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Colonies and Empires Index

15th Century 'Voyages of Discovery'
In the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries

European Settlement in North America

The First Colony : Virginia
Other Colonies

The Origins of Canada

Introduction : New France
The Hudson Bay Company
France Claims the Mississippi River

The Struggle between France and Britain
for North America

The Seven Years' War
The Fall of Quebec
The Treaty of Paris

The American War of Independence

Britain Taxes its Colonies
The Boston Massacre
The "Boston Tea Party"
The First Continental Congress
The War for Independence Begins
The Second Continental Congress
American Victories
The Declaration of Independence

History Chapters Main Index


Elder William Brewster

Elder William Brewster
With the kind permission of Chris Fennell


The Mayflower

The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbour by Albert Christopher Addison
With the kind permission of Chris Fennell


The Embarkation of the Pilgrims

The Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Albert Christopher Addison
With the kind permission of Chris Fennell


The Mayflower leaves for England

The Mayflower leaves for England by Albert Christopher Addison
With the kind permission of Chris Fennell


The Landing of the Pilgrims

The Landing of the Pilgrims by Albert Christopher Addison
With the kind permission of Chris Fennell




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Colonies and Empires

European Settlement in North America


The Pilgrim Fathers

The Pilgrims were English Calvinists who, unlike the Puritans did not try to transform the Church of England, but actually left the Church to form an independent sect. This group appeared at the end of Elizabeth I's reign and in the early period of James I's reign.

Since they were not in the king's Church (i.e. the Church of England), the Pilgrims were effectively outlaws in the early 17th century. Their pastors were fined, put in the stocks and whipped. Some of them who published pamphlets criticizing the king and his Church had their ears sliced off, their noses split and their foreheads branded with the letters 'SS' (stirrer of sedition).

In 1607 a group of Pilgrims managed to escape to Holland which, at that time, was the only country with complete freedom of religion. Here they could worship as they pleased.


The Mayflower (1620)

Although they could worship freely in Holland, the Pilgrims wanted to retain their English language and identity. They also disapproved of the easy manners of the Dutch people who might corrupt their young.

In 1620, they left Holland for Plymouth, in England, where a trading company, the Plymouth Company, was planning an expedition to America. Trading companies were being formed at this time in order to finance and govern new colonies in America. They had special permission from the king (a royal charter) to do so. The main interest of the Plymouth Company was cod-fishing.

The Plymouth Company's ship, the "Mayflower" left Plymouth for America in August 1620. On board the tiny vessel were 100 emigrants, less than half of whom were Pilgrims. The others were what the Pilgrims called "strangers", that is ordinary people, simply seeking a better life in America, like millions who would follow them.


On Board the Mayflower

The Mayflower was only 30 meters long and 10 meters wide at its maximum point. below decks 100 people were crowded together with icy water leaking in everywhere. Since the voyagers had to live on dry meat and biscuits, a number of them suffered from scurvy at the end of the two month voyage. One man fell overboard and could not be saved.

The Pilgrims' constant singing of psalms and praying, and their disdainful attitude, finally infuriated the "strangers" and there was much conflict between the groups


After 66 days at sea, land was sighted at what came to be called Cape Cod. At first, crew and passengers were happy, but when they examined the bleak, desolate coast, with just a few bushes and trees bent over by the November wind, they were filled with dismay. The sailors wanted to return home immediately. The "strangers" declared their independence from the Pilgrims and demanded to be taken to Virginia.

To avoid fighting, an agreement was signed in the captain's cabin. This agreement, called the Mayflower Compact, stated that all free men, whether Pilgrim or "stranger", would elect a governor and a "civil body politic" or assembly. Servants and women could not vote since they were "chattels" (the private property of the freemen). Once elected the governor would not be responsible to King James I or to the Plymouth Company, but only to those who had elected him.

From electing their pastors in their Meeting Houses, the Pilgrims had proceeded to elect their governor and assembly. Thus was born the first popularly elected government in modern history.


Plymouth Settlement

The Mayflower settlers named their chosen site Plymouth, after their trading company. The site had a good harbour and there were recently cultivated fields where native Indians had grown maize. On Christmas Day, 1620, (the Pilgrims did not recognize Christmas), work began on building huts.

That winter a terrible disease, which the settlers called "General Sickness", struck the community and half the population died. The disease was pneumonia, aggravated by scurvy. The dead were buried secretly at night since the settlers knew that they were being constantly observed by native Indians.

In March, 1621, a native Indian from the Wampanouy tribe, named Samoset, entered the settlement. To everyone's surprise Samoset spoke English. He had sailed up and down the coast with English fishermen and learnt the language. A trade in beaver furs was opened up.

Another English-speaking native Indian was called Squanto. He had even been to England and returned to America. He served as an interpreter and negotiator with the Indian tribe's chief, Massasoit.

A peace treaty was signed between the settlers and the natives. They would no longer steal from each other. They would not carry weapons when they met together and, if attacked, the two communities would come to the aid of each other. This treaty was respected for fifty years.


The First Thanksgiving


The First Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving


Squanto remained with the Pilgrims at Plymouth and became a Christian. The Mayflower returned to England, loaded with timber and furs. However, the settlement remained in debt to the Plymouth Company for years to come and never became an independent colony. It was finally absorbed into the Massachusetts Colony.

Thanks to Squanto's expertise, maize was planted, maple trees were tapped for syrup and deer were trapped. The settlers were shown where to find grapes, strawberries, plums and other fruit.

By Autumn 1621, the harvest was so abundant that a Thanksgiving ceremony was planned. Squato was sent to invite Chief Massasoit. When he arrived, he was accompanied by ninety comrades who had to be dispatched to hunt for more food.

Finally, the Indians stayed for three days and everyone feasted on goose, duck, venison, lobster, eel, corn bread, fruit and red and white wine. Two and a half centuries later, President Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in the U.S.A., to be celebrated on the last Thursday of each November.


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