What you didn’t know about the pilgrims: They had massive debt

Editor’s Note: Economics is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the pilgrims. And yet, economics played a vital role in the pilgrims’ journey overseas and their first years in New Plymouth.

For PBS NewsHour’s latest Making Sen$e segment, economics correspondent Paul Solman traveled to Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the pilgrims’ 17th century settlement in New Plymouth. There, Paul spoke with historian Richard Pickering who explained that most of the first pilgrims were originally farmers in England living in “deep privation.” Crossing the ocean was a way to escape poverty.

About 70 investors, known as merchant “adventurers,” pooled together capital and funded the passage. They expected, of course, a return on their investment. But the first brutal winter was not good for business, and nearly half the colonists died.

Below, we have an excerpt from Ruth A. McIntyre’s “Debts Hopeful and Desperate: Financing the Plymoth Colony.” It is the Plimoth Plantation’s guidebook to colonial business and economics. We pick up with the pilgrims right after their first winter in New Plymouth as they struggle to pay back their debts. The text has been lightly edited for clarity. For more on the topic, tune into tonight’s Making Sen$e on the PBS NewsHour.

Kristen Doerer, Making Sen$e Editor

New Plymouth struggles with hardship and debt

A successful relationship with the partners in England now lay at the heart of the welfare of the infant colony. Even though some of the London businessmen sympathized with the religious aims of the Pilgrims, they expected the investment of their capital to yield a return and rather quickly. Promotion of colonial ventures was new and risky. Thomas Weston and the later leaders of the merchant adventurers had not learned from the bitter experience of the large, incorporated Virginia Company that a long time must elapse before any profit could be expected from a colonial undertaking. They failed to calculate that even if the colonists engaged promptly in trading furs or catching fish, their initial task must be to build permanent dwellings and to feed themselves and a fair number of women and children.

But they knew that ships set forth annually by merchants had fished along the New England coast for several years. These usually erected fishing stages and sometimes traded for furs. They required only a modest outlay by the investors in them and would up their accounts at the end of each voyage. It was much more costly, on the other hand, to uphold a permanent settlement until it was self-sustaining. When even the wealthy backers of Virginia and Bermuda complained about delayed profits, the small group of capitalists supporting the Pilgrims certainly could not afford to sink large funds for supplies year after year without receiving goods in return. At the beginning they apparently underestimated the extent of their task and seem to have neglected consistently the necessary provision for the Plymouth colony.

The urgency of sending returns to these investors pressed on the Pilgrims from the start. When the Mayflower sailed home in 1621 without a profitable lading, Weston wrote a sharp criticism to the Governor. He had been informed about how the high death rate and short supplies had weakened the colony during the first dreadful winter, yet he charged the settlers with greater “weakness of judgment than weakness of hands. A quarter of the time you spend in discoursing, arguing and consulting would have done much more … The life of the business depends upon the lading of this ship, which if you do to any good purpose, that I may be freed from the great sums I have disbursed for the former and must do for the latter [the Fortune], I promise you I will never quit the business.”

Robert Cushman, the business agent in England, brought this rebuke form the partners in November 1621. He came in the Fortune to inspect the colony briefly and to persuade the colonists to agree to the conditions the adventurers had insisted on. He returned at once to report his findings. Cushman, George Morton, William Bradford and Edward Winslow compiled a little tract to encourage the investors about the colony’s progress. Although a bit rosy in coloring, it relates what Cushman found.

New Plymouth was situated on a good harbor with plenty of fish and woods close at hand. The settlers had built a fort at the top of the hill and common storehouses containing the first harvest, the colony’s precious arsenal and supplies from England. In the small, sturdy, farmhouses with roofs of thatch, scattered along the street running up the hill, lived the survivors of the first winter’s illness and privation. Their Indian friends, Squanto and Samoset, had helped them conciliate the neighboring Indians and begin trade with them.

Yet an undercurrent of discontent and friction disturbed the settlers. The system of sharing equally in all the arduous labor and what it produced was one source of unrest. Upon the unloading of 35 newcomers sent in the Fortune without proper clothing or “so much as a biscuit-cake or any other victuals,” the most stouthearted had a right to murmur at the addition of extra consumers before another crop could be harvested.

A gap persisted between the Leyden immigrants and religious exiles, who had ventured their persons and savings, and the London contingent, some of them merely hirelings of the company. Bradford himself wrote Weston about being “yoked with some ill-conditioned people who will never do good.”

Since these strains threatened the successful execution of the conditions with the London backers, which he had just persuaded the Pilgrims to sign, Cushman preached a sermon the Sunday before he left on the text, “Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth” (I Corinthians 10:24). Urging his hearers not to labor for self-love or self-profit, he said: “Let there be no prodigal person to come forth and say, Give me the portion of lands and good that appertaineth to me, and let me shift for myself.” No one must think of gathering riches for himself until “our loving friends, which helped us hither, and now again supplied us,” were paid off.

Certainly the leaders of the colony had not been unmindful of their responsibilities of the adventurers. Cushman’s ship was freighted with good clapboard and two hogshead of beaver and otter, a return cargo they judged worth £500. Bad luck assailed them, however, in the first of a series of disasters. A French privateer seized the vessel on its way home and pillaged the returns they had collected with so much effort.

Even so, it is hard for us to understand why the Pilgrims were forced to endure such bitter hardship, indeed, at times, virtual starvation, for a period of about two years after the Fortune’s visit. They were continually disappointed at the failure to receive replenishment of their scanty provisions, yet they had to share with newcomers whose arrival they did not expect. The explanation for these harsh circumstances is to be found not so much in the colony as among the partners in England.