Story of the Pilgrims V:
After the First Year
After the first year, Plymouth Colony went through many trials and tribulations, the colonists sometimes wondering if they would even survive. Many of their troubles were related to their contract with the Merchant Adventurers, who seemed to think they could send over colonists with no food or provisions and the Pilgrims would just take them in. Beginning in May 1622, the Adventurers began to send over trappers who lived in the Colony but who refused to do any work. The interest rate on the Colony's debt was also crippling, sometimes over 30 percent.
On 9 November 1621 the Fortune arrived in the harbor, carrying 35 new colonists but little else. (In order to survive the addition of the colonists, the community went on half rations.) A letter from Thomas Weston arrived on this ship, thanking them for returning the Mayflower but asking why they hadn't sent some goods back with it. He accused them all of loafing. This is typical of Weston's actions.
The agreement with the Adventurers stated that each person over the age of 16 had a share of the common stock. Over the course of seven years, all profits would be kept in a common fund. At the end of seven years, the common fund would be split up according to the number of shares each person had. For the first three years, the Pilgrims held all work in common too, but in 1623 changed the terms of their contract so that each household would be responsible for its own garden and plot of land. This motivated the colonists to work more industriously, since they would now profit directly from their labors.
In 1627, when the seven-year contract was up, the Colonists had to negotiate a new contract. They had suffered serious setbacks in their ability to pay the Adventurers, through both famine and losing cargo to pirates and storms at sea. They found themselves still owing the Adventurers £1800, an enormous sum, plus another £600 to other lenders. The Colony decided to turn all their money over to "the Undertakers" (Mills ancestors/kin Bradford and Winslow among them), who would do their best to pay off the debt as soon as possible. This is similar to turning over a nest egg to an investor today. At the end of 6 years, all goods were to return to the common store. The Undertakers sold bonds and more shares of stock in order to try to raise money.
While being an Undertaker was a considerable financial burden, Undertakers were also later given privileges which allowed them to get more free land than others. They also received a monopoly over certain items (such as the fur trade) from their fellow colonists.
In addition to their desire to pay off the crippling debt of the colony, the Undertakers were also motivated by the desire to bring their remaining family and friends over from Leyden. The non-Separatists in the colony were not happy with this and did not want their money being used to hire and provision transport for the remaining Leyden congregation. While the Separatists were in control of the government, they knew they needed to compromise in order to keep peace in the colony. They eventually gave privileges to all free men in the colony so they would be favored in future land grants, and took on the costs of transporting the Leyden congregation themselves.
In 1627 a significant change occurred in the colony when the government gave 20 acres of land to almost every person in the colony. Governor Bradford and a handful of the other powerful men in the colony kept their houses, while the rest of the houses and livestock were divided equally among groups of the remaining colonists.
Plymouth Colony was eventually annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691. The action was taken without consulting the inhabitants of Plymouth, but few voices were raised in protest. After the first few years of settlement, the First Comers dispersed to new communities, and Plymouth Colony ceased to have any significant impact on the development of the area. It is somewhat poignant to reflect on how hard the Pilgrims worked to create a safe haven for themselves—a place where they could develop an intact community—and then how quickly that community faded once financial comfort was possible.
Written by Cairril Mills
Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647, William Bradford. Modern College Library Edition, Random House 1981.
Mourt's Relations: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, various authors. Applewood Books, 1963 (first published 1622).
The Pilgrims: A Brief History, L.D. Geller. Cape Cod Publications, 1992.
Pilgrims Then and Now, Gary L. Marks. Society of Mayflower Descendents, 1990.
500 Nations: Invasion of the Coast, Jack Leustig, producer and director, 1994.
Plymouth Colony: Its History & People 1620-1691, Eugene Aubrey Stratton, 1986.
Colonial House, Public Broadcasting Service, 2004.
< Back to Part IV: The First Year