Two Colonies

Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Plymouth Colony

November 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the subsequent founding of the colony at Plymouth in December. So, it is interesting to ponder the relationship between the Massachu- setts Bay Colony under the governorship of John Endecott and the “other” colony that existed in Massachusetts at the same time, indeed the one that “got there first.” Did these two colonies get along? How did they influence each other? Why was it that in 1691 Massachusetts ab- sorbed Plymouth and not the other way round, and yet the Mayflower has be- come the iconic image of Puritan Ameri- ca, along with its Plymouth Rock and Thanksgiving? What’s John Endecott’s role in all of this?

Endecott’s Letter

The two colonies got along well, as evidenced by a letter that Massachusetts Bay Governor John Endecott sent to Plymouth Governor William Bradford and which Bradford thought important enough to place in his journal Of Plimoth Plantation (see box on page 2). The letter thanks Bradford for sending Massachu-A portrait of Gov. John Endecott, published by Endicott & Co., Lithographers, in 1843. setts a doctor, a Mr. Fuller, to attend to sick persons in Massachusetts Bay. In the letter John also expresses much good will toward Bradford and his flock:

Before we delve further into the relationship between these two colonies, here is some necessary background.


Many people confuse the terms Puritan and Pilgrim, so here’s an explanation. The settlers in both Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth were what we’d call Puritans today. But the Puritans didn’t call themselves Puritans. They used such names as "the godly," "saints," "professors," or "God's children.” That’s be- cause in the 17th century, “Puritan” had an edgy, extremist, pejorative tone to it. Similarly, the “Pilgrims” didn’t call them- selves Pilgrims. They used the other names mentioned above.

Governor Bradford did use the term Pilgrim in Of Plimoth Plantation, when he describes his flock leaving Leiden in the Netherlands: So they lefte that goodly & pleasante citie, which had been ther resting place, nere 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on these things; but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits. But the term “Pilgrims” was not commonly applied to the Plymouth colonists until about 1798. However, US Senator (and famous orator) Daniel Webster repeatedly used it in ad- dresses he gave in 1820, marking the 200th anniversary of the Mayflower landing. At that point, the term really caught on.

Two Kinds of Puritans

The Plymouth colonists were “separatists,” whereas John Endecott’s Puritans were “non-separating Puritans.” In those days, there was no separation of church and state. Ever since the days of Henry VIII, the ruling monarch of England has also been the head of the Church of England (Anglican Church). To be in the king’s good graces, you had to be a member of his church. To reject the Anglican Church would be like rejecting the king himself. Like John Endecott and the founders of Massachusetts Bay, the founders of the Plymouth Colony were Puritans. Both groups felt that the Church of England had not differentiated itself sufficiently from the Catholic Church and thus needed to be reformed. But the Plymouth founders were Separatists: they felt that the Church of England was so far gone that they would just separate from it entirely and create their own re- formed community. John Endecott and the founders of Massachusetts Bay, by contrast, were “non-separating” Puritans who said they would remain within the Church of England and try to reform it from within. While this was a crucial difference in the king’s eyes, there were only a few significant differences between the Massachusetts colonists and the Plymouth colonists.

Because they were Separatists, the Plymouth founders went first to the Netherlands for 10 years. However, a 12-year truce between the Netherlands and Spain was to expire in 1621. Facing the prospect of war against Spain, followed by persecution by the Spanish Inquisition if the Netherlands lost, the Separatists decided to go to America. But the best legal basis for going depended on getting a charter from the King, and that depended on religion.

Plymouth Had No Royal Charter

One reason Massachusetts Bay became the “senior partner” in New England was because it had a formal charter from the King of England and Plymouth did not. A royal charter gave a colony the legal right to settle an area and establish local law there. A land patent only granted land to a colony but didn’t give permission to establish local law there. Not only did the Plymouth Colony not have a royal charter, it didn’t even have a proper patent. When the Plymouth founders came to America they had a patent to settle land in Virginia. But they got blown off course and ended up on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, where they had neither a charter nor a patent to settle. So, they made up their own social contract, the Mayflower Compact, that would establish a local government and require the Plymouth colonists to abide by the law of this government until they could obtain a new patent––and a charter. The compact is one of the first examples of a colony governing itself and thus many consider it to be the beginning of American democracy.

The Plymouth founders knew that not having a charter could cause legal problems for them, so they tried repeatedly to obtain one but they never succeeded. Nevertheless, the Plymouth colony still operated as though it had a charter government. In a charter government the legis- lature was run by a governor, council, and assembly, which were all chosen by the people of the colony. A charter govern- ment was also allowed to enact its own laws but the laws were not allowed to contradict the laws of England.

Bottom line: the Plymouth Colony was a bit of a renegade, and thus of concern to the Crown. But with 3,100 miles of ocean between them and the Crown, plus the later English Civil War taking England’s attention, and Plymouth getting along fine with the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay, all these things allowed the Plymouth Colony many years of independent rule.

Endecott and the Royal Charter

When John Endecott came to New England in 1628, he was essentially the leader of a trading company that had a patent for "The New England Company for a Plantation in Massachu- setts Bay.” He did not have a royal charter to establish a colo- ny. This was quickly rectified, however. In 1629, the New Eng- land Company reorganized back in England and applied for and quickly received a royal charter, which was then brought over to John Endecott. The charter said it was for “Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England.” Fortunately, the charter neglected to say that the company had to remain in England to conduct its business. In August of 1629, the shareholders decided that individuals who planned to emigrate to Massachusetts would buy up the shares of the shareholders who intended to remain in England. This deci- sion, known as the Cambridge Agreement, established that the Massachusetts Bay Colony would be self-governing, answerable only to the English Crown.

Thus, both the Plymouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Colony created a mechanism for self-government in the New World. This self-government was disrupted when the crown revoked the royal charter in 1691 and merged the two colonies. However, self-government was reinstated a century later, as a result of the American Revolution.

Population Growth

In 1630, when John Winthrop came over as the new Governor of Massachusetts Bay, it started the “Great Puritan Migration.” Most of these migrants went to Massachusetts, although some went to the three Puritan colonies in Connecticut and the one in Rhode Island, and some went to Plymouth. This caused Massachusetts to grow more quickly than Plymouth. Massachusetts had far more settlers than Plymouth did. For example, in the 1600s, Plymouth never had more than about 3,000 souls. But by 1640, Massachusetts had 8,900; and by 1660, it had 20,000. By 1680, not too long before Plymouth was merged with it, Massachusetts had 39,800 more than 10 times the size of Plymouth.

Class Differences

Yet another reason for Massachusetts’s pre-eminence was class. The Plymouth settlers were artisans and farmers, where- as many of the Massachusetts leaders were graduates of Cambridge University and trained ministers or lawyers who were well off financially and could afford to buy the things their colony needed. At least one of them, Sir Richard Saltonstall, was a British knight.

Governor John Winthrop was born into a wealthy landowning and merchant family. John Endecott was born into a wealthy family that owned a tin mine.

With this background, now let us turn to how Massachusetts and Plymouth influenced each other, in the areas of reli- gion, government, and mutual defense.

A More Tolerant Puritanism

You might think that because they were Separatists, the Plym- outh colony might be the most radical of the Puritans in the New World. Actually, the opposite was true; they were among the least radical and most tolerant. As we’ve seen in the above letter from John Endecott to William Bradford, there was a strong enough friendship between the two groups that when a church officially an Anglican church was organized at Governor John Endecott’s Salem in 1629, Governor Bradford and some other Plymouth settlers made a trip to Salem to “extend the right hand of fellowship, wishing all prosperity and a blessed success unto such good beginnings. ”In addition to this expression of fellowship, Plymouth residents would worship alongside members of the Church of England in Massachusetts. This was because of the more relaxed views of William Brewster, the religious leader of the Plymouth colony.


With the Mayflower Compact, the Plymouth colonists agreed on their own to a form of participatory democracy that would not be practiced in England for several centuries.

New Haven

In 1643, the colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven created a military alliance called the New England Confederation. 4 Vol. 13, No. 1 | Winter 2020 Our Endicott Heritage Trail®—John Endecott Family Association Newsletter | Although Plymouth leaders such as Governor Bradford envisioned something akin to a theocratic state, as did John Endecott in Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth had a large non- separatist population; and this prevented Plymouth from fully implementing the church-state idea to the extent it was im- plemented in Massachusetts Bay. As a result, Plymouth had a reputation for having a less rigid and more moderate form of government than Massa- chusetts Bay did, although Plymouth never exhibited the tol- eration that Rhode Island did. Neverthtless, politics and government were important in Plymouth. Within the towns, it was impossible to avoid po- litical involvement. Even for the small minority who did not fill a government position, attendance at town meetings was made virtually obligatory by assessing fines for absence. The vast majority not only voted, they also served. Because of the lack of trained bureaucrats in Plymouth, local citizens filled local offices and provided services to the town’s citizens. Some men were apparently good at it and served repeatedly. Others were not so good at it and served less often. But whether the obligation was to repair the roads, decide a lawsuit, collect taxes, or be a Deputy, Plym- outh men did what was required. Government and politics in seventeenth-century Plymouth was a participatory system in the best sense of the term.


There were some important similarities and differences in laws between the two colonies. To vote in Plymouth, you only had to be a freeman. This originally meant a stockholder in the joint-stock company that financed the colony. Howev- er, it eventually came to mean any man who had been given voting rights in his town. (Women and servants were not eli- gible for freeman status.) To vote in Massachusetts Bay, a man also had to be a full member of the Congregational Church. To achieve this status, he had to make a public affirmation of faith and be accepted into membership by a vote of the congregation.


Both Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay abandoned the English tradition of primogeniture, under which most of an estate would pass to the eldest son, leaving practically nothing for younger sons or for daughters. Instead, both colonies adopted partible inheritance, which meant that lands would be distributed evenly among the sons (although the eldest would get a double share). This system, which was derived from Mosaic law found in the Old Testament, seemed more equita- ble to the settlers. The criminal code in Plymouth was quite mild for the day, when compared to that of England or Massachusetts Bay. In Plymouth, there was a law against witchcraft; but no one was convicted under it in Plymouth. Plymouth colony fined, whipped, and banished people for being Quakers, but re- frained from executing then. Endicott and the Red Cross, an 1851 painting by William Allen Wall. Gov. Endecott ordered the red cross, which he regarded as a sign of the Pope, to be removed from a militia flag. There were no lawyers in Plymouth until 1671. In contrast, many of the leaders of Massachusetts Bay were lawyers or at least knowledgeable about the law, and they adopted the legal principles of English law. As a result, the leaders of the Plymouth colony sought advice from Massachusetts about legal matters and were happy to follow it. (This was true of all the other Puritan colonies; they followed Massachusetts by copying almost word for word the laws of Massachusetts.) While towns were organized the same way in Plymouth as in Massachusetts Bay, Massachusetts Bay was far ahead in supporting public schools, something that John Endecott per- sonally worked hard to promote, primarily so that people could read the Bible on their own.

The New England Confederation

In May 1643, the Puritan colonies in New England (Massachu- setts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven) formed a military alliance called the New England Confederation. For a time, John Endecott was one of its commissioners, represent- ing Massachusetts Bay. The commissioners met in Boston and adopted articles of confederation. The purposes of the league were coordination of defense, the settlement of boundary disputes, and the return of runaway servants. Each colony would manage its own internal affairs.

One could say it was American colonists’ first experiment with a federation. Its chief weaknesses lay in the inability of the commissioners to do much more than advise in the petty rivalries among the colonies. Massachusetts Bay, having by far the largest population, had to furnish more fighting men and taxes than any other colony and felt aggrieved at not having more power in the confederation. In 1653, Massachusetts Bay flatly refused to undertake the war against the Dutch that the confederation planned. The activities of the Confederation gradually declined; but then the Confederation was revived between 1675 and 1676 to undertake its most important task, completely breaking the power of the Indians in King Phillip’s War. The New England Confederation was dissolved in 1684, with the revocation of the Massachusetts charter.

Takeover by the British Crown

A major result of King Phillip’s War (1675-1676) was that the colonists all by themselves eliminated the Indian threat to New England. This caused Britain to take new interest in these colonies because they had proven that they were now here to stay, which wasn’t as certain up to that point. So Britain now sought to exploit them financially more. Before that, Britain had more interest in colonies like Barbados. As a result, in 1684 King Charles II revoked the royal charter; and in 1691, King William II and Queen Mary II decided to govern New England more directly, combined Massachusetts

Bay and Plymouth, and appointed a royal governor to run it, wiping out 70 years of self-government. WiIliam and Mary also allowed non-Puritans to settle in Massachusetts and to have their religion protected, thus eroding Puritanism even more.

Plymouth’s Softer Image Prevails

Massachusetts Bay was by far the senior partner in colonial New England. Then how is it that to the extent anyone thinks of American Puritans at all today, the images they think of are the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, and Thanksgiving? It is due to several factors, including the following:

Waning of Puritan Fanaticism

By the end of the 1600s, the first generation of New England Puritans had died out and been replaced by successive generations who were less fanatical and more interested in com- merce than in religion. You see this in the Endicott family. John Endecott’s grandson (the fifth son of Zerubbabel), Joseph En- dicott (1672-1747), married a Quaker (which would have been anathema to the Puritans of both Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth) and moved in 1706 to New Jersey, where there was better farming. Furthermore, by the 1800s there were famous literary works like Nathanial Hawthorne’s Endicott and the Red Cross; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s play John Endicott; and John Greenleaf Whittier’s ballad The King’s Missive — all portraying Massachusetts Bay Puritans like John Endecott negatively.

Daniel Webster

As a US Senator, Daniel Webster was a most imposing figure, “a swarthy Olympian with a craggy face, and eyes that seemed to glow like dull coals under a precipice of brows.” Indeed, as one wag once said “No man was ever as great as Daniel Web- ster looked!” Webster was a great orator, making many famous speech- es extolling the virtues of the Union. In 1830, in perhaps the most famous speech ever delivered in the US Senate, in deal- ing with North-South differences over slavery, Webster trum- peted: “Liberty and Union, one and inseparable, now and for- ever!” Webster was concerned about the future of the Union and looked to the nation’s past for guidance, to the deeds of his forefathers and often spoke about them. On December 22, 1820, on the 200th anniversary of the Plymouth landing, Web- ster immortalized the Pilgrims in a speech (see box). After a speech like that, no wonder Americans had such a favorable opinion of the Plymouth Pilgrims! By 1832, Webster had bought an estate in Marshfield, Mas- sachusetts, which had been part of the Plymouth colony. In 1845, he summed up his feelings about the past: It is wise for us to recur to the history of our ancestors. Those who do not look upon themselves as a link connecting the Past with the Future do not perform their duty to the world.

Thanksgiving Day

The national Thanksgiving Day holiday is an annual reminder of the Plymouth Pilgrims; the Massachusetts Bay colony had nothing like it. According to eyewitness Edward Winslow, the original Thanksgiving celebration was in October 1621. (The exact date is not certain, but historians now believe it was sometime between September and November.) Winslow said it lasted three days and was attended by 90 Indians and 53 Pilgrims. The Pilgrims had another such celebration in 1623. The first national proclamation of a day of thanksgiving was made in 1777 by the Continental Congress, which set aside December 17 for it. This led to the Continental- Confederation Congress, the legislative body that governed the United States from 1774 to 1789, to proclaim several "national days of prayer, humiliation, and thanksgiving." On October 3, 1789, President George Washington made a proclamation recommending that the people of the United States should hold a day of public thanksgiving on November 26. This was a day after Evacuation Day (November 25), the anniversary of the day that the British left New York at the end of the Revolutionary War. Later presidents issued proclama- tions of a thanksgiving day on various dates. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a great national Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November, 1863. Since 1942, Thanksgiving Day has been celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

Father of New England

In sum, the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies had good relations with each other and positively influenced each other, and both established forms of self-government. Thus, they laid the groundwork for the creation of democratic gov- ernment of the United States more than a century later, a form of government that became the envy of the world. Because Massachusetts Bay was the senior partner in the New England colonies, whoever led Massachusetts Bay would be the most important person in New England. And because John Endecott served as Massachusetts’ Governor longer than anyone else, he was that person. This and other reasons have caused some people, such as the scholar, columnist, and diarist William Bentley to say “Above all others, he deserves the name of the father of New England.” Similarly, Joseph B. Felt (1789-1869), who was born in Salem and was arguably Salem’s first professional historian, also called John Endecott “The father of New England.” But in one of history’s great ironies, there was a reversal of roles, with the Pilgrims taking over the dominant role in public memory of the colonial period. For various reasons, the softer, more benign image of the Pilgrims began to supersede that of the harsher image of the Massachusetts Puritans and John Endecott.