The Travails of Plymouth Colony


Review of They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty, by John G. Turner

New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020


It has been four hundred years since a small sailing ship cast anchor off the Massachusetts coast. They were near a place known as Patuxet and soon to be better known as Plymouth. The intrepid travelers established a new town there. Against the odds, the colony survived. And the memory of these earlier settlers, the “Pilgrims,” has become one of the most familiar of America’s origin myths.

Already in the early American republic, the “Pilgrims” were larger than life. By the time Alexis de Tocqueville traveled through the United States in 1831, he found that the boulder upon which (according to legend) the Pilgrim travelers first set their feet had become an “object of veneration.” The standard version of this story is retold annually around America’s Thanksgiving holiday. Plymouth Rock is still there. Today, tourists can gaze down at the rock under a temple-like granite canopy.

Just across the street from the Plymouth Rock and up the steep slope of Cole’s Hill is a different kind of monument that points to a very different way of remembering the past. “National Day of Mourning” proclaims the heading on a modest plaque. For many Native Americans, the plaque says, the arrival of the English settlers is cause for mourning rather than thanksgiving. The American Thanksgiving holiday is “a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their cultures.” In recent years, teachers in school classrooms across the country have revised their lesson plans to convey more critical perspectives on the Thanksgiving story.

Just in time for the quadricentennial, James Turner has written an outstanding new history of the Plymouth Colony, They Knew They Were Pilgrims. Turner demonstrates deep familiarity with both the original sources and the substantial contemporary scholarship. In it, scholars and students alike will find a judicious guide to the contested history of the Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony.


Meet the Separatists

Turner starts his story with a look at the formation of the separatist movement in England. He starts with Robert Cushman rather than the more familiar figures like William Bradford (who would become the longtime governor of Plymouth), John Robinson (the Pilgrims’ pastor before their departure to America), or William Brewster (an elder in the separatist congregation who then led the church in America). Cushman was a grocer, not a minister, and without much formal education. But Cushman was committed to pursuing truth and believed he found it outside the established church.

Cushman began to have his doubts about the established church while still an apprentice grocer. His first step toward acting on his new concerns was to tack a note to the local church door in Canterbury: “Lord have mercy upon us.” For this “libel”—implying that the church was corrupt and in need of repentance and saving—Cushman was briefly jailed and fined. Next he was cited for failing to attend services. He was excommunicated for a time. Cushman still hadn’t broken from the Church of England. He completed his apprenticeship, married, and in 1606 the Cushmans had their first child baptized in the Church of England. But he continued to find his spiritual sustenance outside accepted channels. The Cushmans ultimately concluded that separation from the established English church was the only solution and a few years later they fled to Holland to escape the persecution and harassment that was sure to follow.

There were many paths to separatism and many fissure points within the movement. Turner paints a rich picture of the often turbulent separatist scene. Some put the focus more on theology. Others made their break over issues of practice and ceremony, particularly as regards important life events as baptism, marriage, or burial.

Robert Browne was at the time the best-known proponent of a theological rationale for separating from the established church. Along with fellow minister Robert Harrison, Browne was one of the early separatists who began voicing a critique of the established church in the 1580s. Browne argued, as Turner explains, that “Christ was the church’s only king and head” (11). This was seditious in the eyes of the law. Followers of Browne and Harrison were jailed and some were hanged, including Browne and Harrison themselves. Imprisonment and banishment became the standard punishments imposed on separatists, or “Brownists” as they were often termed.

The “Brownists” represented the theological mainstream of separatism. They were basically a more radical subset of the Puritans’ theological universe, within the Calvinist wing of the Reformation. But there were fringe theological positions that circulated as well. Gilbert Gore, for instance, taught an unorthodox and radical version of justification severed from faith, at odds with the Calvinistic mainstream of English separatism. (Cushman came into Gore’s circle while at Canterbury before his final departure to Holland.)

Often it was an issue of practice—especially at landmark life events—that made the differences with the established church concrete. For some, it was Church of England marriage restrictions. Turner tells the story of a headstrong lawyer Thomas Helwys and his housekeeper Joan Ashmore. The two fell in love. The established church forbade marriages on some 144 days of the church calendar but would grant exceptions upon the purchase of a special license from a bishop. Puritan-leaning critics argued that the limits on marriage were unwarranted by scripture and, on top of that, the licensure exception was a form of church-sanctioned extortion. Helwys and Ashmore ignored the church rules when they married and were “harassed…for years” as a result (19).

For a few, the issue was burial: Separatist Henry Barrow argued that burials should not involve ministers or religious ceremony; when a small group of separatists in Sandwich acted on this and buried a church member’s child, church officials excommunicated the child’s mother, a Mrs. Chilton, as well as another service attendee.


Refugees and Pilgrims

Amidst this ferment, a separatist congregation formed in Scrooby. It contained the nucleus of what would become the Pilgrims. The unsanctioned congregation met at the home of William Brewster. William Bradford attended. John Robinson was the main preacher, though he wasn’t in Scrooby full-time, instead traveling the region and preaching where he found “like-minded” people.

When the authorities initiated a crackdown on the Scrooby gathering and its sister assembly in nearby Gainsborough, the small congregations began to consider leaving England for Holland. They made their move in 1608. They were intercepted by officers while in the process of embarking on their journey, forcing the ship to take off with only part of the group on board. The others spent time in jail before most of them were released to make their way to Holland as best they could.

The group initially went to Amsterdam. But, as Turner puts it, “English separatists were disunity specialists” (29). It wasn’t long before the separatist community in Amsterdam was riven by a new round of disagreements: Should the church be ruled by elders or by its members? How should worship singing be conducted? Was infant baptism unbiblical? Leading figures in the development of the separatist communities in Scrooby and Gainsborough went their “separate ways” over these issues. John Robinson led a group to settle in Leiden in 1609, where the little congregation of English expatriates celebrated the “heavenly harmony” of their congregation, finally free to worship openly. But they also faced “heavy labor and…grinding poverty” (36).

The major events that come next will be more or less familiar to American readers as the basic materials of the Pilgrim story: The Leiden congregation decided to leave Holland for the New World. With the help of English financiers, they arranged passage to America, along with some additional colonists who were not separatists. They left late in the season in 1620, suffered through a stormy voyage, and arrived off Cape Cod, far north of their planned destination and after the weather was already bitterly cold.

They wrote a kind of constitutional document for themselves, the Mayflower Compact. They proceeded to establish a settlement, Plymouth, at the site of the former Wampanoag village of Patuxet, which had been annihilated by disease. Half of the settlers died in the first winter. But as winter began to thaw, the local Wampanoag sachem, Massasoit (a title by which he was known) established contact with the Pilgrims and ultimately made an alliance. With help from their new allies (and especially Tisquantum or Squanto, who moved to the town to serve as an interpreter), the Plymouth settlers had a successful planting season. They celebrated the harvest with a feast, at which they were joined by some 90 Wampanoag, including Massasoit.

Revisionists like to point out that the “Pilgrims” didn’t call themselves by that name. Turner notes that this is only partly true: they didn’t call themselves as a group “the Pilgrims.” But they did recognize that they were “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). William Bradford referenced this verse when he wrote that the separatist community “knew they were pilgrims.” For ease of reference, Turner uses the term “Pilgrim” as a label for the separatists who traveled on the Mayflower.


The Challenge of Familiarity

One of the challenges for any writer tackling this subject is how to deal with such a familiar historical subject as the Pilgrims. Virtually every reader of this book will come to it with some prior exposure to the story and some knowledge (or assumptions) about what happened. Turner handles this with subtlety, avoiding either the extreme of simply retelling the familiar story or of trying to radically revise the account. He tells the story well, incorporates recent scholarship quietly, and utilizes original sources extensively.

The product is a story that is both familiar and new. Familiar characters and events are deeply contextualized, which casts them in new light. For instance, the social history of the separatists that Turner presents at the outset is a subtle rebuttal to the romanticized version of the history in which the separatists can appear as a tiny but united group, embattled from outside. In Turner’s account, they are from the outset a much more human group of often eccentric characters driven to seek truth while riven by their own tendencies to dogmatic division. But noting this doesn’t discount the separatists’ courage of convictions.

This subtle sensitivity to context and to the humanity of his subjects characterizes Turner’s approach throughout the book. When the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod and began scouting the coast for a place to settle, they came upon a burial site, which they uncovered. They also found a cache of corn, to which they helped themselves. Turner captures the full complexity of the situation. First, he portrays this as a sign of trouble to come, with the Pilgrims demonstrating disregard or obliviousness to the native peoples whose graves they had disturbed and whose food they had stolen. But second, he also captures the judgment-distorting desperation and panic that was gripping the Pilgrims at this point, as they recognized that they were facing disaster. (The Pilgrims would later attempt to remedy a wrong by paying for the corn they took.) Either of these two points, taken on its own, presents an unbalanced version of the Pilgrims story. Turner seamlessly puts them together.

Turner’s treatment of the harvest celebration in 1621 is similarly nuanced. On one hand, he notes the technically-correct point that it wasn’t a proper “thanksgiving” celebration. In England, a “thanksgiving” was a formal and solemn day of prayer. Plymouth had a feast, not a formal day of “thanksgiving.” On the other hand, Turner defends the event as significant: “The celebration…does not lose its significance when stripped of its mythology” (83). It was a “diplomatic event,” a “cementing of the alliance” between Pilgrim and Wampanoag, a reminder that “conflict between Europeans and Natives was not inevitable” (83).


The Life Story of a Colony

Turner takes the story of Plymouth forward all the way to its demise as a separate colony in 1691, after which it was thoroughly merged into the larger colony of Massachusetts. Turner is a deft guide to the many-faceted history. Prominent coverage is given (naturally) to major political developments—everything from the formative alliance between Plymouth and Massasoit’s Wampanoag confederacy, to conflicts with neighboring English settlers, to the violence of King Philip’s War, to periodic struggles with the English crown over colonial governance.

But Turner doesn’t let the politics overwhelm coverage of the equally fascinating and important religious and cultural drama. Dissenters of various stripes—including baptists, antinomians, and Quakers—kept the religious life of Plymouth in a state of off-and-on agitation for years. Every aspect of the colony’s life was also shaped by its social arrangements: marriage, the raising of children, local governance structures, and the civic responsibilities of the colony’s freemen. Economic pressures were virtually constant and formative of the colony’s development. Servitude was a regular part of the colony’s social structure, and Turner provides a nuanced explanation of its complexity.

Any one of these subjects could be a book in itself. Turner’s accomplishment is putting the pieces together effectively to present a compelling portrait of Plymouth Colony’s whole life, from creation to absorption into the larger whole of Massachusetts.


The Contest for American Liberty

The analytical thread that Turner runs through much of the book is liberty. The Pilgrims sought liberty, but of a particular kind. For them, liberty meant the freedom to worship and live in accordance with God’s will. The separatists didn’t have that in England. But this liberty was not license to pursue individual fulfillment or even individual conscience. Conscience itself must be “captive to the Word of God,” to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther in the early days of the Reformation. In the separatists’ judgment, life in Holland was characterized by too much license. The journey to America was a search for liberty, but not the kind of liberty that is recognizable to modern political liberalism. It was a liberty to live righteous and godly lives as Christians, a liberty to worship God according to Scripture and in a church community, liberty to live within the bounds of law and social convention.

More individualistic versions of liberty of conscience appeared from time to time to challenge the Pilgrims’ peace. Dissenters of various kinds split from the Pilgrims’ views on theology and church practice, including Roger Williams and a series of Quaker provocateurs. Thomas Morton made himself into an avatar of libertinism, erecting a maypole and bragging about his bawdy poetry to thumb his nose at the Plymouth Colony’s standards.

Another set of issues relevant to the meaning of liberty arose around the relationships of bondage and freedom that structured labor in the colony. Liberty existed on a continuum along with varying degrees of unfreedom. Indentured servitude and apprenticeship were commonplace from the birth of the colony. At the extreme end of the unfreedom continuum was outright chattel slavery, the fate of enslaved Africans. There were very few of them in Plymouth. The first time that New Englanders gave more serious consideration to slavery was after the Pequot War of 1636-38. Indians captured in war occupied an ambiguous space, vacillating between time-limited servitude and perpetual slavery.[1] When they were sold to Barbados, any conceptual difference mattered little: it was effectively a death sentence. Others were held by English settlers in the Bay Colony and (fewer) in Plymouth; their status was not always clear. Turner raises thought-provoking questions that the sources are sometimes unable to answer about when an Indian “servant” was closer to the category of slave than servant.

These are all important issues. But on the whole, the thread about liberty, referenced in Turner’s subtitle, is a relatively weak line through the book. It doesn’t get quite enough analytical development to really tie the book together. The liberty-license distinction is fascinating and important, and Turner does a good job of pointing out the many ways in which it comes up over the course of Plymouth’s history. But his account doesn’t add much that’s new on this particular issue. Neither does he tie the liberty-license discussion to the issues of unfree labor. They all implicate different components of the concept of liberty; and they all have significance for American history more broadly. But the book doesn’t quite live up to its subtitle’s implicit promise of reframing the history of American liberty.

In the end, any disappointment about the book’s treatment of liberty as an analytical theme is not that important. Again, the real significance of this book is its ability to present the big picture of Plymouth’s history. On that front, Turner has done significant work in integrating into this history the issues of liberty and license, slavery and freedom.



Turner offers a rich human portrait of the Pilgrims and Plymouth as a community. He does not shy away from the missteps of his protagonists. But he also captures some of those characteristics that are worth celebrating as we look back from a distance of four hundred years: times of positive relationships, collaboration, alliance between Pilgrim and Wampanoag, and courage in the pursuit of liberty (defined properly of course). He sympathetically portrays the Pilgrims’ deep religious faith. Turner also defends the Mayflower Compact as an important exercise of self-government. The argument that Plymouth was a contest over the meaning of American liberty isn’t quite developed enough to deliver a punch. But the book is a considerable accomplishment without that. Both readable and scholarly, They Knew They Were Pilgrims is an outstanding addition to the literature on the Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony.



[1] Turner uses the term “Indian” throughout the chapter, apparently following the classificatory labeling used by the English. Where he references specific groups of native peoples, he tries to use place-specific names where known.



Posted on 25 November 2020

LAEL WEINBERGER is the Olin-Searle-Smith Fellow in Law at Harvard Law School. Follow him at on Twitter @LaelWeinberger.