Saints & Strangers: The Plymouth Colony Settlers


Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by  William Halsall  (1882)

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall (1882)

In September 1620, a merchant ship, the Mayflower, set sail from Plymouth, a port town on the southwest coast of England. It was bound for some undetermined point on the New World coast between the Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River in the then Virginia Colony. The settlement, as it developed, would not be in the Virginia Colony. Having been blown by severe storms some 400 miles off course to the North, the Mayflower landed at what is now Plymouth Massachusetts on the New England coast at the Cape Cod hook.

On board the Mayflower were 132 souls — 30 crew and 102 passengers in two classifications, “Saints” and “Strangers”. There was a small group of Protestant Separatists, they called themselves “Saints,” who intended to found a new church in the New World separate from the Church of England which they believed was as corrupt and idolatrous as the Catholic Church it had replaced. The remainder of the passengers, whom the Saints called “Strangers,” comprised a much larger group of (comparatively) secular colonists — merchants, skilled workers, indentured servants, adventurers, and several young orphans.

Samuel de Champlain 's 1605 map of Plymouth Harbor. The star marks the approximate location of the 1620 settlement

Samuel de Champlain's 1605 map of Plymouth Harbor. The star marks the approximate location of the 1620 settlement

Together they founded, on November 21, 1620, the second successful English settlement in the New World and the first to be self-governed under a document, the Mayflower Compact, written and consented to by the majority of them for their common good. Among them were 21 year old John Alden, the ship’s cooper and one of the Strangers, and 18 year old Priscilla Mullins, also a Stranger. In 1623, theirs was the third marriage in the colony. They had 10 children. Today the Alden descendants, one of whom is the webmaster of this site, is the largest group of Mayflower descendants in the country.

The Saints' Story

The Saints’ story began in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, where, between 1586 and 1605, a core group of Protestant Separatists gathered. Their beliefs and objections to the Church of England were similar to those of the Puritans. "They believed that every church congregation [had} the right to choose its own pastor and officers and [to] discipline its own members. Only the congregation could decide matters for the local church ...." But unlike the Puritans, who wanted to reform the Church from within, the Saints determined entirely to separate themselves and their religion from the Church though they nonetheless were determined to maintain their English cultural heritage.

Leiden , Holland

Leiden, Holland

By 1605, they had concluded that their differences with the Church were irreconcilable but they could not separate from the Church. To do so was unlawful and a punishable offense under the 1559 Act of Uniformity. Therefor, in 1607, they emigrated to Leiden, Holland where they found religious tolerance, for a time, but also severe culture shock. Holland’s liaise-faire, cosmopolitan life style was alarmingly seductive to the children. William Bradford,  one of the Scrooby members and later Governor of the Plymouth Colony, wrote in his journal that the young people were “drawn away by evill [sic] example into extravagance and dangerous courses.” To avoid losing their English cultural heritage to the Dutch heritage, and to evade a burgeoning religious intolerance,  the Saints determined to move again, this time to the “New World.” But first they returned to England to organize the journey and pick up more colonists.

The Voyage

Model  of a typical 400 ton 17th century English merchantman showing the cramped conditions that had to be endured.

Model of a typical 400 ton 17th century English merchantman showing the cramped conditions that had to be endured.

Detail from Mayflower & Speedwell in Dartmouth Harbor by Wilcox

Detail from Mayflower & Speedwell in Dartmouth Harbor by Wilcox

In July 1620, the Leiden Saints set sail in the 60 ton Speedwell for Southhampton. There they met the 180 ton merchantman Mayflower and the additional colonists.

On August 15th, the two ships set sail. But Speedwell began seriously leaking and the two ships docked at Dartmouth.  After repairs, they set out again but again, more than 200 miles at sea, Speedwell leaked severely and the two ships returned and docked at Plymouth. Speedwell was abandoned; the master, crew, and some of the passengers embarked on the already crowded Mayflower. Finally, on September 15th, the Mayflower sailed alone.

The Mayflower At Sea by Margeson

The Mayflower At Sea by Margeson

It was the height of the North Atlantic storm season making the journey more than miserable for the colonists. Huge waves constantly crashed against the top side deck. One Stranger was swept overboard but managed to grab a trailing halyard and was pulled back on board. The colonists were so sea sick that they could not get up. There were two deaths and one birth at sea.

On November 19th, having been blown some 400 miles off course to the North, they sighted land which was present day Cape Cod. The tried to sail south to their intended destination in the Virginia Colony but strong seas forced them back.

On November 21st, 1620, they set anchor in the harbor at Cape Cod hook and determined to found their colony there.

The Mayflower Compact

That same day some of the Strangers disputed what provisions of law governed them. Because of delays in London they had sailed without a completed Charter. Moreover, their contract with the venture’s investors was based upon a landing in the Virginia Colony. Some of the Strangers thought that the colony thus had no legal basis and they were free to do as they would. They “would use their own liberty; for none had power to command them ….” To prevent this, the Saints drew up a social contract to govern the colony.

[The colonists] chose to establish a government. The Mayflower Compact was based ... upon a majoritarian model (taking into account that women and children could not vote) .... It was in essence a social contract in which the settlers consented to follow the compact's rules and regulations for the sake of order and survival.[5] The [Saints] had lived for some years in Leiden (Netherlands). 'Just as a spiritual covenant had marked the beginning of their congregation in Leiden, a civil covenant would provide the basis for a secular government in America.'[6]

Mayflower Compact (Wikipedia)
Sect. “Reasons For The Compact”

William Bradford's transcription of the Mayflower Compact

It was voted upon and approved by a majority of the adult male colonists, Strangers included. Thus was born the Mayflower Compact.

[We] haveing undertaken, for ye glorie of god, and advancemente of ye Christian faith and honour of our king & countrie, a voyage to plant ye first colonie in ye Northerne parts of Virginia Company, doe by these presents solemnly & mutualy in ye presence of God, and one of another, covenant & combine our selves togeather into a civill body politick, for our better ordering & preservation & furtherance of ye ends aforesaid; and by vertue hearof to enacte, constitute, and frame such just & equall lawes, ordinances, Acts, constitutions, & offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete & convenient for ye generall good of ye Colonie, unto which we promise all due submission and obediance.

Mayflower Compact (New World Encyclopedia)

As a governing document, the Compact was the first of its kind. Jamestown, founded in 1607, was the first successful English colony but it was governed by the contract with the investors. In 1619, Jamestown held its First Legislative Assembly, attended by two Burgesses from each plantation. But the Assembly itself had been authorized and created by the investors in London as an amendment to the contract with the colonists, and it operated under the auspices of the colonial governor. It was devised from without not adopted from within the colony.

In a new world the Compact was a new concept, a governing secular, civil document drawn up by the people it was to govern who gave their consent, by majority vote, to be governed, and who thereby formed themselves into a civil body politic for their general welfare. This structure wasn't unfamiliar to the Saints. It was the basic ecclesiastic structure of their congregations. Only the congregation itself, not some hierarchy of  bishops, cardinals or pope, could elect its officers and govern and discipline its members. In the Compact, the Saints translated their ecclesiastic structure onto their secular, civil situation.

Many historians regard the [Compact] as the forerunner of the … Declaration of Independence and of the … Constitution. From its inception on the Mayflower, the idea of self-government based on a social contract would expand in New England town meetings and traditions of local government, and later would influence the establishment of American republican government. John Quincy Adams described the Compact as "the only instance in human history of that positive, original social compact" which he and others took to be the ‘only legitimate source for government.’

Mayflower Compact (New World Encyclopedia)


John Alden portrait

John Alden portrait

John Alden's signature

John Alden's signature

Seventh on the list of signatories was young John Alden, the 21 year old ships cooper, himself a Stranger, who determined to stay in the colony rather than return to England. Tenth to sign was one William Mullins who, with his wife, son, and 18 year old daughter Priscilla, was also a Stranger.

John Alden survived that first horrible winter in which more than 50% of the colonists died but William Mullins, his wife and his son did not, leaving Priscilla the only surviving member of her family in the New World.

In 1623, John and Priscilla married. Theirs was the third marriage in the colony.

John Alden house , built 1653

John Alden house, built 1653

John must have been an intelligent, capable, companionable man for, from his lowly position as ships cooper, he steadily rose to prominence in the colony. In 1626, he was among the group of colonists who purchased the joint-stock company from its investors in England. He was heavily involved in the company’s trading enterprise on the Kennebec River. He and several other colonists, including Myles Standish, founded the town of Duxbury. As early as 1629, John began building a house there.

In 1631, he was elected Assistant Governor. He was repeatedly reelected. Twice he served as Deputy Governor. Throughout the 1640s John served Duxbury as deputy to the Plymouth Court, served on several committees, sat on several Councils of War, and served as the colony Treasurer.

John Alden's 1687 obituary  published in a Broadside (precursor to newspapers)

John Alden's 1687 obituary published in a Broadside (precursor to newspapers)

He served on many juries including one witch-trial. The jury found the accuser guilty of libel and set the accused witch free. There were but two witch trials in Plymouth. The second ended with the same result as the first.

By the 1660s, John and Priscilla had a family of ten children. In the 1670s, he petitioned and received from the Plymouth Court several land grants which he distributed to his children.

In 1687, he died, aged 89, one of the very few remaining original Plymouth Colony settlers.

Concluding Remarks

None of the Saints and Strangers, as they embarked on the Mayflower in 1620, could have anticipated what it was they were setting in motion, could have suspected that they would, from their ecclesiastic and secular origins, frame a compact recognized nearly 400 years later as a foundation of the new order that would come to pass in the New World — democracy.

Nor could John Alden and Priscilla Mullins have anticipated that they would found a bloodline which, 10 generations later[1], would lead to one of their descendants, this webmaster, sitting before a thing called a computer, administering a thing called a website designed for genealogists intent upon tracing their origins back to such as two Strangers traveling in the company of Saints.

1 You must be logged into to access this tree. Search for JOHN Alden (first name in caps) and follow the tree forward to ANDREW Thompson, the webmaster's maternal grandfather. (Descendants whose first names are in caps are the webmaster's line.) ←Back

© 2015 Steve Alexander