New England In The Earliest Days

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Next year Gorges had better luck with the ship he sent under his servant, Richard Vines; for though the ship’s company refused to explore but concentrated on fishing, Gorges’ men were able to trade along the coast and actually wintered there. Thus it was Gorges who tried out what Smith had only suggested, the feasibility of winter settlement in New England—the Popham experiment had made people very doubtful. What returns Gorges got from fishing ventures he spent on exploring with a view to settlement, his real passion: “This course I held some years together, but nothing to my private profit, for what I got one way I spent in another.”

On the basis of all this experience and dearly bought knowledge Gorges thought he now saw the way to successful plantation: he would secure from the Crown a patent for the northern territory with rights of government and power to grant licenses to plant and also to fish on the coasts; the payments for fishing licenses would provide funds for plantation. At once he found himself opposed by the Virginia Company under the redoubtable Sir Edwin Sandys. However, the Crown granted the charter for New England, with an extension of boundaries, as had been done for Virginia to include Bermuda—in this case to 48 degrees north to include Acadia. A council was set up, very different from the Virginia Company: a self-perpetuating body, including seven sleeping privy councillors who never attended; it was not under the control of the investors—perhaps that was why it had no investors, or very few, beyond Gorges, his family, and a few friends. They were a company of gentlemen. The absence of the merchants was fatal: the New England Council simply never had enough resources; it lived from hand to mouth. The whole idea was the Elizabethan one of a regulated colonial enterprise, already becoming inappropriate in the circumstances of seventeenth-century society.

Meanwhile, a very different body of men came forward: the Pilgrims. “In the story of American colonization,” C. M. Andrews says, “the Pilgrim plantation at Plymouth occupies a place apart from the normal colonizing process, in that its origin and purpose were entirely out of touch with the features of settlement characteristic of the time.” They were a religious body, at any rate the nucleus of them was—only 37 of the hundred or so who came over in the Mayflower.

The Pilgrims were in origin a Nottinghamshire group, who were in the habit of meeting at Scrooby Manor, where their Elder Brewster was the postmaster. To enjoy their own brand of religious observance and the ministrations of their pastor, John Robinson, the Pilgrims migrated to Holland. After a decade of that, they decided on America, “to live as a distinct body by themselves, under the general government of Virginia.” They sent two emissaries to London, where they “found the Virginia Company very desirous to have them go thither, and willing to grant them a patent, with as ample privileges as they had, or could grant to any.” They should have toleration in practice: the King could not openly depart from the law, but he “would connive at them, and not molest them.” King James and even the much-maligned bishops consented to the Pilgrim form of subscription. The Pilgrims were in the habit of regarding themselves as much persecuted in this world, but in fact everybody was very helpful.

At this time, 1619, Sandys gained control of the Virginia Company and gave them every encouragement. They got their patent to settle, the company approved their plan, declared the thing was of God, and, what was more important, loaned them £300 out of its exiguous resources. On this basis they went forward: “It is not with us as with other men, whom small things can discourage, or small discontentments cause to wish themselves at home again.” And so it proved. They were much aided in making their arrangements by a not very respectable merchant-promoter, a Thomas Weston, who obtained the patent for them and organized the business end of their affairs in London—which proved largely unremunerative, I may say, to the original investors. However, late in the season, much delayed, the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth on September 16, 1620.

They had originally intended to settle, as “but one particular colony or plantation,” within the area of the Virginia Company. As they drew near to the coast they thought of the Hudson River, but much buffeted and exhausted by the voyage, they halted at Cape Cod, then settled across the bay at New Plymouth. They kept the Mayflower with them that first terrible winter in which—as at Jamestown—half the colonists died. In one respect they were lucky: in the two or three years before their coming, most of the Indians on that coast, after bitter internecine war, had died of plague. This was regarded as a special providence, and it meant that in their weakened state they were not molested.