The year is 1624, and it’s time for the election of Plymouth officers. Bradford orders that more officials be elected, since the colony is growing. Five assistants, instead of the previous one, are appointed to help the governor.
1624 is a pivotal year for Plymouth plantation, and it begins with Bradford acknowledging that the colony is thriving, to the point where there needs to be a stronger centralized authority (i.e., more governor’s assistants).
In March, the Pilgrims send a boat eastward to fish. However, the boat is caught in a storm and sinks, drowning the captain and losing all provisions. After this setback, some colonists, particularly those who came over after 1620, begin to whisper about defecting to another colony. Bradford makes it known that defectors must still pay their way out of the joint partnership, and also front a large supply of food. This silences most of the talk of separating. The colony becomes more secure after Mr. Edward Winslow returns on a ship bearing provisions, including cattle and warm clothes. Winslow reports that many shareholders in the Virginia Company oppose sending over more reformers from Leyden.
In this important passage, Bradford illustrates the importance of the Pilgrims’ debt to the English investors. Debt wasn’t just a constant reminder of the Pilgrims’ obligations to English society; it actually helped preserve the Plymouth colony. Lower-class Pilgrims had an incentive to stick to the colony, since they risked being arrested otherwise. Similarly, authorities like Governor Bradford had a strong incentive to preserve the community to ensure that the debt would be paid off.
Bradford receives a letter, dated January 24, 1623, from Robert Cushman explaining that the Pilgrims would do well to pursue “fishing, salt-making, and boat-making,” and advising the Pilgrims to seek the help of the boatmaker who’s just arrived. Cushman also apologizes that he’s been unable to send more provisions, but stresses that he’ll send more if the Pilgrims send him enough supplies to turn a profit.
Bradford and Cushman continue their uneasy relationship, with both men implicitly accusing the other of preventing them from sending more supplies.
Bradford also receives a letter from a Virginia Company shareholder, laying out a series of charges against the colony. Bradford sends back a letter in which he replies to each charge. To the charges that the colony is disorganized, poorly run, atheistic, and impoverished, Bradford stresses his colonists’ discipline, organization, and piety, and insists that the Pilgrims will send back plenty of profitable resources.
As late as 1624—and actually long after as well—Bradford has to defend his colony from accusations of laziness or immorality, for fear that the English authorities will repossess the land. This might explain why Bradford’s account of the Pilgrims is so idealized: he wants to provide testimony to his people’s good character for practical and financial reasons.
Bradford receives another letter from John Robinson in Leyden. Robinson mourns the deaths of Indians, which he’s heard about, and he prays that the Indians were at least “converted” before dying. William Brewster also receives a letter from Robinson, in which Robinson describes the state of the now almost defunct Virginia Company. He estimates that there are a few outstanding investors who support the Pilgrims’ beliefs, a few outstanding investors who don’t, and many more who are neutral on the matter. He also notes that the remaining investors have refused to spend any more money to bring the reformers in Leyden over to America.
This is one of the only passages in the book in which the Pilgrims discuss the state of the Native Americans’ souls. The Puritans weren’t active proselytizers, and thus, while they recognized that Native Americans were human beings and had souls, they didn’t go out of their way to preach to them. The passage also establishes a pattern for the remainder of the book: the Virginia Company is going under, but individual investors are still working together to recover their money.
Bradford says he will now describe the state of the colony in 1624. Each household is given an acre of land to farm on, and produces a fair amount of food. The boatmaker who came over on the last voyage helps to design two excellent shallops (small boats) but then succumbs to fever and dies. The salt-maker, however, is an ignorant man—all he knows how to do is boil salt. Two other new colonists are John Lyford and his friend, John Oldham. Lyford and Oldham begin to denounce the church while pretending to be virtuous in public. Just as the ship is preparing to sail back to England, bearing many people’s letters, Bradford sends a spy to read Lyford and Oldham’s letters, in which he finds “slanders and false accusations.” Lyford is also found to be in contact with John Pemberton, a minister and noted opponent of the Pilgrims. Finally, the spy finds that Lyford has been opening people’s mail and adding “scandalous annotations.”
The Pilgrims’ colony thrives, in part, because Bradford masterminds a plan to divide the resources into small, self-managed groups. The families farm their own land, increasing productivity, and the fishermen and other specialists perform their designated jobs. However, not all people in the community pull their weight. Notice that, whenever Bradford describes a “bad apple” in Plymouth, he goes out of his way to emphasize that the colonist isn’t a true English reformer. (Also notice that, rather hypocritically, Bradford discovers that the men have been opening other people’s mail—in the act of opening their mail.)
Bradford calls for a public trial against Lyford and Oldham, on the grounds that they’ve denounced the church and disturbed the peace. Bradford reads from Lyford’s letters, and Lyford becomes so enraged that he calls for any man to speak out against him—nobody speaks. Bradford claims that he’s opened Lyford’s mail to prevent harm to the colony, and that Lyford, clearly an opponent of the Pilgrims’ cause, doesn’t belong in the colony.
Bradford is forced to divulge that he opened Lyford’s mail, an invasion of his privacy. Bradford’s justification for his action—that he did it for the good of the colony—could be interpreted as a sign of how the Puritans sacrificed their religious high-mindedness in order to create a more powerful state. The Puritans fled to America to escape excessive authority—now, they’ve arguably recreated it in America.
Bradford proceeds to read more excerpts from Lyford’s letters, showing that Lyford has been in contact with anti-Pilgrim factions. In his letters, Lyford plots to bring more settlers to Plymouth so that the Pilgrims will become a minority. He also plans to bring a new captain to Plymouth and ensure his election—furthermore, Lyford writes that if he can’t enact his plans, he and Oldham will move to a surrounding colony. Lyford tries to defend himself, but is convicted of disturbing the peace and sentenced to leave in the next six months. When the sentence is read, Lyford begins to cry, and confesses that he is a sinner. Oldham is also convicted, but because his letters were harder to read, and because he has a family, he’s allowed to stay for longer.
It’s a little suspicious that Lyford immediately admits his guilt after being convicted—it’s as if Bradford has re-staged the scene to justify his own invasions of people’s privacy. Bradford also emphasizes the Pilgrims’ mercy to Oldham.
Later on, and in spite of his public confession, Lyford tries to justify his actions. In April 1624, he writes a new letter to “the Adventurers in England,” in which he claims that he was trying to “help several poor souls” who the church in Plymouth Plantation wasn’t providing for. Bradford apologizes for devoting so much space to Lyford’s case.
This section is one of the few times in the book when Bradford alludes to the many people living in Plymouth who weren’t Pilgrims. Although it’s impossible to be sure, some historians have suggested that Lyford was a populist hero, trying to thwart the tyranny of the Puritans’ minority rule.
Other notable events of 1624 include an attempt to recover and mend the boat that sank in the storm. Some fishers manage to bring the boat back to shore and refit it, at great expense. Winter passes without “great incident,” except that many who’d remained aloof from the church now come forward and join it, recognizing “Lyford’s unjust dealing and malignity.”
The prosecution of Lyford and Oldham appears to frighten the Pilgrim community into unity: some of the people who’d held out against Bradford’s authority now seem to submit to it. And in Plymouth, submitting to governing authority also means submitting to the authority’s religious beliefs.