In April of 1621, the Pilgrims decide that it is time to send back the Mayflower, the ship on which they sailed to America. They would have sent it back much sooner except that they’d faced so many challenges, including sickness and starvation. Nevertheless, the Pilgrims have adjusted to their new life, planting corn and fishing for food.
The Mayflower has been docked in the harbor for months, a sign of the enormous difficulties and crises of confidence that the Pilgrims suffered during their first year, and which they were able to overcome with the Native Americans’ help.
The colony experiences a setback when Governor Carver becomes ill and dies. William Bradford is then chosen governor, despite the fact that he’s very ill. Isaac Allerton is appointed Bradford’s assistant, and the two of them are reelected to their positions for several years to come.
There’s famine and disease throughout the Pilgrim settlement, and as a result Bradford is appointed governor, a position he’ll occupy for years to come. Hereafter, Bradford will sometimes refer to himself as “the Governor,” rather than using the first person.
On May 12, the colony celebrates its first marriage, performed by the magistrate. Soon after, the Pilgrims send gifts to Massasoyt to earn his trust—they send him clothes, which he accepts politely. Massasoyt’s people have become afflicted with a mysterious plague in the years leading up to the English colonists’ arrival, and thousands have died. Soon afterwards, the Pilgrims repay the Indians for the corn they took during their exploration of Cape Cod.
The first marriage on the plantation symbolizes the introduction of Christian religious institutions into the New World, and a sign that, while the Pilgrims’ lives are hard, they’re preserving “civilization” in their new home. Bradford couldn’t have known that the mysterious plague he describes was actually a smallpox epidemic brought by the English settlers.
Later in the year, an Indian named Hobbamok comes to live with the Pilgrims. Hobbamok and Squanto later become embroiled in an argument with another Indian named Corbitant, and Hobbamok reports to the Pilgrims that Corbitant may have attacked Squanto. To defend the Pilgrims’ friend, Governor Bradford sends armed men to punish Corbitant, only to find that Squanto is alive and well—Corbitant only threatened to hurt him.
Disagreements break out between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, and the Pilgrims are forced to back some Native Americans against others. In early New England history, there are many other “close calls” like the one described here.
On September 18, the Pilgrims send an expedition to the Massachusetts Bay, with Mr. Edward Winslow as the leader and Squanto as the interpreter. Squanto explains that there is a wild tribe of Indians, the Tarantines, living in Massachusetts. However, the Tarantines receive the Pilgrims politely, and give them beaver skins and other supplies. By this time, the Pilgrims have developed their own agriculture. In November a ship arrives carrying Robert Cushman, along with thirty-five others. Many of these people aren’t reformers at all, and when they see how desolate the Pilgrims’ lives are, some want to return to England. However, the ship’s captain prevents them from doing so.
The Pilgrims continue to explore the area in search of trade, agriculture, and other necessities for survival. Notice that Cushman’s ship’s captain won’t allow the settlers to go back to England. This contradicts the ethos of the Mayflower Compact, the entire point of which was that settlers voluntarily chose to enter their new lives in America. This would further suggest that, contrary to what most grade school history classes teach, the Mayflower Compact simply wasn’t that important in early New England history.
The ship also comes to the Plymouth colony bearing a letter from Weston to the now deceased Carver. In the letter, Weston berates Carver for failing to send back any cargo or payment to repay Weston for the “great sums I disbursed for this former voyage,” and criticizes him for being an indecisive, incompetent leader. Nevertheless, Weston notes that he’s succeeded in reaching a new charter with the Virginia Company, one with better terms than its predecessor. The Pilgrims send the ship back to England, laden with valuable beaver and otter skins. Bradford also gives the captain a letter for Mr. Weston, in which he defends Carver’s decision to keep the ship near Cape Cod for so long.
This passage sets a pattern for the rest of the book: the Pilgrims try to send some supplies back to England in order to pay off their immense debt to the Virginia Company investors, while the investors and other business contacts send the Pilgrims sternly worded letters demanding that they do more. Contrary to what Thomas Weston thought, the primary source of income for the Pilgrims is beaver skins, not fishing.
Shortly after the ship’s departure, the Narragansett Indians send a messenger to the Pilgrims bearing a bundle of arrows—which Squanto explains is a threat of war. The Pilgrims respond by sending a pile of bullets. Governor Bradford organizes his people to take precautions in the event of war, and arranges for a barricade to be built around the community. Bradford ends his reminiscences of 1621 by noting how, on Christmas Day, most of the Pilgrims refused to work. When Bradford noticed children playing in the street, he sternly confiscated their games, saying that, if the Pilgrims wanted to worship, they should worship, and if they wanted to work, they should work. Since that time, Bradford reports, “nothing has been attempted in that way, at least openly.”
The Pilgrims don’t actually fight a war with the Narragansett—at least not yet. Instead, both the Narragansett and the English settlers build up their military arsenals in preparation for war. The passage also contains a quintessential (and perhaps unintentionally funny) example of the Puritan mindset: Bradford sternly ordering little kids not to have a good time on Christmas Day. The Puritans sincerely believed that the purpose of life was to live simply, work hard, and worship God—thus, games and fun had no place in a virtuous Puritan’s life.