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A 'Grant [to] the Adventurers of the Northerne Collony': Jamestown Connections with Plymouth

Image of Plimoth Patuxet Museum (Plimoth Plantation) in Plymouth, Mass.

On Thanksgiving, thoughts turn toward those intrepid “Pilgrims” (Separatists) and “Strangers” who arrived at Plymouth on the shores of New England in 1620 and shared their famous harvest feast the following year with local Indians. This year, 2020, Plymouth, Mass., commemorates the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim arrival. In recent decades, early American historians have shed more light on Virginia’s early history and focused on its 400 year milestones in 2007 and 2019. While Plymouth and Jamestown are often thought of as isolated histories, several strong connections link one to the other.  Both are considered histories of American origins that often displace those “written” much earlier by American Indians.

When Jamestown’s infamous explorer and president of the colony John Smith, left Virginia in late 1609, he continued his interest in North American colonization. In 1614 and 1615, he traveled to and explored what he named “New England,” its coastline, peoples and resources. Just as in Virginia, he created a map of areas he explored and gave indigenous names to spots along the coastline, but upon returning to England, Prince Charles renamed these areas for familiar English towns. One of those in an area just above Cape Cod became “New Plimouth.”

John Smith’s 1616 map of New England.  From “Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England and the Summer Isles.”  Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.

In the first Virginia Company charter this area was considered northern Virginia, land granted to the investors of the Virginia Company of Plymouth, the branch of the Virginia Company funded by adventurers from England’s west coast, rather than the London branch that funded the venture at Jamestown. An early attempt to settle this area led by George Popham and Raleigh Gilbert in 1607 at the Kennebec River in Maine floundered. Now Smith saw opportunity to promote it again. He hoped to lead a venture to establish a fishing and fur-trading colony, trying for several years to get support but never succeeding. As he wrote in his Description of New England, “. . . of all the foure parts of the world that I have yet seene not inhabited [Europe, Asia, Africa, America] . . . I would rather live here then anywhere.”

Along came the Separatists, a group of Puritan dissenters from the Church of England led by William Brewster, who exiled to Holland in 1608. At this time, separating from the established Church of England also dangerously meant separating from the monarch, the head of that Church. After hardship and fear of losing their English language and culture, they decided to relocate to North America where they could live and worship as they chose.

Map showing the Virginia Company of Plymouth lands (north) and Virginia Company of London lands (south).

In 1617, the Separatist leaders secured a patent through Virginia Company supporter John Peirce and planned to settle in the northern part of the London branch’s grant, at the mouth of the Hudson River (the Virginia Company’s northern boundary was latitude 41 degrees). While permission to settle that area came from Virginia Company leader Sir Edwin Sandys, actual funding came from a group called the Fellowship of Merchant Adventurers led by Thomas Weston. To ensure a substantive return on their investment, the sponsors demanded that the small religious band travel with a company of “Strangers” who would share in building the colony, one of whom was Miles Standish. Under this seven-year, joint stock company arrangement, the colonists were to supply profit-making fish, lumber, sassafras and furs and the merchants would continue to resupply the colonists. Settlers also understood that the settlement (corporately, not individually) would receive 100 acres for every individual who went to Plymouth and stayed at least three years.

John Smith sought this new opportunity to serve as military leader but they picked Miles Standish, thinking Smith too strong-willed and domineering. They chose to take Smith’s books and New England map instead: “my books and maps were much better cheape to teach them, than my self.”

John Clark served as pilot or master’s mate on the Mayflower.  “Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor,” by William Halsall, 1882.  Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Mass.

With difficulties getting started, the group of 102 passengers and about 30 crew sailed off on the Mayflower after enduring a late departure from England and a late fall arrival at Cape Cod, not where they had intended to land. After an attempt to sail south to the mouth of the Hudson River, extreme weather forced them back to the safety of Cape Cod Bay. However, they knew this area lay north of the jurisdiction of the London Company and was now within the domain of Sir Ferdinando Gorges’s “new graunt [to] the Adventurers of the Northerne Collony,” called the Council for New England, successor to the Plymouth Company. Nevertheless, on December 16, they chose a site labeled “New Plimouth” on Smith’s map. Knowing that once they stepped ashore they would not have the legal right to be there or the security of laws issued from a governing body, and noticing some of the “Strangers” beginning to show a lawless spirit, the Separatists drew up an agreement which 41 of the men signed—a civil contract governing the conduct of the settlers and professing allegiance to the King, called the Mayflower Compact. The following year, in 1621 the colonists’ permission to settle there would be cleared with a new patent which former patentee John Peirce obtained from the Council for New England.

One of the crew members on the Mayflower in 1620 had already been to North America, specifically Virginia. John Clark, a maritime pilot, arrived in Virginia in May 1611 with the fleet that brought Sir Thomas Dale to the colony. The next month a Spanish ship sailed up to the mouth of the James River and a small party of Spaniards went ashore at Point Comfort. Virginians immediately captured them, proclaiming them to be spies. The ship offshore requested a pilot’s assistance to bring the ship to anchorage so Clark boarded the vessel, which, after unsuccessful negotiations, took off with him as hostage. The Spanish held Clark as a prisoner in Spain for five years until he was released in a prisoner exchange with one of the original Spanish spies brought to England by Thomas Dale in 1616 (in the ship carrying Pocahontas and her husband John Rolfe to England). In addition to serving on the Mayflower in 1620, Clark served as pilot on several trips to Virginia, transporting cattle from Ireland. The Virginia Company rewarded him with land in Virginia and he returned there in 1623, dying in the colony.

Plymouth “Stranger” Stephen Hopkins first came to Virginia in 1610, after having spent the winter of 1609-10 shipwrecked on the Summer or Bermuda Isles.  From “Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England and the Summer Isles.”  Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.

The group of “Strangers” accompanying the Pilgrims included a former Virginia colony resident, Stephen Hopkins. Hopkins first sailed to Virginia in 1609 with an ill-fated fleet scattered by an Atlantic hurricane. The wreck of his ship, the Sea Venture, on the coral isles of Bermuda left him and others stranded there for the winter of 1609-10.  A man with knowledge of the Holy Bible, he clerked and read Scripture for the group’s clergyman during worship. But Hopkins began to refuse orders to work and questioned the authority of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Gates. He was tried and sentenced to death for mutiny but pleaded for his life while others begged mercy for him, and he received pardon. He then sailed on with the group to Virginia where he remained for several years, returning to England at the death of his first wife.

Hopkins remarried in 1617/18 and with his new wife and children joined the 1620 voyage to America. He signed the Mayflower Compact on November 11, 1620, one whose previous actions exemplified the need for the Compact. Hopkins accompanied early exploratory parties seeking a good place to make settlement since he had some knowledge of American Indians and their subsistence and cultural habits from his time in Virginia. After the group established Plymouth, Hopkins aided the new colony’s governor in early meetings with Indian leaders such as Massasoit, and his family housed the American Indian man Samoset when he came to the Plymouth settlement in the first year. Hopkins would become a shopkeeper and live until 1644.

“Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620,” Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1899. Library of Congress.

After the Pilgrims and “Strangers” had been in Plymouth for two years, another recent Virginia resident arrived at Plymouth. John Pory stopped over in 1622 on his return to England, after serving the Virginia colony for three years as colony secretary and speaker of the first meeting of the General Assembly in 1619. At the request of the Virginia Company, Pory’s mission was to gather firsthand knowledge of the fishing business in New England, since King James had given the Council for New England the sole fishing rights in the region and dismissed the Virginia Company’s rights.

Pory, a politician, traveler, aide to foreign ambassadors and linguist, left innumerable writings, including the minutes of Virginia’s first assembly and correspondence with numerous well-placed Englishmen. Two of his letters concerned his experience at Plymouth and meetings with Governor William Bradford and William Brewster. His letters to Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, and to Virginia Governor Francis Wyatt, describe the Plymouth colony, its development, the land and its resources, and the native peoples in the region. Pory specifically noted:  “ . . . concerning the quality of the [English] people, how happy were it for our people in the Southern Colony [Virginia], if they were as free from wickedness and vice as these are in this place!” He continued by describing the palisade the Plymouth settlers had built, “stronger than I have seen any in Virginia” and noted that, “touching their correspondence with the Indians, they are friends with all their neighbors.” Further, he wrote that he had “collected a small dictionary” of words spoken by the Indian people in the Plymouth and Cape Cod areas, noting that their words were not that different from those he heard spoken by Virginia Indians.

John Smith map of Virginia showing area of the Northern Neck, where Isaac Allerton settled.  From “Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England and the Summer Isles.”  Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.

Several decades later and in reverse direction, another colonial traveler, Isaac Allerton, Jr., arrived on Virginia’s Northern Neck in about 1660.  Allerton, born in Plymouth in 1630, was the son of original Plymouth Separatist and governor’s assistant, Isaac Allerton, Sr., and his second wife, Fear Brewster, the daughter of original Plymouth colonist William Brewster. His grandfather Brewster tutored Allerton, Jr., preparing him to attend Harvard University (founded in 1636) and graduate in 1650. Allerton then worked with his father who left Plymouth in the 1630s because of financial quarrels with the Plymouth colony. The Allertons established a number of trading posts along coastal Maine, then relocated in New Haven colony in the 1640s, where they started a fishing and coastal cargo-transport business, trading with other European colonies along the North American coast and as far afield as Barbados.

Allerton, Jr., married in New Haven and had two children but following the death of his wife he relocated to Virginia around 1660, perhaps due to trading connections his father had forged there. He served as a county justice for Northumberland County, burgess for Westmoreland and Northumberland Counties, and as a member of the governor’s council of state. As member of the Virginia militia, Allerton rode with Colonel John Washington in a campaign against Maryland Indians in 1675, an event which contributed to the eruption of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. Allerton died in Westmoreland County, Va., in 1702.

So, while the Pilgrims’ story became one of America’s primary stories of English “national origin,” the original Virginia Company and some of Jamestown’s colonists played a role in Plymouth’s origins, contributing some of the same actors. The stories of both colonies, however, sadly displaced the true story of “origins” written by the first people to arrive in North America.

Nancy D. Egloff
Historian, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Selected Sources

William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, ed. Harvey Wish.  New York: Capricorn Books, 1962.

James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz, The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 2000.

Nathaniel Philbrick, The Mayflower and the Pilgrims’ New World.  New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008.

Russell M. Lawson, The Sea Mark: Captain John Smith’s Voyage to New England.  Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2015.

Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, ed. Dwight B. Heath.  Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1963.

John Smith, Complete Works of Captain John Smith, ed. Philip Barbour. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Three Visitors to Early Plymouth: Letters about the Pilgrim Settlement in New England (includes John Pory’s letters), ed. Sydney V. James, Jr. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1997.

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