What happened after the First Thanksgiving?

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the harvest festival we now call “The First Thanksgiving”. This historic moment was commemorated with a big parade in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the town where the event took place in 1621. We all know the story we were told as schoolchildren: a group of English religious dissenters sailed to the New World aboard the Mayflower, signed an agreement for their colony’s self-government called the Mayflower Compact, and struggled with disease and starvation their first winter, but then were saved by the local Wampanoag tribe that befriended them and taught them how to survive in this new land, leading to the celebration of the First Thanksgiving after the colony’s first successful harvest.

That’s where the story stops in almost all retellings of this history. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag celebrated together… and that’s it. Obviously, there is more to this story, as Plymouth Colony lasted for a further 70 years after this event. What happened after the First Thanksgiving?

I recently read the book Plymouth Colony: Its History & People 1620-1691 by Eugene Aubrey Stratton. This book goes into tons of detail about the lives of the people who lived in the colony during this time, right down to the surviving court records of domestic disputes. Obviously, I won’t be going into quite that much detail here, but I do want to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the First Thanksgiving with a broad overview of the Plymouth Colony’s history.

Figuring out how to colony

One often-overlooked aspect of the Mayflower Pilgrims is that not all of them were part of the Separatist religious group that were seeking religious freedom in the New World. The majority were actually so-called “Strangers”, outsiders brought to the colony to help ensure its survival (farmers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and so on). The critical importance of these Strangers meant that the colony’s leaders had to make some accommodation for their religious differences, such as turning a blind eye to their celebration of Christmas as long as they did so in the privacy of their homes, but it wasn’t long before their English compatriots sent more Separatists over to shift the demographic balance in their church’s favor. In 1621, the Fortune arrived with 35 new colonists. Unfortunately, the ship didn’t bring enough supplies to support this new group of colonists, so their arrival put a tremendous strain on the small colony.

In the first few years of Plymouth Colony’s existence, according to Stratton’s book, “the settlers were to live a virtually socialistic life, sharing everything in common.” However, the colonists quickly realized this wasn’t working, as Stratton recounts: “By 1623 many were complaining that the industrious ones were working to support the lazy ones.” To fix this, the colonists agreed to split the land into private property, each family receiving a share of the available land to work for themselves.

In 1624, Capt. John Smith (of Jamestown fame) paid a visit to Plymouth, and recounted: “At New Plimouth there is about 180 persons… 32 dwelling houses, whereof 7 were burnt in the last winter.” I don’t know about you, but that fire sounds like it would have been a very traumatic event for the colonists!

The colony also faced significant financial difficulties in its early years. Someone had to pay to send the colonists over to the New World, and that someone was a group of investors called the “Adventurers”. The agreement was that the colonists would trade for furs with the local tribes, and the profits from this trade would be used to pay the Adventurers’ debts. This plan ended in disaster, as the colony just wasn’t bringing in enough fur to offset the huge debt, and what money did come in was badly mismanaged. Soon, most Adventurers sold off their shares to some of the colonists, who became known as the “Purchasers” and used their status to increase their power.

This leads me to the obvious question of how the colony was run. After all, the Mayflower Compact didn’t actually specify a form of government, it was merely an agreement to form one. The Adventurers chose John Carver to be the first governor of the new colony before the Mayflower had even set sail, but he died just a few months after arrival. The power vacuum that followed was quickly taken up by the only other person in the tiny, new colony with any authority: their preacher, William Bradford. In short order, the colonists elected Bradford as their new governor, and he would hold this position almost continuously until his death.

Bradford would govern with the assistance of, um, the “Assistants”, who would be elected by the colonists annually to administer the day-to-day running of the colony. The Governor and Assistants would meet together as the “Council”, that wielded both executive and judicial power. Interestingly, it seems that the Council made its decisions by majority vote, with the Governor getting a double-vote but no veto.

The biggest decisions, such as new laws, the election of the Assistants, and the most important court cases, were decided by the General Court. This was a body that met four times a year and was made up of every colonist who had voting rights (called “freemen”). This made Plymouth Colony something of a direct democracy. However, not everyone in Plymouth Colony was a freeman; obviously, women couldn’t vote, and men had to earn the approval of the General Court before being awarded this status. This appears to have been entirely based on merit, as there was no religious test or property-ownership criteria required to be awarded freeman status.

The Pilgrims’ church

Don’t let the fact that there was no religious qualification to having voting rights imply that Plymouth Colony had no religious tensions or issues. In fact, the opposite was usually the truth.

As previously mentioned, there was some tension from the beginning between the Separatists and the Strangers. The Separatists, like the very similar Puritans they are often mistaken for, believed that the only proper church was one that was based on the New Testament (as they understood it). This is why they refused to celebrate Christmas or Easter, as both holidays were originally Christianized versions of earlier pagan holidays. The only music allowed in their church were the Psalms from the Bible, and men and women were segregated in the pews. Interestingly, they rejected the idea of a church led by bishops (even though the New Testament absolutely does mention such an office existing in the early church), and instead believed each congregation should be self-governing.

The Strangers were technically members of the Church of England, but being the sort of working-class folks they were, they didn’t really worry about religious details too much. They attended the Separatists’ church services, and were allowed to maintain their own private religious traditions, such as celebrating Christmas or Easter and singing church songs other than the Psalms, in the privacy of their homes.

This state of affairs lasted until the 1630’s, when a religious whirlwind appeared in the form of Roger Williams, a Puritan minister who brought his family to Boston, just a few miles to the north. Boston’s leaders felt it was the government’s job was to ensure proper religious morality and observance among its people. Williams rejected this idea, and argued in favor of separation of church and state. In short order, he became the preacher in the town of Salem, only to be kicked out by the Boston authorities. Williams tried a stint in Plymouth, only for his ideas to again lead to trouble with the authorities. At last, he ended up leading his followers to Narragansett Bay, where he would found the colony of Rhode Island.

Having a haven of religious freedom on one’s doorstep was troublesome for the Plymouth Colony’s leaders. Ironically, even though they had come to the New World to escape religious oppression, the Separatists had no qualms about perpetrating some religious oppression of their own. If you were a Quaker in Plymouth, you would be exiled. If you gave hospitality to a Quaker, you would be whipped. If you were a Baptist, you would be excommunicated, publicly shunned, and ineligible for any elected political office. In the end, though, the Plymouth Colony’s attempt to control the religious life of its residents was a doomed endeavor. By the 1680’s, Baptist churches were operating out in the open.

The colony’s growth – and conflict

Throughout its history, the Plymouth Colony grew. From a single settlement of 102 Pilgrims, it would expand to 18 townships with a total population of 3,055 by 1690. While part of this growth was due to the Pilgrims raising families, most of it came from immigration from England. After all, Plymouth was a colony for Separatists, who flocked to the area to live among like-minded faithful and escape the Church of England’s grasp.

Of course, the land that these new arrivals were settling belonged to the Wampanoag tribe, who grew increasingly concerned by this wave of immigrants. However, and I feel it is really important to point this out, the generation that held the First Thanksgiving maintained the Pilgrim-Wampanoag alliance for the rest of their lives. Both sides were committed to making this unusual alliance work, with both Bradford and Wampanoag leader Massasoit finding creative solutions to relieve any tensions between the two communities and renew their friendship.

It was the next generation that screwed it all up.

After the initial generation that held the First Thanksgiving gradually passed away, the younger leaders were nowhere near as careful or diplomatic, and were more willing to escalate the conflict. To the Wampanoag, their very survival was at stake, as they were increasingly penned in by new settlements. The spark that set off the conflict came in 1675, when three Wampanoag men murdered John Sassamon, a Wampanoag man who was on friendly terms with the colonists. The colonial authorities arrested the trio, put them on trial, and hanged them. Think about that for a moment: Plymouth Colony was now asserting that it had legal authority over the Wampanoag tribe! Well, the new Wampanoag chief Metacomet wasn’t going to take that sitting down, and launched a series of attacks against Plymouth townships.

The three-year war that followed is the bloodiest in U.S. history relative to the populations of the groups involved. Dozens of colonial settlements were utterly destroyed and hundreds of colonists were killed. In retribution, the colonists devastated the Wampanoag, with the few who survived Plymouth’s wrath being sold into slavery.

The end of Plymouth Colony

A 1913 photo of reenactors dressed as Mayflower Pilgrims from the Robbins Library

By the late 17th century, the political situation in both New England and old England had completely changed. Wars with Indian tribes had brought the New England colonies closer together, as they had to band together for mutual defense. Meanwhile, the mother country had suffered a civil war, the restoration of the crown and old order, and then a revolution, leading to the Church of England taking on its final form, a form that had no room for Puritans. This meant that the remaining Puritans and Separatists came together, forming the basis of the congregational churches we have today.

Plymouth Colony had reached the end of its ability to grow on its own, and soon there was talk of merging with a neighboring colony. Most people expected they would join Massachusetts, as the two had a very close relationship for decades. However, some colonists who were still holding on to old suspicions of their former religious rivals tried to prevent this merger by proposing a union with New York instead. Imagine if they had gotten their way! Nevertheless, simple geography favored the Massachusetts merger, which finally went through with royal approval in 1691. With that, the history of Plymouth Colony came to an end.

While it only existed for a mere 71 years, Plymouth Colony was very important to U.S. history. While other colonies established previously were imperialistic projects for the benefit of their mother countries, Plymouth was the first to be established by a group of people for their own benefit, the first to organize its own government, and the first to operate essentially independently. I genuinely believe the United States would not exist today without the Mayflower Pilgrims. That’s why, to me, Thanksgiving matters.