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The Pilgrims and the First English Settlement in the United States

The United States might have been settled quite differently if the Pilgrims had managed to settle where they had originally intended …

Most Americans know that the Pilgrims set up a the Plymouth Colony which was later incorporated into the Massachusetts Bay Colony and later the state of Massachusetts. Only a few Americans, however, realize that the Massachusetts Bay Colony could have easily been set up somewhere else. Indeed, it should have been set up somewhere else. The United States might have been settled quite differently if the Pilgrims had managed to settle where they had originally intended.

Even among those Americans who remember that Cape Cod was not where the Pilgrims intended to settle, few know where they originally intended to land. This is a bit confusing because it was the London Virginia Company that granted the Pilgrims their land grant. The name is deceiving, however, because the company controlled much more territory than what is now the state of Virginia. Like the Louisiana Territory, the Virginia Territory was later carved into many small territories. When King James I of England Granted the London Company its charter in 1606, however, the London Company controlled territory from New York to the Carolinas. When the Pilgrims obtained a land grant to settle in the Virginia Territory, they were given permission to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River in the modern states of New York or New Jersey.

Of course, the Plymouth company is in Massachusetts, so what happened? While crossing the Atlantic, the Mayflower was blown far north of its intended destination. Thus, the first land that the Pilgrims saw of the New World was Cape Cod. The Pilgrims realized that they were too far North and attempted to sail south along the coast, but they encountered dangerous shoals. Given the danger of navigating those unknown waters, the pending onset of winter, and a low supply of food, the Pilgrims decided to settle close to Cape Cod instead of the mouth of the Hudson River.

This was a hard decision, however. Not only was Massachusetts outside the territory they were authorized to settle in by the London Company, but it was outside the area controlled by the London Company. It was technically under the jurisdiction of another joint-stock company, the Plymouth Company. This company had set up a settlement in Maine the same year that the London Company established its famous Jamestown settlement, but the Plymouth Company’s settlement had quickly failed. Without the funds to make another attempt, the company left its patent unused. Thus, the London Company’s charter was eventually expanded to include that territory which had been given to the Plymouth Colony.

The Pilgrims attempted to settle any question about their legal right to settle along Cape Cod in their famous document, the Mayflower Compact. This document affirmed that the colony would be governed like any other English colony and was the first written legal document of the American colonial period. After taking reasonable precautions to prevent anyone of accusing them of settling in an unauthorized area, the Pilgrims departed the Mayflower and eventually found the spot suitable for settling. That settlement remains today, although it is now more of a tourist attraction than anything else. Many of those tourists probably do not realize, however, how easily the Plymouth Colony could have been given a totally different name and could have been located in New York. That might have made the American colonial period develop quite differently.

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