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Glossary & Notes on Plymouth Colony

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To stand to the adventure of - to take a risk and its consequences, to speculate.

Hatherley sold a heifer to John Barnes, but would winter the animal for Barnes, at his proper costs and charges, "the said John standing to the adventure of the beast" (PCR 1:9).


People putting themselves or their capital at risk, hoping for gain. In 1620 Thomas Weston of London, England, headed a company of merchant adventurers that had existed for about ten years and was searching for investment opportunities. After an initial agreement discussed with the settlers, John Carver and Robert Cushman, acting as agents for the settlers, later agreed that they and the adventurers would have joint ownership of everything when they settled in the New World for seven years, lands, houses, gardens, as well as share all profits and benefits. Going further than his original discussions, Weston at this point would not agree to underwrite the settlement on any other basis, but by accepting an amended contract, Carver and Cushman exceeded the instructions of the settlers who wished to own their own houses, land and gardens. The majority of settlers refused to sign the contract as it altered the original agreement with Weston. Weston then refused to continue any further payments towards their settlement in America, and the Mayflower sailed without any assurance that there would be further financial backing from the merchant adventurers (Langdon 1966: 9-11).


To be punished by imposition of a fine or special tax.


Every March the freemen, through the General Court, appointed a Governor and seven Assistants "to rule & govern . . . for one whole year & no more" (PCR 11:7). The Assistants were advisors to the Governor and had to give their "best advise both in publicke court and private Councell with the Gour for the good of the seuerall Townships and plantations" within the limits of the Government. One of the Assistants was appointed Treasurer, one as Clerk of the Court, and one as Coroner. In the absence of the Governor from the Colony one of the Assistants was appointed Acting Governor. The Assistants were in fact magistrates, or justices of the peace, civil officers empowered to administer the law in so far as lower level crimes were concerned.


-- see English Government

Court of Assistants, or "Counsell" to the Governor

Comprised of the Governor and seven assistants who were appointed annually by the General Court. The Court met at Plymouth every first Tuesday in the month except when the General Court was held, when it would meet the day before it. Until 1640 the Court of Assistants had a lot of power as the majority of persons elected were "Purchasers" (q.v.) and they controlled the distribution of land. As the number of freemen increased there was growing concern that too much power was being exercised by the Governor and Assistants in this regard, and in March 1638-1639 the Grand Jury required of the Governor and Assistants that they show them their authority to distribute land (PCR 1: 119). In 1640 the Purchasers relinquished their authority and gave the land patent to the Colony, but reserved a number of tracts of land for themselves (PCR 11: 34-35).

The Court of Assistants could try cases where a jury was not required, and the Governor and only two of the Assistants could decide "triviall cases" involving amounts of less than forty shillings, and "offences of smale nature" (PCR 11: 12). The Governor and the majority of Assistants, however, had to be present to try "matters of waight" (PCR 11: 41). Capital cases had to be tried by the General Court, with the Governor and Assistants serving as judicial officers, and freemen as the jury (Fennell 1998: 17).


Freemen who were elected by freemen and also by non-freemen who were taxpayers and who had sworn allegiance to the Colony, to represent the towns at the General Court. Instituted by 1638.

English Government, 17th- & early 18th-century

  • Stuarts
    The ruling family of Scotland 1371-1603, and of England and Scotland 1603-1714, except during the Commonwealth 1649-1660.
    • James I, King of England, 1603-1625; as James VI, King of Scotland, 1567-1625. Son of Mary, Queen of Scots
    • Charles I, born Charles Stuart, King of England, Scotland & Ireland, 1625-1649; beheaded.
    • Charles II, King of England, Scotland & Ireland, 1660-1685
    • James II, King of England & (as James VII) King of Scotland, 1685-1688; deposed. Son of Charles I.
    • Mary II, Queen of England, Scotland & Ireland, 1689-1702. Daughter of James II. Ruled jointly with her husband , William III, (William of Orange, stadholder (Chief Magistrate) of the 16th to 17th century Netherlands Republic)
    • Anne, Queen of Great Britain & Ireland, 1702-14. Last of the Stuart monarchs.
  • Commonwealth
    The government of England under the Cromwells and Parliament from 1649 to 1660.
  • Protectorate
    The government of England under the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell from 1653 to 1658, and his son Richard, who held the same office from 1658-1659.
  • Restoration
    The period of re-establishment of the monarchy in 1660 under Charles II.


A term which designated citizenship of the Colony, which was restricted to adult males. A freeman possessed the right to vote for the Governor and Assistants and the right to hold office. The laws did not provide any statutory requirement for freemanship, although the oath of allegiance to the Colony required indicated what was expected of those admitted (PCR 11: 156). To be admitted as a freeman appeared only to require approval by the freemen of the town where the person lived before their name could be presented to the General Court of Freemen for approval (PCR 11: 65; 236). Initially all stockholders in the joint-stock company that financed the Colony were freemen, but not all freemen were stockholders. (Fennell 1998: 7). Land ownership did not appear to be a requirement, although freemen may have been granted more land than non-freemen (Langdon 1966: 39n). Legislation could only be approved by the freemen who constituted the General Court, and consequently there were heavy fines imposed on freemen who did not attend the General Court sessions on a regular basis, and towns also imposed fines on freemen who did not attend town meetings. By 1638 the freemen, through the General Court, had passed legislation which allowed them to elect "deputies", representatives who could attend the sessions of the General Court for each town. Only freemen could hold the office of deputies, but the 1638 legislation allowed non-freemen who paid taxes to vote for candidates for deputy. Despite this, all freemen had to attend the election court held in June unless prevented by reason of age or any urgent business when they could vote by proxy; in any other case of default a fine of 10s was imposed (PCR 11: 157).

If accused of a crime, a freeman not only had the right to be tried by a jury of twelve men, but could also challenge who served on it if he thought his best interests would not be served, without having to give a reason for this "peremptory" challenge (Fennell 1998: 10).

Women and servants were not eligible for freeman status, nor were Quakers. From 1658 a freeman who became a Quaker would lose his status as a freeman, as would any freeman who aided Quakers, as would those convicted of lying, drunkenness or swearing (PCR 11: 177). Only freemen could serve as jurors, and for a capital case to proceed against a freeman, there had to be at least two witnesses against the defendant. It is probable that unmarried men over twenty-one who continued to live in their parental home were not eligible to become freemen. (Based on the Laws as set out in PCR 11, Langdon 1966 and Fennell 1998.)

General Court

Comprised of freemen, it exercised both legislative and judicial functions. It was presided over by the Governor, who was elected by the General Court. All legislation required the vote and approval of the freemen, and acts of legislation could not be passed by the government officers alone. The power of the General Court increased, as can be seen in 1639 when they removed from the Governor and Assistants the power they had exercised in allocating and granting land to settlers, and again in 1646 when the role of the Governor and Assistants was limited to judicial concerns when sitting as a court. Cases of capital crimes were tried by the General Court, the Governor and Assistants serving as judicial officers and freemen as the jury. (Fennell 1998: 10-11).


The Governor and seven Assistants were elected by the General Court for an annual term in March each year. The Governor's position was influential, despite the power of the General Court. He had the authority to summon the General Court into special sessions, presided over the Court when it was in session, and he cast the deciding vote in the event of a tie. He also possessed the authority of a judicial officer, and the powers to arrest and commit persons to jail. (Fennell 1998)


  • John Carver died April 1621.
  • William Bradford 1621-1632 (11 years)
  • Edward Winslow 1633
  • Thomas Prence 1634
  • Edward Winslow 1635-1636
  • William Bradford 1637
  • Thomas Prence 1638
  • William Bradford 1639-1643 (4 years)
  • Edward Winslow 1644
  • William Bradford 1645-1657 (12 years) Died in office.
  • Thomas Prence 1657-1673 (16 years) Died in office.
  • Josiah Winslow 1673-1680 (9 years) Died in office, 23 December 1680.
  • Thomas Hinckley 1681-1691

Grand Enquest (Great Quest, Inquest or Grand Inquest)

see Grand Jury

Grand Jury

Composed of freemen in good standing from the different townships, members of the Grand Jury were "pannelled", or selected and appointed, by the Governor and Assistants for an annual term of office, to hear charges made on oath of suspected criminal conduct by persons living in the Colony, but there had to be two witnesses or "concuring" circumstances before anyone could be convicted (PCR 11: 11, 90, 167-68). The Grand Jury would issue a "presentment" to the General Court (a statement on oath by a jury of fact within their knowledge) if it believed it had evidence that someone could be tried for a crime. If the crime was capital, the accused had to be sentenced by the General Court; lesser offences could be decided by the Court of Assistants. Jurors were paid 2s 6d a day while in Court, if the case continued beyond one day, 6d a day, and the foreman 12d. Jurors were not paid for their attendance at the annual election Courts.

The office was an important one. Refusal to serve on the Grant Jury meant a fine of 10s for each Court missed during the year of office, or 40s if a juror refused to attend any meetings at all during the year, unless there was convincing reason for his absence (PCR 11: 169).

L or li

British pound(s) sterling, now usually written as .

xxijli = 22

Letters of Administration

After the death of a person, their will and an inventory of their possessions had to be proved by the Governor and Assistants at the next Court after their death, provided it was not in the same month that they died. Letters of administration would then be granted to the executor so that the estate could settled. If someone did not make a will, they died intestate, and after an inventory of their possessions had been taken, the Court gave legal authority to someone, usually the wife, husband or close relative, through letters of administration, to settle the estate (PCR 11: 195).


A plot of land which had been staked out as belonging to someone (Stratton 1986: 220).

New Style and Old Style Dating

The Plymouth Colony Records were written in the seventeenth century when the Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, was the method of computing time followed by England. There were 365 days to the year, every fourth having 366 days. Due to errors in computation, in which one day extra every 128 years had been accumulated, in March 1582 Pope Gregory XIII had corrected the Julian calendar, adding ten days to it, reckoning October 5 1582 to be October 15, and introducing in a new system which became known as the Gregorian calendar, which is used today by western countries. The New Style, as it is called, was adopted by most Catholic countries, and some Protestant from 1 January 1583, but England and her dependencies did not adopt the new calendar until 1 January 1752, 169 years later. In England from the twelfth century the ecclesiastical year had commenced on March 25 (Conception Day), and from the fourteenth century civilians had also adopted March 25 as the start of the civil and legal year, and this mode of expressing dates is known as the Old Style, as opposed to the New Style

The editors of the published Plymouth Colony Records introduced marginal double dates for events which took place between 1 January and 24 March inclusive, to make it quite clear as to the civil or historical year in which something took place. For example, the General Court held historically at Plymouth on 7 March 1637 is written as 1636-7. 1636 indicates the legal year in which the Court was held, and 1637 is the historical year in which it took place.

As March was the first month of the English ecclesiastical, civil and legal year, it was sometimes called that, "First Month". January and February were Eleventh Month and Twelfth Month. January 1636-37 was the Eleventh Month of the legal year of 1636-37, but the following March was First Month of 1637-38, and the third month of the historical year of 1638.

Legal year Historical Double-date
1636 Eleventh month January 1637 1636-37
Twelfth February 1636-37
First March 1-24 1636-37
1637 March 25-31 Only used in months 11-1/24
Second April
Third May
Fourth June
Fifth July
Sixth August
Seventh September
Eighth October
Ninth November
Tenth December
1637 Eleventh month January 1638 1637-38
Twelfth February 1637-38
First March 1-24 1637-38
1638 March 25-31

Noble, a

An English gold coin, first minted by Edward III (1327-77), having the current value of 6s 8d (or 10s). Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

"Not convenient"

Not fitting or proper (Stratton 1986: 220).

Numerals, Roman

  • iij = 3
  • xiij = 13. Read the 'j' as a numeral '1'.
  • M = 1000
  • D = 500
  • C = 100
  • L = 50
  • X to the left of L = 10 less than, so MDCXL reads 1640
  • Li or li = English sterling, . Often written as xlli, which should be read as 40

"Old Comers"

Morison notes that Bradford used the term "Old Comers" to refer to the Mayflower passengers (Bradford, Morison ed. 178).

Stratton comments that although there was initially some looseness in usage of the terms "Old Comers" or "Old Planters" they came to refer to those resident in Plymouth by the 1627 Division of Cattle, and the terms are virtually synonymous with "Purchasers" (Stratton 1986: 36).

"Old Planters"

Bradford uses the term "Old Planters" to distinguish those who came before the 1623 ships. "The Old Planters were affraid that their corne, when it was ripe, should be imparted to the new-comers, whose provisions which they brought with them they feared would fall short" (Bradford (Ford) 1:323, quoted in Stratton 1986: 35-36).

Stratton comments that although there was initially some looseness in usage of the terms "Old Comers" or "Old Planters" they came to refer to those resident in Plymouth by the 1627 Division of Cattle, and the terms are virtually synonymous with "Purchasers" (Stratton 1986: 36).

"Old Purchasers"

see Purchasers

Old Style Dating

see New Style and Old Style Dating


A man, normally a close friend, appointed by a testator who had made a will in which he appointed his wife as his executor, but felt that he wished one or more of his friends to take responsibility for helping her to undertake the duties of executor and be there to assist her in any other way she might need it.

Parcel of land

A piece or small part of land, which was a part of a larger acreage.


Heads of families of those resident in Plymouth in 1626 when Isaac Allerton, acting as agent for the settlers, obtained an agreement whereby the London Adventurers sold for 1,800 all their interests in Plymouth Colony to Allerton and the other "Planters" at Plymouth. Allerton was termed the agent for the "rest of the Planters there." Thereafter more usually called the "Purchasers" (Stratton 1986: 27).


A linear measure equaling 5 yards or 16' 6".


A statement on oath by a jury of fact within their knowledge. The Grand Jury issued a presentment if it believed it had evidence that someone could be tried for a crime.


see English Government


The "Planters" who, with Allerton as their agent, purchased the shares of the London Adventurers in 1626. They became known as the Purchasers, and in March 1641 when the Bradford Patent was surrendered to the freemen of the Colony, they were referred to as the Purchasers or "Old Comers," or "Old Purchasers."

Stratton comments that although there was initially some looseness in usage of the terms "Old Comers" or "Old Planters" they came to refer to those resident in Plymouth by the 1627 Division of Cattle, and the terms are virtually synonymous with "Purchasers" (Stratton 1986: 36).

The term "Old Purchasers" was synonymous with "Old Planters" (ibid, 27).


see Taxes


see English Government


  • 1li or 1 = 20 shillings
  • 12 pence = 1 shilling


There were taxes, also called rates, in Plymouth Colony as early as 1623, when every male over 16 had to pay a bushel of Indian wheat, or the equivalent, towards the maintenance of government and public officers.

2 Jan. 1632/1633 Governor Winslow and eleven others(1) were ordered by the court to assess taxes on the colonists, payable in corn at 6s a bushel. Stratton gives an analysis of the 88 residents rated. A year later the list has reduced to 80 taxpayers, including some widows. He attributes the lower number to the 1633 epidemic (Stratton 1986: 48-49).

The figures given above do not help in an assessment of the population at this time.


Lack. "All those who want land," meaning "All those who lack land".


  • Bradford, William.
    [1650] Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647. Samuel Eliot Morison, ed. (New York: Knopf, 1952).

  • Fennell, Christopher
    1998 Plymouth Colony Legal Structure. Seminar Paper, UVA Anth 509, Spring 1998, Historical Ethnography. 46p. Available on The Plymouth Colony Archive Project,

  • Langdon, George D.
    1966 Pilgrim Colony: A History of New Plymouth 1620-1691 (New Haven: Yale University Press).

  • Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England. [1620-1691] Nathaniel B. Shurtleff and David Pulsifer, eds. (Boston: William White, 1855-61; New York: AMS Press, 1968). 12 v. in 6. Cited as PCR.

  • Stratton, Eugene Aubrey
    1986 Plymouth Colony: Its History & People 1620-1691 (Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Publishing).

  • Webster's New World Dictionary of American English.
    1994 3rd college ed. (New York: Macmillian).

1. The twelve are Edward Winslow, Governor, William Bradford, Capt. Myles Standish, John Alden, John Howland, John Done, Stephen Hopkins, Will Gilson, Sam Fuller, Sr., John Jenney, Godbert Godbertson, & Jonathan Brewster (PCR 1: 9). In the 1633 list of freemen of Plymouth (PCR 1:3-4), Winslow through Gilson are listed as the Governor and Council, Fuller and Godbertson are canceled in the original record.

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by James F. Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz

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