Prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims, the location of Plymouth was a village of the Wampanoag tribe called Patuxet. The region was visited twice by European explorers prior to the establishment of Plymouth Colony. In 1605, Samuel de Champlain sailed to Plymouth Harbor, calling it Port St. Louis. Captain John Smith was a leader of the colony at Jamestown, Virginia, and he explored parts of Cape Cod Bay and is credited with naming the region "New Plimouth."
Two plagues afflicted coastal New England in 1614 and 1617, killing between 90% and 95% of the local Wampanoag inhabitants. The near disappearance of the tribe from the site left their cornfields and cleared areas vacant for the Pilgrims to occupy.
"The Landing of the Pilgrims."(1877) by Henry A. Bacon. The Pilgrims
are traditionally said to have landed at Plymouth Rock
Plymouth played a very important role in American colonial history. It was the final landing site of the first voyage of the Mayflower and the location of the original settlement of Plymouth Colony. Plymouth was established in December 1620 by English separatist Puritans who had broken away from the Church of England, believing that the Church had not completed the work of the Protestant Reformation. Today, these settlers are much better known as the "Pilgrims", a term coined by William Bradford.
The Mayflower first anchored in the harbor of Provincetown, Massachusetts on November 11, 1620. The ship was headed for the mouth of the Hudson River near Manhattan, which was part of the Colony of Virginia at the time, but it did not go beyond Cape Cod. The Pilgrim settlers realized that they did not have a patent to settle in the region, so they signed the Mayflower Compact prior to disembarking. They explored various parts of Cape Cod and eventually sought a suitable location for a permanent settlement to the westward in Cape Cod Bay. They discovered the sheltered waters of Plymouth Harbor on December 17, and the protected bay led to a site for the new settlement after three days of surveying.
The settlers officially disembarked on December 21, 1620. It is traditionally said that the Pilgrims first set foot in America at the site of Plymouth Rock, though no historical evidence can prove this claim. They named their settlement "Plimouth" (sometimes spelled "Plimoth") after the major port city in Devon, England from which the Mayflower ultimately sailed.
The First Thanksgiving
, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
(1863–1930). The First Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth in 1621
Plymouth faced many difficulties during its first winter, the most notable being the risk of starvation and the lack of suitable shelter. From the beginning, the assistance of Native Americans was vital. One colonist's journal reports:
We marched to the place we called Cornhill, where we had found the corn before. At another place we had seen before, we dug and found some more corn, two or three baskets full, and a bag of beans. ... In all we had about ten bushels, which will be enough for seed. It is with God's help that we found this corn, for how else could we have done it, without meeting some Indians who might trouble us.
During their earlier exploration of the Cape, the Pilgrims had come upon a Native American burial site which contained corn, and they had taken the corn for future planting. On another occasion, they found an unoccupied house and had taken corn and beans, for which they made restitution with the occupants about six months later.
Even greater assistance came from Samoset and Tisquantum (known as Squanto by the pilgrims), a Native American sent by Wampanoag Tribe Chief Massasoit as an ambassador and technical adviser. Squanto had been kidnapped in 1614 by an English slave raider and sold in Málaga, Spain. He learned English, escaped slavery, and returned home in 1619. He taught the colonists how to farm corn, where and how to catch fish, and other helpful skills for the New World. He also was instrumental in the survival of the settlement for the first two years.
Squanto and another guide sent by Massasoit in 1621 named Hobomok helped the colonists set up trading posts for furs. Chief Massasoit later formed a Peace Treaty with the Pilgrims. Upon growing a plentiful harvest in the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims gathered with Squanto, Samoset, Massasoit, and ninety other Wampanoag men in a celebration of thanksgiving to God for their plentiful harvest. This celebration is known today as the First Thanksgiving, and is still commemorated annually in downtown Plymouth with a parade and a reenactment. Since 1941, Thanksgiving has been observed as a federal holiday in the United States.
A Plymouth deed signed by Josiah Cotton
as Register of Deeds, Courtesy of Shiwei Jiang
Plymouth served as the capital of Plymouth Colony (which consisted of modern-day Barnstable, Bristol, and Plymouth Counties) from its founding in 1620 until 1691, when the colony was merged with the Massachusetts Bay Colony and other territories to form the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Plymouth holds the unique distinction of being the first permanent settlement in New England, and one of the oldest settlements in the United States.
Cordage Commerce Center, North Plymouth
In the 1800s, Plymouth remained a relatively isolated seacoast town whose livelihood depended on fishing and shipping. The town eventually became a regional center of shipbuilding and fishing. Its principal industry was the Plymouth Cordage Company, founded in 1824, which became the world's largest manufacturer of rope and cordage products. At one point, the longest ropewalk in the world was found on the Cordage Company's site on the North Plymouth waterfront, a quarter-mile (0.4 km) in length. It thrived into the 1960s, but was forced out of business in 1964 due to competition from synthetic-fiber ropes. The refurbished factory is home to numerous offices, restaurants, and stores, known as Cordage Commerce Center.
Plymouth has experienced rapid growth and development in recent years. It became more accessible to Boston in the early 1970s with improved railroads, highways, and bus routes, and the town's inexpensive land costs and low tax rates were factors in the town's significant population rise, which grew from 18,606 residents in 1970 to 45,608 residents in 1990, a 145% increase in 20 years. Plymouth has surpassed several Massachusetts cities in population, but it is still officially regarded as a town and continues to be governed by a board of selectmen rather than a mayor.
Plymouth spans several exits on the town's primary highway Massachusetts Route 3. Additional access is possible via an extension to U.S. Route 44 in Massachusetts.