Timeline United States

Plymouth Colony

The second successful English colony in North America was founded in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. 

Similar to Jamestown, success came after initial failure. But it eventually came. And when it did, it contributed to the growth of English settlements in North America and helped England establish an overseas empire.

However, while Plymouth and Jamestown had similar starts, their stories are very different. The colonies were founded for different reasons, and success took on a different meaning in each place.

The Plymouth Company

The English didn’t necessarily expect the Jamestown settlement to be successful. After Roanoke, there was plenty of pessimism. So, in the same year as the Jamestown voyage, 1607, there was another attempt. 

Whereas the Jamestown colony was funded by a group of wealthy Londoners, this group was financed by rich people from Southern England. Since most were from the city of Plymouth, they called themselves the Plymouth Company.

They appealed to King James of England for a charter to form a new colony, and he granted them the rights to settle between what is modern-day New Jersey and Newfoundland in Canada. 

They first landed on the coast of Maine and set up camp, but this colony only lasted one year before being abandoned due to harsh conditions and lack of food. 

By 1608, this newfound Plymouth Company was all but dead.

Puritans Look for a New Home

Twelve years later, the Plymouth Company was revived and ready for another try.

At the time, Christinaity was recently divided up into different faiths. The Protestant Revolution during the 16th century split Christians into two groups, and then those groups split up even more. Often, these new groups, though technically part of the same religion, hated each other because they thought their version was right and everyone else’s was wrong.

One such group, known as the Puritans, were particularly hated and also seen as traitors to the king. In fact, they found people’s hatred for them to be so intense that they moved to the Netherlands to try and find peace. In general, they were more tolerated there, but they did not want to stay due to the stark differences in culture and language. 

So, the Plymouth Company, which included several Puritans, approached this group to see if they would want to try and settle in North America. 

It was a win-win in so many ways. The Puritans got a chance to start fresh, and the owners of the Plymouth Company had an eager group of people to send across the Atlantic to work.

Since their motives were partly religious, this group of settlers is often called the Pilgrims. A pilgrim is someone on a journey for religious purposes, so this does make sense.

The Mayflower and Plymouth Colony

The Mayflower and Plymouth Colony

After building a ship, known as the Mayflower, and loading it with supplies, these “Pilgrims” left England in 1620 and arrived on the coast of Massachusetts. The first land they saw was a peninsula known today as Cape Cod, which is the part of Massachusetts that sticks out into the ocean and looks like an arm.

Arriving in late November when Massachusetts was cold and dark, things didn’t look promising. But they still got off to see what was going on. 

When they started exploring, they found sandy soil and little freshwater. And after making contact with the nearby Native Americans, the Pilgrims decided to get back on their ship and sail somewhere else. 

They sailed west and landed on the mainland. After exploring the area, they decided to settle on the coast between two hills. The land was previously occupied but abandoned by the nearby Patuxet tribe, so it had been cleared and partially worked. This plus its defensive position made it an ideal location.

Plymouth colony was born. 

Religion Brings Reinforcements

Arriving in December was not good timing as the ground was frozen and there was no hope of planting anything. However, the Pilgrims did much better in their first winter than the original settlers of Jamestown largely due to being better prepared but also due to luck.

Local Native Americans were more willing to help out, giving the Pilgrims food and also teaching them how to plant and grow crops in the rocky, nutrient-poor soils of the American northeast.

Overall, the Plymouth colony got off to a much better start in terms of population growth than Jamestown did. The first few years were still tough, with around half the population dying in the first winter. But by 1623, the original population of 90 people had doubled to over 180. By 1630, the population was almost 300, and by 1640 it was over 1,000.

In general, the people who went to Plymouth were better suited for survival. They were largely middle class and had been used to providing for themselves. This was a sharp contrast from the people who originally settled Jamestown. 

However, migration from England was also a major driver of Plymouth’s success. Drawn for religious purposes, there was more will and support for resupplying Plymouth and making it successful. 

No Cash Crops Makes for a Different Kind of Colony

Plymouth was a successful colony in that its population grew. But it did not produce profit. The rocky soil and colder climate of New England made cash crop planting impossible. 

Over time, these colonies in the northeast would develop logging, trapping, shipbuilding, and fishing industries. But the hope of establishing a profitable agricultural colony was all but lost after the first few years of Plymouth’s existence. 

Instead of focusing on cash crops and export profits, the people who moved to Plymouth and later Massachusetts were more interested in earning a better life, and being able to practice their religion freely and in peace. 

This attracted a largely middle class, decently well-educated, and often skilled group of people. 

Jamestown, however, was more of a destination for those looking to get rich, which attracted both unskilled labor looking for work and also wealthy landowners looking for profits. This created a gap in the workforce that was filled with slaves. 

Throughout colonial times and in the early years of independence, these differences drove the two regions apart, and this North/South divide reappears throughout history and has been a defining aspect of the modern USA. 

Written by Matthew Jones

Illustrated by Jean Galvao