Logo   History of Plymouth, Massachusetts
The Pilgrims arrived not in a wilderness, but in a rich, populated land. So why did half of them die of privation the first winter?

Massasoit statue, Plymouth MA
Massasoit, friend
of the Pilgrims...




The Pilgrims were not explorers, they were settlers.

Terra Cognita

The coasts of New England and (later) New York were not terra incognita. In 1524 Giovanni da Verrazzano had discovered the estuary that would become New York harbor. By 1600, the shores of New England were a regular stopping-point for European fishing boats.

In 1609 Henry Hudson stopped at Cape Cod on his way to what would become New Netherland. Dutch trader Adriaen Block mapped the coast from 1611 to 1614 and left his name on Rhode Island's Block Island.

So by the time the Pilgrims decided to make the voyage to the New World and settle there, descriptions of the fertility of the land, equability of the climate, and friendliness of the natives brought back by explorers and fishermen were widespread in Europe.

The Original Inhabitants

Neither were the shores of New England uninhabited when the Pilgrims arrived. In 1600, there were thriving Algonquin ("Indian") villages all over eastern Massachusetts, with particular concentrations near the shore where seafood was abundant and the climate more moderate.

Dutch traders had set up a lively village in New Netherland (later New Amsterdam, still later New York) in 1614.

Much of the region's land had been cleared by the Algonquins for family gardens, cornfields, berry fields, wild fruit and nut orchards, and hunting grounds.

Unwelcome Newcomers

But the European fishermen who stopped and got to know the natives left behind deadly souvenirs: bacteria and viruses unknown in the New World, against which the local people had no natural immunity.

Smallpox, syphilis and other "European" diseases spread like wildfire through the Algonquin villages of Massachusetts Bay, and within a generation this well-populated land was nearly empty. It's estimated that up to 75% of the people died, leaving their cleared, prepared lands open for the Pilgrim settlers.

A Different Kind of Farming

Even though the land was prepared for them, the Pilgrims were not well prepared for the land. The agricultural lands and hunting grounds that had provided an abundant living to the Algonquins would not do so right away for the Pilgrims.

The Europeans, used to growing wheat and herding cattle, found themselves in a land best suited to maize (corn) farming, turkey and deer hunting, and fishing for cod, oysters, clams and lobsters.

During the first hard winter at Plymouth, about half of the Pilgrims died. The rest survived largely through the beneficence of their Indian neighbors, who taught them how to hunt and fish, to plant maize, fertilizing the cornhills with fish waste, to collect berries and nuts, and to store produce underground.

On many occasions, the generosity and providence of the Algonquins, and barter, provided the Pilgrims with food to get through hard times.

Within two decades of the Pilgrims' arrival at Plymouth, European settlers' villages were flourishing on the shores of Massachusetts Bay and beginning to appear inland along the banks of rivers reached from the sea. More...

—by Tom Brosnahan


History of New England

What to See & Do

Plymouth Rock

Mayflower II

Plimoth Plantation

Hotels, Motels & Inns

Plymouth Transportation

About Plymouth

About the South Shore

About Massachusetts


Paris Girls Secret Society, the new novel by Tom Brosnahan


Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, Massachusetts

Above, Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth MA.

Left, Massasoit, great sachem of the Wampanoags, protector of the Pilgrims.

Mayflower II, Plymouth, Massachusetts
Mayflower II, Plymouth, Massachusetts.



FTP on Facebook    
Pinterest    Twitter