OTD in History… December 18, 1620, The Mayflower docks at Plymouth and the pilgrims create a colony

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall, 1882

On this day in history December 18, 1620, the Mayflower docks at what would be Plymouth, Massachusetts after the 102 passengers; now called pilgrims forged a compact and begin to create a settlement and colony in America. The pilgrims were fleeing from religious persecution in England and looked toward the New World specifically Virginia to create a colony where they would have religious freedom. The ship embarked on their journey in September 1620 with 120 settlers and a crew of thirty. During their travels, the ship was “blown off course” veering towards the north and ending up off the coast of Cape Cod rather than their destination Virginia.

There they would create the Mayflower Compact, the first document pledging a representative government in the new world and the Plymouth colony, most remembered for the First Thanksgiving in 1621. Historian Nathaniel Philbrick writing in his book, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, analyzes, “The story of the Pilgrims does not end with the First Thanksgiving. When we look to how the Pilgrims and their children maintained more than fifty years of peace with the Wampanoags and how that peace suddenly erupted into one of the deadliest wars ever fought on American soil, the history of Plymouth Colony becomes something altogether new, rich, troubling, and complex. (Philbrick, xiii, xiv)

The pilgrims’ journey began in 1606 in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, England where some reformers broke with the Church of England and created a church of their own. The Separatists were driven out of England for their beliefs about the Church of England’s corruptness and willingness to separate from the church. They settled in Leyden, Holland, and referred to themselves as saints not pilgrims with their leader William Bradford, who later became governor of the Plymouth Colony. The separatists found religious freedom but as immigrants, they were blocked from working in the guilds and their children became attracted to the cosmopolitan and secular life prompting them to decide move to the New World “a place without government interference or worldly distraction.”

The Separatists returned to England to prepare for their move, merchant investors, the Merchant Adventurers agreed to fund the trip hoping to create a trading post. The Virginia Company agreed to allow them to settle or create a plantation as History notes, “on the East Coast between 38 and 41 degrees north latitude (roughly between the Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the Hudson River).” The King of England gave permission to the separatists to leave both England and the Church “provided they carried themselves peaceably.”

In July 1620, forty “Saints” or Leidners joined other migrant colonists, which they called “strangers” aboard two “merchant ships,” the Mayflower and the Speedwell. The Mayflower with its 65 passengers boarded in along the River Thames and waited for the Speedwell that came from Holland with the “Saints.” They departed together on August 5 at Southampton, when the Speedwell started to leak at the South Western tip of England, the two ships returned to Plymouth. They merged the passengers and crew from the two ships with some returning to Holland and the Mayflower departed from Plymouth, England on September 6, 1620, with Christopher Jones as their captain and Christopher Martin its governor. The Mayflower traveled for 65 days across the Atlantic in storm season, making the passengers and crew sick, with one “Stranger” going overboard from the storms. The stormy path also veered they course to the north. The passengers were cramped below deck in area not more than five feet high and disease easily spread. The ship’s main beam broke and needed to be repaired adding to the misery of the trip which, author Kevin Jackson referred to as “The Voyage from Hell.”

When the now 102 passengers, including a baby born during the trip, and the crew arrived to shore on November 9, 1620, for two days they tried to travel south but were unable to against the wind. They anchored at Provincetown Harbor, Cape Cod on November 11, where they discovered an abandoned Indian village and nothing else. Cape Cod is at the “42 degrees north latitude” above the 38 and 41 degrees where the Virginia Company had their land. Since they were in a completely new territory, 41 male members of the Mayflower both saints and strangers joined to create a new colony with the Mayflower Compact. On November 10, before anchoring in Cape Cod Harbor the passengers forged the document.

The Compact would “create a ‘civil Body Politick’ governed by elected officials and ‘just and equal laws,’ with ‘sworn allegiance to the English king.’” Among the colonists, there was dissension, and they needed some authority to create law and order. Pastor John Robinson, who remained in Holland, influenced the Mayflower Compact when he wrote in his farewell letter, “become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government.” (Philbrick, 41) In Holland, the Leidners lived with a division of church and state and that was what Robinson advised how they should create their government. Afterward, the pilgrims decided that purchasing agent John Carver, who had helped plan the voyage would be the Plymouth Colony’s first governor.

Historian Eric Foner in his survey Give Me Liberty!: An American History indicates the Mayflower Compact “was the first written frame of government in what is now the United States.” (Foner, 71) Philbrick explains, “What made the document truly extraordinary was that it applied to a group of people who were three thousand miles from their mother country. The physical reality of all that space — and all the terror, freedom, and insularity it fostered — informed everything that occurred in the days and years ahead.” (Philbrick, 41) Philbrick also found that the pilgrims “put pen to paper and created a document that ranks with the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution as a seminal American text.” (Philbrick, 42)

On November 27, 24 passengers and 10 sailors took the shallop, the 21-foot oar-powered boat to the shore to explore and then ended up staying on shore overnight. They were not prepared for the cold and snow and their wetness and poor clothing took some of the explorers’ lives, which Bradford recalled in his “History of Plymouth Plantation,” “Some of our people that are dead took the original of their death here.” They came upon “Corn’s Hill” in Truro, and abandoned Indian village. The Indians villages that greeted early explorers were now abandoned. After over a hundred years of European fishermen and traders arriving at the New World’s shores brought epidemics to the Indians, and with the village they encountered, the tribe had been wiped out by smallpox. The tribe left behind dwellings and further away cleared fields for planting.

Historian Nathaniel Philbrick in his book, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War recounts that in the native villages the settlers pillaged and looted mounds with corn, beans and grain, and gravesites. They went back and forth and explored for a couple weeks going down to Eastham stealing from the villagers along the way. The explorers had a confrontation with the tribe the Nausets at First Encounter Beach in December. At the time, Bradford, however, claimed they took them to show and repaid the natives with their first crop. Bradford wrote, “There was found more of their corn and of their beans of various colors; the corn and beans they brought away, purposing to give them full satisfaction when they should meet with any of them as, about some six months afterward they did, to their good content.” On December 11, the pilgrims explored the area of Plymouth, and the site of the rock, which they decided would be good for a settlement and to dock and then on December 12, they returned to the Mayflower.

The settlers spent the beginning of the first winter in the Mayflower and soon they were sick, with an outbreak, which was a combination of “scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.” Half the passengers and crew died, in the spring 53 passengers survived. The pilgrims arrived right before winter and they were not prepared for the cold, they did not have the proper clothes, “food or farm animals.” The delays from departing in England shortened the supplies and there were food shortages already on the trip. The usual supplies they brought were two dogs, a spaniel, and a mastiff, “sheep, goats, and poultry,” tools, weapons, and artillery, and a shallop. Other supplies including horses and cows would be brought on another ship later on.

Throughout the winter, they built houses on the land with the first house up on December 25. They began with the common house and planned a plantation with nineteen homes but with the deaths were revised to only seven dwellings and four common buildings with no church. As illness spread among the pilgrims including Bradford, the common house became a hospital with beds and well settlers tending to the sick. By February, they were unloading belongings from the Mayflower; however, the highest numbers of deaths occurred in February and March.

While distant sightings of natives started soon as they moved onto land in the winter, in February and March they increased and closer to their plantation, that they unloaded the artillery from the Mayflower and began fortifying the plantation. On March 16, the pilgrims had their first face-to-face meeting with a native, Somerset, who famously declared “Welcome, Englishmen!” to the settlers. Somerset, Samoset, learned his English from the fishermen visiting off the Maine Coast he was also a representative from the Pokanoket (Wampanoags) Supreme Leader or sachem Massasoit. Samoset was the first native the pilgrims let into their plantation as a guest and he told them of Squanto, who also spoke English and the local leader Massasoit.

In 1614, the English explorer Thomas Hunt took Squanto and twenty other native captives bringing them to Spain to be sold as slaves. A local priest saved Squanto and he traveled to London, and then finally returned to the Massachusetts Coast of his birth in 1619 only to find his tribe the Patuxet had all died. Hearing about the arrival of the pilgrims at the Plymouth shore, Squanto offered his services to Massasoit, who was uncertain about his loyalties but agreed. Squanto convinced Massasoit that it would be beneficial to have the pilgrims on his side, “to break the Narragansetts’ stranglehold on the Pokanokets.” Squanto advised the chief, “[E]nemies that were [now] too strong for him would be constrained to bow to him.” (Philbrick, 96)

On March 22, Samoset returned to the pilgrims with Squanto and other natives who informed the pilgrims that Massasoit wanted to meet with them. Pilgrim Edward Winslow volunteered to be Governor Carver’s representative to meet the chief at Watson’s Hill, and Winslow brought and offered “some copper chains, some alcohol, and a few biscuits,” where Winslow offered peace to Massasoit. The chief agreed to meet Governor Carver on the Plymouth plantation, with some of the Plymouth settlers meeting with Massasoit and taking him to meet with Carver. Winslow stayed as a prisoner to the natives and some of the sixty warriors accompanying the chief remained as the pilgrims’ prisoners. (Philbrick, 98)

At a meeting in one of the houses under construction, Carver and Massasoit came to an agreement. Philbrick recounts, “1. That neither he nor any of his should injure or do hurt to any of our people. 2. And if any of his did hurt to any of ours, he should send the offender, that we might punish him. 3. That if any of our tools were taken away when our people were at work, he should cause them to be restored, and if ours did any harm to any of his, we would do the like to him. 4. If any did unjustly war against him, we would aid him; if any did war against us, he should aid us. 5. He should send to his neighbor confederates, to certify them of this, that they might not wrong us, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace. 6. That when their men came to us, they should leave their bows and arrows behind them, as we should do our pieces when we came to them.” (Philbrick, 99) The agreement led to an alliance between the Plymouth colony and the Pokanokets that lasted a generation, fifty-five years until King Philip’s War.

Meanwhile on April 5, 1621, after unloading all the pilgrims’ belongings Jones and his remaining crew set sail from Plymouth to England arriving in Rotherhithe in one month on May 6. That spring, Squanto helped the Pilgrims, teaching them to fish the coast and gave them a “crash course in Indian agriculture” teaching them how to plant and later to hunt. The infertile land needed dead herring to fertilize the planted crops of flint corn and beans and squash. In April, Governor Carver suddenly went into a coma and died, in June they chose the recovering Bradford as their governor a position he would hold for thirty years. The pilgrims spent the summer of 1621 cementing their alliance with Massasoit, reimbursing the Nausets for the stolen corn and initiating diplomatic relations in Southern New England. As Philbrick notes, “In these early years, when the mutual challenge of survival dominated all other concerns, the two peoples had more in common than is generally appreciated today.” (Philbrick, 119)

Jennie A. Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the fall of 1621, with their first harvest the Plymouth pilgrims celebrated a three-day thanksgiving with Massasoit and the Pokanokets, the first Thanksgiving a tradition still celebrate in honor of the pilgrims first Thanksgiving in America. Philbrick notes, “We do not know the exact date of the celebration we now call the First Thanksgiving, but it was probably in late September or early October, soon after their crop of corn, squash, beans, barley, and peas had been harvested.” (Philbrick, 117) The celebration included the harvest, ducks, geese, and wild turkeys while Massasoit and a hundred Pokanokets brought five deer. Bradford wrote, “Now that they had “gathered the fruit of our labors,” to “rejoice together . . . after a more special manner.” The celebration was both religious but also resembled a “traditional English harvest festival.” (Philbrick, 118)

Philbrick recounts, “Without Massasoit’s help, the Pilgrims would never have survived the first year, and they remained steadfast supporters of the sachem to the very end. For his part, Massasoit realized almost from the start that his own fortunes were linked to those of the English. In this respect, there is a surprising amount of truth in the tired, threadbare story of the First Thanksgiving. But the Indians and English of Plymouth Colony did not live in a static idyll of mutual support. Instead, it was fifty-five years of struggle and compromise — a dynamic, often harrowing process of give and take. As long as both sides recognized that they needed each other, there was peace. The next generation, however, came to see things differently.” (Philbrick, xvii)

War broke out in 1675 between Massasoit’s son Phillip and the Plymouth colony led by Josiah Winslow. As Philbrick indicates, “King Philip’s War was more than twice as bloody as the American Civil War and at least seven times more lethal than the American Revolution.” (Philbrick, xv) Until 1691, Plymouth survived as an independent colony when it joined its northern neighbors, the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. The pilgrims viewed their legacy as Bradford declared, “As one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone to many, yea in some sort to our whole nation.”


Bradford, William, and William T. Davis. Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, 1606–1646. Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2014.

Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.

Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Penguin Books, 2007, 2006.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has over a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.