William Bradford, the Governor of the Plymouth Plantation in North America, records the history of the colony, promising to write in a plain, honest style that reflects his commitment to the truth.
Bradford begins by discussing the history of the Plymouth colony before 1620. In England, Henry VIII and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth, instituted a series of religious reforms that limited the role of Roman Catholic ceremony in Christian practice. However, some Christian reformers worried that the English crown hadn’t gone far enough, and broke with the English church altogether.
Many of the English reformers migrated to Holland, where they believed they’d enjoy more religious freedom. However, life in Holland was difficult, and the reformers had to compete with other religious sects for their congregants. William Brewster and John Robinson, two of the key leaders of the English reform movement, resolved to bring their congregants to America to find a new home. After ten years in Holland, the English reformers were able to make arrangements with the Virginia Company, which had gathered investors to send an expedition to Plymouth, located in New England.
In 1620, the English reformers in Holland, now calling themselves Pilgrims, sail for England aboard the Mayflower. During this period, John Carver and Robert Cushman serve as the Pilgrims’ business contacts in England, ensuring the Virginia Company’s cooperation. Many of the English reformers in Holland have to stay behind, both because of the size of the ship and because it is feared that they won’t be able to survive the long voyage.
In 1620, the Mayflower docks in Cape Cod, near the Hudson River. Before the settlers go ashore, they agree to recognize John Carver as their first governor, and to abide by the laws of the community. Under the command of Captain Myles Standish, an expedition of Pilgrims goes out to explore the surrounding area, and quickly encounters a group of Native Americans. The Pilgrims steal some food from the Native Americans, promising to return it when they’re able to do so. The Native Americans attack the Pilgrims, and the Pilgrims fire back, killing several people.
In the second, much longer part of his book, Bradford uses a more concise, chronological approach, and includes many excerpts from people’s letters. By 1621, much of the Mayflower expedition has died off due to disease, cold weather, and starvation. However, the Pilgrims benefit from the presence of Squanto, a Native America who has spent time among English traders and speaks good English. Squanto is instrumental in forging alliances between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans in the surrounding area. Around the same time, a plague breaks out among the Native Americans, and thousands die. Governor Carver also becomes ill and dies, and William Bradford is appointed the new governor, with Isaac Allerton as his assistant.
Throughout the 1620s, the Plymouth settlement is embroiled in a dispute concerning its considerable debts to the investors who made the Virginia Company’s Plymouth venture possible. Though the Virginia Company itself goes under, many investors demand that the Pilgrims honor their agreement and pay off their debt over the next few years. Thomas Weston, a former investor in the Company, sells off his shares, but then tries to send his own ship to the New World in the hopes of starting a new colony. Weston begins a new colony in Massachusetts, but quickly falls on hard times. By 1623, he’s wanted by the English crown for illegally selling trading licenses and other goods in America, endangering the health of England’s colonies. Meanwhile, the Pilgrims receive ships sent by Robert Cushman and the remaining investors in England, with the understanding that the Pilgrims will pay off their debts as soon as possible.
In spite of its outstanding debts to investors, the Plymouth plantation begins to thrive. Its population is disciplined and well-organized, and when Bradford makes the decision to allow each family to farm its own land, the overall health of the colony greatly improves. Bradford encounters a challenge when he learns that two new settlers in Plymouth, John Oldham and John Lyford, are secretly writing letters to their friends in England that insult the colonists, and seem to be plotting to reduce the Pilgrims’ religious authority. Bradford arranges for Lyford and Oldham to be expelled from Plymouth. Around the same time, Bradford orders for the first execution in Plymouth.
The Plymouth leadership sends Isaac Allerton to England to negotiate with outstanding investors. At first, Allerton does a good job, negotiating for a more gradual repayment and obtaining a lucrative land patent for the Plymouth colonists. However, he then begins to use his access to England for his own selfish purposes. Allerton starts to bring large quantities of goods back from England, against the Pilgrims’ request, and then selling them for inflated prices. James Sherley, a business contact of the Pilgrims, sends a secret letter to Plymouth, explaining that Allerton is no longer loyal to the colonists’ interests. Meanwhile, the Plymouth colonists begin to develop good relations with the Dutch traders in New Amsterdam. Bradford also strikes up a friendship with John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The Pilgrims face another crisis when the White Angel, a ship sent to Plymouth by Sherley and manned by Isaac Allerton, brings no cargo for Plymouth—and Sherley still charges the colonists for the shipment, plunging them further into debt. Bradford suspects that Allerton has hidden the ship’s cargo in order to sell it for his own profit, and argues to Sherley that the colonists shouldn’t be charged for the cargo. Allerton later sells the White Angel to Spain, further endangering the Pilgrims’ financial stability. The Pilgrims write to Sherley that they shouldn’t be punished for Allerton’s wrongdoings, but Sherley continues to insist that the Pilgrims pay off the debt from the White Angel. Around the same time, the Pilgrims enter into a dispute with French settlers, but due to their lack of resources, they’re unable to wage a war against the French.
Toward the end of the book, Bradford describes the growing conflict with the Native Americans. The Pequot and the Narragansett tribes begin to fight, and try to enlist the colonists in their war. In 1637, the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony begin a war with the Pequot tribe, resulting in the beheading of their chief. Meanwhile, the Pilgrims decide to dismiss Mr. Sherley as their business contact, since he seems to have done nothing to ease the Pilgrims’ debts by paying off the investors. By 1640, the Pilgrims negotiate a final agreement with Mr. Sherley: to pay off 1400 pounds in outstanding debts.
The Plymouth leadership forms a Council of the United Colonies, enlisting the settlers in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and other areas in New England. Meeting in Boston, representatives from all colonies agree to support one another in times of war and support peaceful trade between one another. The Council’s first test arrives in 1645 when the Narragansett tribe begins to feud with the colonies and with the Monhig Native Americans. The Council sends hundreds of soldiers in preparation for war—intimidating the Narragansett into surrendering.
In the final chapter of the book, Bradford lists the original settlers of the Plymouth Plantation and thanks God for blessing the colony with health and strength.