Virginia Company and King played no role in Plymouth's governance. The Pilgrims were financially accountable to the Merchant Adventurers but the governance of Plymouth was managed entirely by the Pilgrims. The basis of government was the eloquently succinct passage in Mayflower Compact:

...combine ourselves together into a civil body politick for our better ordering ... to enact.... such just and equal laws... and officers from time to time .... for the general good...

In so doing they established the first fully representative form of government in North America.

Following Carver's death William Bradford was elected Governor. When he temporarily became ill, Isaac Allerton was elected Assistant Governor. Within a few years the number of Assistant Governors expanded to seven. The Governor and Assistant Governors were called the Court of Assistants and had executive and judicial authority as magistrates concerning marriages and approving land and house transfers. With the division of land (1623) there arose the need for a second political body called the General Court composed of freemen. The General Court met three times a year. Membership in both courts were elected annually by the entire male community above the age of 21. In 1636 the positions of treasurer, clerk, coroner and constable were added. The number of settlers grew and new towns were established in southern Massachusetts.

From their years in Leiden until his death in 1657, William Bradford was the principal leader in Plymouth's affairs and elected as either Governor or Assistant Governor. Bradford was a literate man. He assembled a large library and taught himself Latin and Hebrew to better understand scripture. He was the paradigm of Puritan leadership. Following his death (1657) his son-in-law Thomas Prence, who had arrived on the Fortune in 1621 was elected Governor and subsequently reelected throughout his lifetime. During the last few decades of his life Bradford compiled the history of the Pilgrims. It was not printed until 1856, but Of Plymouth Plantation became an American classic and authoritative account of the Pilgrim experience.

The second towering figure in Plymouth was William Brewster. Brewster's father was the bailiff of Scrooby and sent his son to Cambridge, a Puritan hot bed. While there he became friends with several students who later became Puritan ministers and hung because of their separatist sermons. Brewster became assistant to Sir William Davison, Queen Elizabeth's Secretary and ambassador in the Netherlands. Queen Elizabeth believed she was pressured into executing her half-sister, Mary Queen of Scots, and blamed Davison who fell into disrepute. The 20-year old Brewster returned to Scrooby where he became postmaster after his father died. Around 1602 Brewster was attracted to the separatist sermons of Richard Clyffton at the church in nearby Babworth where he became friends with Bradford, 23 years his junior. Because of long traveling distances, the congregation split and some including Bradford, Brewster and Clyfton conducted services in Brewsters home in Scrooby. Clyfton asked, John Robinson, a 30-year old minister and Cambridge graduate to assist him. Because of his separatist views Brewster ran the risk of loosing his post-mastership and his home. The congregation fled to Holland in 1608. In Leiden Brewster printed Separatist books and pamphlets for Puritans in England. King James banned such literature and sought Brewster's arrest. Risking imprisonment, Brewster returned to England from time to time to make arrangements for the Mayflower voyage. While in Leiden Brewster became the Ruling Elder to Robinson's congregation and remained Ruling Elder for the rest of his life.

Edward Winslow was Brewster's apprentice in Lieden and traveled with him on the Mayflower. After arriving, he authored Good News From New England promoting life in the New England. Winslow was a member of the delegation to London to arrange the purchase of supplies for the colony and to sell furs sent to England. Because of his rapport with Massasoit, Winslow was the diplomat and trade negotiator with the Indians. After 1646 he spent 9 years in England where he held offices under Cromwell. He was recruited for a mission to the Caribbean and died at sea in 1655.

Isaac Allerton had been a tailor in London before immigrating to Leiden to join the Robinson congregation. Allerton was an enterprising man and along with Bradford were made citizens of Leiden in 1612. Upon the death of Robert Cushman, the colony’s London agent, Bradford asked Allerton to be the colony’s London agent to sell its furs and purchase supplies for the colony. Unfortunately Allerton betrayed the Pilgrims’ trust when he began trading on his own while representing the colony. He merged his merchandize and accounts with those of Plymouth and incurred the wrath of Bradford. He falsely represented himself in London and incurred enormous debts on behalf of the colony without authorization. In today’s language, Allerton would be accused of embezzlement. Because Allerton’s second wife, Fear, was Brewster’s daughter and because Allerton had served the colony faithfully in its formative years in Leiden and Plymouth, Bradford only dismissed him as the colony’s London agent. In disgrace Allerton moved to Salem but was banished by Governor Winthrop in a few years because he associated with Roger Williams and other separatists. Allerton then moved to New Amsterdam. Successful as a trader merchant and helpful to the Dutch Governor Kieft, Allerton was awarded citizenship and trading privileges in New Amsterdam. Allerton was one of the principal trader merchants with the Dutch and English islands in the Caribbean, and the Dutch, Swedish and English colonies along the eastern seaboard. Because of his aggressive trading practices, Allerton was said to be “more Dutch than English.”

Comparison Plymouth and Jamestown were utterly different colonies. Jamestown began 13 years earlier was more than ten times larger than Plymouth. Jamestown was a “company town” in which the colonists were employees of the Virginia Company. The colony council ruled as a board of directors, following instructions from London. Plymouth was a settler covenantal colony governed by laws and individuals elected by the Pilgrims. Its governing body was not responsible to the King, Virginia Company nor its investors.

The majority of the Jamestown colonists were well- born gentlemen unprepared for the rigors of living in the wilderness. During the first three years over half died, and continue to die, from disease and starvation in spite of new settlers and supplies from England. The Pilgrims were yeoman and tradesmen who had lived together as a close-knit community of exiles in Holland and withstood a severe loss of life only during the first winter.

The Pilgrim leaders of Bradford, Brewster and Winslow governed Plymouth throughout their lives. With the exception of John Smith, the early leaders in Jamestown were inept and engaged in fruitless expenditures of supplies and manpower. Jamestown experienced persistent conflict with the Powhatans while Plymouth enjoyed peaceful relations with the Wampanoag. After 1610 the appointed Governors of Jamestown restored discipline and order and the colony recovered and prospered.


The American identity is defined by a creed and culture that evolved over four hundred years. Throughout this time millions of individuals arrived at our shores and assimilated as Americans by embracing this identity.

The American creed describes the way we interact as members of a community i.e., individuals possess certain inalienable rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness we select individuals to represent and govern us everyone should have an equal opportunity to improve their position our behavior is governed by the rule of law and respect of private property.

The American culture acknowledges the essential dignity of human beings, and embraces shared values and customs, i.e.

English language, legacy of European art and music, literature, philosophy.

Belief in Devine Providence.

Tolerance for one another and dignity of work.

Behavior is right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate.

Jamestown and Plymouth were America’s first two permanent settlements but were vastly different, yet each contributed to the American Identity. The overwhelming majority of Americans are committed to preserving and strengthening the American identity and will benefit by understanding how these two settlements struggled to survive.

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