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by Patricia Scott Deetz and James Deetz

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Comments on John Pory, Emmanuel Altham, Captain John Smith and Isaac de Rasieres, whose descriptions of the first settlement at Plymouth are included below, are excerpted from The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony, by James Deetz and Patricia Scott Deetz (New York: W.H. Freeman, 2000). 



"A Relation or Journal of the Proceedings of the Plantation settled at Plymouth in New England." 1620/21 C attributed to Edward Winslow and William Bradford


Thursday, the 28th December, so many as could went to work on the hill where we purposed to build our platform for our ordnance, and which doth command all the plain and the bay, and from whence we may see far into the sea, and might be easier impaled, having two rows of houses and a fair street. So in the afternoon we went to measure out the grounds, and first we took notice how many families there were, willing all single men that had no wives to join with some family, as they thought fit, that so we might build fewer houses, which was done, and we reduced them to nineteen families. To greater families we allotted larger plots, to every person half a pole in breadth, and three in length [8'3" by 49'2"], and so lots were cast where every man should lie, which was done, and staked out. We thought this proportion was large enough at the first for houses and gardens, to impale them round, considering the weakness of our people, many of them growing ill with cold, for our former discoveries in frost and storms, and the wading at Cape Cod had brought much weakness amongst us, which increased so every day more and more, and after was the cause of many of their deaths. (Mourt's Relation (London 1622), ed. by Dwight B. Heath (Bedford, Mass, Applewood, 1963), p. 42.)


Tuesday the 9th of January, was a reasonable fair day, and we went to labor that day in the building of our town, in two rows of houses for more safety. We divided by lot the plot of ground whereon to build our town. After the proportion formerly allotted, we agreed that every man should build his own house, thinking that by that course men would make more haste than in working in common. The common house, in which for the first we made our rendezvous, being near finished wanted only covering, it being about twenty feet square. Some should make mortar, and some gather thatch, so that in four days half of it was thatched. Frost and foul weather hindered us much, this time of the year seldom could we work half the week. (Mourt's Relation, p. 44)



William Bradford's sketch of the town, 1620


The Bradford sketch, entitled "The meersteads & garden plots of which came first layed out 1620" is the only known map of the earliest town layout. The original sketch is bound into the front of a manuscript volume entitled "Plimouths Great Book of Deeds of Lands Enrolled from Ano 1627 to Ano 1651." The first part of the volume is in the handwriting of Governor William Bradford, as is the map. The volume now comprises Vol. 12 , Deeds, &c. Vol. 1 1620-1651 of the Plymouth Colony Records.


The sketch shows seven lots, facing "the streete" and bisected by a "high way." The lots are located on what Bradford terms "The south Side," while "The north Side" is essentially bare. The lots on the south side, above the highway carry the names Peter Brown, John Goodman, Mr. Wm Brewster, and those below were allocated to John Billington, Isaak Allerton, Francis Cooke and Edward Winslow.


Letter from Edward Winslow to George Morton, 11 Dec. 1621


. . . we have built seven dwelling houses and four for the use of the plantation and have made preparations for diverse others (Quoted in Alexander Young, Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers (Boston, 1841), p. 230).


John Pory, 13 Jan. 1623, to the Earl of Southampton, describing Plymouth in the summer of 1622


 John Pory, on board the Discovery, stopped at Plymouth en route to England from Virginia, at the end of his three-year term as Secretary to the Governor and Council of Virginia. He left Plymouth at the end of August 1622, and later described the small town to the Earl of Southampton:


. . . the harbour is not only pleasant for air and prospect, but most sure for shipping, both small and great, being land-locked on all sides.[1] The town is seated on the ascent of a hill, which besides the pleasure of variable objects entertaining the unsatisfied eye[2], such is the wholesomeness of the place (as the Governor [Bradford] told me) that for the space of one whole year of the two wherein they had been there, died not one man, woman or child.


. . . [Description of abundance of eels]


In April and May come up another kind of fish which they call herring or old wives [alewives] in infinite schools, into a small river [Town Brook] running under the town, and so into a great pond or lake of a mile broad, where they cast their spawn . . . into another river some two miles to the northeast of Plymouth [a stream running from the Smelt Pond to Plymouth Bay, entering it at the mouth of the Jones River, about two miles northwest of Plymouth]


. . . Within two miles southward from their plantation do begin goodly ponds and lakes of fresh water, continuing well nigh twenty miles into the land, some with islands in them, the water being as clear as crystal, yielding great variety of fish.


. . . Now concerning the quality of the people . . . their industry as well appeareth by their building, as by a substantial palisado about their [town] of 2700 foot in compass, stronger than I have seen any in Virginia, and lastly by a blockhouse which they have erected in the highest place of the town to mount their ordnance upon, from whence they may command all the harbour.


Three Visitors to Early Plymouth: Letters about the Pilgrim Settlement in New England during its First Seven Years by John Pory, Emmanuel Altham, and Isaack de Rasieres, edited by Sydney V. James, Jr. (Bedford, Mass.: Applewood, 1963), extracts from pp. 7-17.)


Emmanuel Altham to Sir Edward Altham, Sept. 1623


Less than a year after Pory wrote to the Earl of Southampton, his description was corroborated by Emmanuel Altham in a letter to his brother in September, 1623. Altham was one of the merchant adventurers who had invested in the New Plymouth Company, and sailed to the New World as Captain of the Little James, the pinnace which the Company sent to Plymouth for fish and fur trading.


There are three letters which Altham wrote while with the Little James in New England waters, two to his brother, Sir Edward Altham, and one to James Sherley, Treasurer of the New Plymouth Adventurers in London. Altham returned to England in 1625 after a year on the Little James. He made a second voyage to New England later that year, hoping to find employment in the colony at Plymouth, but without success. A fourth letter, written to his brother in June 1625 has been published with the other three in the Three Visitors to Early Plymouth, pp. 19-59. Altham later joined the East India Company, where he had a brief, but successful career, dying in India in January 1636. His letters were published for the first time in 1963 in the Three Visitors to Early Plymouth.


. . . And now to come more nearer to that I intend to write of, and first of the situation of the place C I mean the plantation at Patuxet [Indian name for Plymouth]. It is well situated upon a high hill close unto the seaside, and very commodious for shipping to come unto them. In this plantation is about twenty houses, for or five of which are very fair and pleasant, and the rest (as time will serve) shall be made better. And this town is in such manner that it makes a great street between the houses, and at the upper end of the town there is a strong fort, both by nature and art, with six pieces of reasonable good artillery mounted thereon; in which fort is continual watch, so that no Indian can come near thereabouts but he is presently seen. This town is paled about with pale of eight foot long, or thereabouts, and in the pale are three great gates. Furthermore, here is belonging to the town six goats, about fifty hogs and pigs, also divers hens. And lastly, the town is furnished with a company of honest men, that do, in what lies in them, to get profit to the adventurers.

Three Visitors, p. 24


. . . without our pales dwells one Hobomok, his wives and his household (above ten persons), who is our friend and interpreter, and one whom we have found faithful and trusty.

Three Visitors, p. 29


Captain John Smith, 1624


The third description of the town is that of Captain John Smith, dated 1624. Although best known for his critical role in the development of the English colony at Jamestown, including his rescue by Pocahontas from execution at the hands of Chief Powhatan, John Smith was no stranger to New England. In fact, it was he who gave that name to the region. He first published the result of his 1614 explorations on land and coastal survey in his Description of New England (London, 1616). It includes a Map of New England which he had presented to Prince Charles, son of James I, "humbly entreating his Highnesse hee would please to change their barbarous names for such English, as posteritie might say Prince Charles was their God-father . . ." Among the twenty-nine places renamed was Accomack, which was given the new name of Plimoth by the Prince, later marked on the map as New Plimoth. Smith had offered his services to the Separatists at Leiden who were planning to emigrate to America, but evidently Myles Standish was prepared to charge less for his than the experienced Smith, who commented wryly in his True Travels, Adventures and Observations, published in London in 1630, that the "Brownists of England, Amsterdam and Leyden, [who] went to New Plimouth, whose humorous [fanatical] ignorances, caused them for more than a yeare, to endure a wonderfull deale of misery, with an infinite patience; saying my books and maps were much better cheape to teach them, than my selfe . . ." So it is evident that there was a copy of Smith's map of New England, showing the exact location of Plymouth, in the possession of those on the Mayflower. It is sobering to consider, though, that if Smith had accompanied the Mayflower passengers to New England instead of Standish, many lives might well not have been lost through the long time taken exploring the coastline of Cape Cod, through the resultant illness of passengers and crew alike.


It is generally agreed that Smith's accounts of his time at Jamestown are reliable, so what about the one he published concerning Plymouth? The colorful nature of his description of his military and other exploits in Eastern Europe in the early years of the seventeenth century before he sailed to Jamestown in December 1606, has in the past given rise to considerable skepticism as to just how much dependency can be put on his work. In particular, there is an echo of the Pocahontas episode in Smith's account of his capture by Turks, being sold as a slave, given to a wealthy young woman in Istanbul who fell in love with him and sent him to her brother to be trained for high office as a Turk, evidently with a view to marrying him. Harshly disciplined and mistreated, Smith finally murdered her brother and escaped, eventually making his way back to England. However, more recent scholarship has demonstrated that his detailing of his European adventures is probably dependable. One little known connection between his Turkish experiences and New England explorations is that Smith named Cape Trabigzanda, now north of Boston, after Charatza Trabigzanda, his mistress in Istanbul. Prince Charles renamed it Cape Anne, the name it still retains.


In his Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & The Summer Isles, published in London late in 1624, Smith gives a description of New Plymouth as it was in that year. Earlier in the volume he provides a lengthy paraphrase of Mourt's Relation, with which he was familiar, but of course, was not personally involved in the events described in that work. Although his description of New Plymouth appears to be based on his actually having been there, he only made two voyages to New England, the first in 1614, and a second, abortive expedition, in 1615. He evidently had access to some recent communications from Plymouth, and as he retained a vigorous interest in promoting the welfare of the country which he had explored and which bore the name he had given it, it is reasonable to infer that he kept in touch with travelers to the New World.


The source Smith used is not known. Barbour has suggested that Smith's description of "The present estate of the plantation at New-Plimouth. 1624" was perhaps based on a communication or report made by Edward Winslow after he arrived in London late in 1623 (Barbour, vol. 2, p. 472, note 1; Smith's description is on pp. 472-473). We would suggest that whoever gave Smith the details had to have knowledge of the fire in Plymouth which burned some of the houses on November 5, 1623, almost two months after Winslow had left for England on the Anne on September 10, 1623 (Bradford, pp. 136-137). Winslow does not mention this event in his Good Newes from New England which he had published in London in 1624. Good Newes covers events in Plymouth Colony from December 1621 through September 1623. In addition, Smith refers to the salt-works which had been built. This took place after Winslow's return to Plymouth in March 1624. Bradford refers to carpenters sent to their fishing grounds at Cape Anne "to rear a great frame for a large house to receive the salt," which was burnt the following year. Bradford does not give specific dates, but the context is 1624 and 1625 (Bradford, pp. 146-147).


 Smith's account reads:


At New-Plimoth there is about 180 persons, some cattle and goats, but many swine and poultry, 32 dwelling houses, whereof 7 were burnt the last winter, and the value of five hundred pounds in other goods; the Town is impaled about half a mile in compass. In the town upon a high Mount they have a fort well built with wood, loam and stone, where is planted their Ordnance:  Also a fair Watch-tower, partly framed, for the Sentinel . . . they have made a saltwork, and with that salt preserve the fish they take, and this year hath fraughted [filled] a ship of 180 tons.


One detail of particular importance in this account is its contribution to our knowledge of the fortified town, where Smith gives the length of the palisade: "the Towne is impailed about halfe a mile in compasse." His dimensions virtually match those given by John Pory in January 1623, but as far as we know, he did not have access to Pory's letter, although it is quite possible that he could have discussed New Plymouth with him after Pory's return to London. "About half a mile in compass," would be about 2,640 feet as opposed to Pory's 2,700 feet.


Smith reprinted his 1624 account of Plymouth in Chapter 8 of his Advertisements (1631) (Barbour, vol. 3, pp. 282-284). He expanded it slightly, and included a reference to his having been in touch with the colonists before they sailed. He also mentions the correct distance between Plymouth and Cape Cod, nine leagues, or twenty-seven miles, another instance of the accuracy of his informant (Ibid., p. 283, note 8), or of his own knowledge of the area when he surveyed the coast in 1614. He wrote:


. . . at the first landing at Cape Cod, being an hundred passengers, besides twenty they had left behind at Plimoth [England] for want of good take heed, thinking to finde all things better than I advised them, spent six or seven weekes in wandering up and downe in frost and snow, wind and raine, among the woods, cricks, and swamps, forty of them died, and three score were left in most miserable estate at New-Plimoth, where their Ship left them, and but nine leagues by Sea from where they landed, whose misery and variable opinions, for want of experience, occasioned much faction until necessity agreed them.


Isaac de Rasieres to Samuel Blommaert, c. 1628


When one description matches the other, there is good reason to accept the accounts as accurate in their details, and the three quoted above are given further veracity by a fourth, written in 1628. The last description of Plymouth in its early years comes to us from a letter written by Isaack de Rasieres, chief Trading Agent for the Dutch West India Company as well as Secretary to the Director-General of New Netherland, who visited Plymouth in 1627. His is the most detailed description of the four.


The original letter written by de Rasieres to Samuel Blommaert was in Dutch and was written after de Rasieres returned to Holland. He had visited Plymouth in October 1627, but his letter is undated, and has some missing pages. It has been suggested that it was written after his return to Holland in 1628 or 1629. The translation published in the Three Visitors to Early Plymouth, pp. 65-80, is that by William I. Hull, originally published in 1909 in Narratives of New Netherland, 1609-1664, edited by J. Franklin Jameson, but has been amended and checked by the editor, Sydney V. James, Jr. The passaged cited is from the Three Visitors, pp. 75 and 76-77.


It is important to note that in the description, where de Rasieres describes the site of the town of Plymouth, as having a street 800 feet long leading down the hill on which the fort stood, and a cross street in the middle, extending "northwards to the rivulet and southwards to the land," that he has reversed the bearings. The rivulet was Town Brook, which lies to the south of the town.


New Plymouth lies in a large bay to the north of Cape Cod, or Malabar, east and west from the said point of the cape, which can be easily seen in clear weather. Directly before the commenced town lies a sand-bank [Plymouth Beach], about twenty paces broad, whereon the sea breaks violently with an easterly and east-northeasterly wind. On the north side there lies a small island [the Gurney and Saquish Head] where one must run cloase along, in order to come before the town; then the ships run behind that bank and lie in a very good roadstead.  . . . 

At the south side of the town there flows down a small river of fresh water, very rapid, but shallow, which takes it rise from several lakes in the land above, and there empties into the sea; where in April and the beginning of May, there come so many shad from the sea which want to ascend that river, that it is quite surprising. The river the English have shut in with planks and in the middle with a little door, which slides up and down, and at the sides with trellice work, through which the water has its course, but which they can also close with slides.


. . . and they draw out the fish with baskets, each according to the land he cultivates, and carry them to it, depositing in each hill three or four fishes, and in these they plant their maize which grown as luxuriantly therein as though it were the best manure in the world. . .


New Plymouth lies on the slope of a hill stretching east towards the sea-coast, with a broad street about a cannon shot of 800 feet long, leading down the hill; with a [street] crossing in the middle, northwards to the rivulet and southwards to the land.[3] The houses are constructed of clapboards, with gardens also enclosed behind and at the sides with clapboards, so that their houses and courtyards are arranged in very good order, with a stockade against sudden attack; and at the ends of the streets there are three wooden gates. In the center, on the cross street, stands the Governor's house [Bradford], before which is a square stockade upon which four patereros are mounted, so as to enfilade the streets. Upon the hill they have a large square house with a flat roof, built of thick sawn planks stayed with oak beams, upon the top of which they have six cannon, which shoot iron balls of four and five pounds, and command the surrounding country. The lower part they use for their church, where they preach on Sundays and the usual holidays. . . .


Three Visitors,  pp. 75-76




[1] "Cape Cod's distinctive shape affords protection to the inland coastline and waterways. A long spit, known today as Plymouth Beach, juts into Plymouth Bay, a smaller subsidiary of Massachusetts Bay, and creates a protected harbor" (Jason Boroughs,  "In a most convenient place. . . : Research into the early settlement of Plymouth Plantation," Distinguished Major Thesis, Dept of Anthropology, University of Virginia, 1997, p. 14).

[2] The "variable objects" presumably refer to "the numerous land forms, most of which are small hills and plateaus" to which Boroughs refers in the paragraph cited above.

[3] In the text published in Three Visitors to Early Plymouth, there is a footnote, #29, inserted at this point.  It reads: "He reverses the actual bearings; and the street first mentioned was longer, 1,150 feet. [J.F.J.]"  J.F.J. are the initials of J.F. Jameson, editor of Narratives of New Netherland, 1609-1664 in which de Rasieres' letter to Samuel Blommaert was first published in 1909. Jameson does not provide any details as to the source from which he obtained this measurement.


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