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Financing & Building the Colony

"I make no question now but that New Plymouth will quickly return your money again. For the most part they are honest and careful men. However, they have had many crosses."

- Emmanuel Altham, 1624

The Mayflower passengers went heavily into debt to come to America, borrowing from a group of English "merchant adventurers." Merchants and passengers together formed a stock company, which held all money, livestock and land. Assets were to be divided after seven years.

The Pilgrims were unlucky in their moneymaking efforts. Ships were lost at sea or captured by pirates. The Pilgrims had to ask for even more money for supplies.

The debt, which quickly became much larger, was renegotiated in 1626. Eight colonists, with four London associates, undertook to repay an agreed portion; these "undertakers" shared the debt with 45 Plymouth householders.

"Therefore they resolved, for sundrie reasons, to take in all amongst them, that were either heads of families, or single yonge men, that were of abillity, and free, (and able to governe them selvs with meete descretion, and their affairs, so as to be helpful in ye comone-welth,) into this partnership or purchass. First, yey considered that they had need of men & strength both for defence and carrying on of bussinesses. 2ly, most of them had borne ther parts in former miseries & wants with them, and therfore (in some sort) but equall to partake in a better condition, if ye Lord be pleased to give it. But cheefly they saw not how peace would be preserved without so doing, but danger & great disturbance might grow to their great hurte & prejudice other wise. Yet they resolved to keep such a mean in distribution of lands, and other courses, as should not hinder their growth in others coming to them.
"So they caled ye company togeather, and conferred with them, and came to this conclusion, that ye trade should be managed as before, to help to pay the debts; and all such persons as were above named should be reputed and inrouled for purchasers; single free men to have a single share, and every father of a familie to be alowed to purchass so many shares as he had persons in his family; that is to say, one for him selfe, and one for his wife, and for every child that he had living with him, one. As for servants, they had none, but what either their maisters should give them out of theirs, or their deservings should obtaine from ye company afterwards. Thus all were to be cast into single shares according to the order abovesaid; and so every one was to pay his part according to his proportion towards ye purchass, & all other debts, what ye profite of ye trade would not reach too; viz. a single man for a single share, a maister of a famalie for so many as he had. This gave all good contente."

- William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation

Plymouth Colony was not a success for the investors. The colonists eventually repaid 1800 pounds; the total invested may have been as high as 7000 pounds.


Constance Hopkins' beaver hat

In order to pay off their debts, the Plymouth colonists grew corn and traded it to Natives in Maine for furs. The furs were shipped to England and sold at auction to hatters. The hatters shaved the wool off the pelt and then felted the wool to produce fashionable and expensive hats such as this. High-crowned hats, usually with decorative bands, were very popular in Western Europe for both men and women.
This particular hat found its way back to Plymouth. It was owned by Constance Hopkins Snow, who voyaged on the Mayflower as a young teenager.
Click here to read more about the Pilgrims and the fur trade.

The Pilgrims' primary trading partner was England. They did not, however, do business with England exclusively. In 1627, Dutch colonists from New Amsterdam first visited the Pilgrims to arrange trade relations.

The Plymouth colonists also traded with other English colonies. In 1630. a thousand Puritans came from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony north of Plymouth and founded Boston. People from Plymouth Colony traded with the new arrivals, who needed cattle and finished goods.

PILGRIM HOUSES

"They arrived safe in this harbor... [and] began to erect the first house for common use to receive them and their goods."

- William Bradford

Building shelters was a top priority for the Pilgrims. By late 1621, there were seven dwellings and four storehouses. By 1623, when additional ships had brought more settlers, the Colony had twenty houses.

The earliest houses were probably "earthfast," with wooden corner posts sunk directly into the ground, and not built on stone foundations.

The Pilgrims used traditional English building methods. They found plentiful supplies of oak, pine and walnut. Builders constructed massive oak frames connected by mortise and tenon joints and fastened with wooden pins called "treenails." After the pieces were fitted together, the house frame was raised. Men filled the frame with woven wooden "wattle," and women and children covered it with clay "daub," before adding exterior boards for weather protection.

PILGRIM POSSESSIONS

During the Colony’s first few years, all goods except the simplest were imported from England. England provided cloth, shoes, weapons, ceramics, metal and other finished goods. In payment, the colonists sent furs, obtained through trade with the Natives, along with lumber and other natural resources to England.

How do we know what the Pilgrims owned? Probate inventories were taken at the time of a person’s death to calculate the value of their estate. (Visit “Beyond the Pilgrim Story” for links to several inventories.) Most of the possessions listed are typical of what they might have had in England. The influence of their new home, however, can be seen. A few American items appear, such as "Indian corn," "Indian baskets," "Indian trays," and wampum, shell beads which the Natives valued and the colonists used as money to trade with them.


Wooden burl bowl, made in New England, 1630-1750

Once trained craftsmen moved to Plymouth, the colonists produced their own furniture. Local styles of furniture making began to develop. By the second generation, Plymouth furniture had a distinct character. Applied decorative turnings, such as those on the Alden cupboard and Standish chest, are typical of furniture made in this area.

Chairs, chests and cupboards represent one of the earliest traditions of craftsmanship in British North America. They were objects of status, treasured by later generations.


Alden joined cupboard, 1650-1700

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