The history of the Plymouth Colony is often told as a story of dramatic events and important leaders. But here’s some of what we know about the everyday life of the people who settled there in the 1600s.
Dwellings: Soon after they arrived, the colonists initially built in the style of farmer’s cottages in rural England—walls fashioned from tree trunks with branches and twigs stuffed between then, all cemented together by clay. The tiny windows were covered with linseed-coated parchment instead of glass. Eventually, they switched to more elaborate homes made from posts and beams, and covered with clapboards and shingles. A house customarily had a wood-burning hearth equipped with a huge brick chimney to heat. Keeping warm required each family to consume more than 1,900 cubic feet of wood each year, which meant cutting down a lot of trees.
Food: Corn was a big part of the colonists’ diet, and they ate it in dishes such as hominy and johnnycakes that were based upon native recipes. They also had a lot of different sources of protein—including venison, wild turkey, duck, goose, fish, and lobsters—and fruit ranging from strawberries to plums.
Clothing: Men wore a short jacket called a doublet, attached to breeches—knee-length pants—to form a suit. Usually they were made of wool cloth or linen canvas. A felt hat often completed the outfit. The only portrait of a Pilgrim made from life, a painting of Edward Winslow made in London in 1651, depicts him in the severe-looking black attire with white collar and cuffs that we’ve come to associate with Pilgrim men. Actually, however, at the time when the Pilgrims first arrived in Massachusetts, colors were fashionable, and the colonists wore various hues. The wardrobe of colonist William Brewster, for example, included a pair of green trousers and a violet-colored coat. Women colonists wore elaborate multi-layered outfits—a corset, multiple petticoats, stockings, a dress over those items, and a waistcoat or apron. They also wore linen caps called coifs over their hair, and felt hats as well. The natives took a liking to the colonists’ English-made clothing as well, and sometimes agreed to trade land for coats and other manufactured goods.
Work: The colonists worked long and hard to survive. In 1623, Gov. William Bradford decided to abandon communal agriculture and instead gave each family a plot of land to cultivate, with the understanding that they would keep whatever food they managed to grow. Men, women and children all labored together, tending corn and other crops, and raising goats, pigs, chickens and cows. But from the start, they also produced goods for export, such as beaver skins and small oak clapboards that could be used to make barrel staves. Subsequent generations of colonists built a flourishing export trade in timber, grain fish and cattle, which were in demand in Europe.
Family Life: The colonists had big families, often with eight or more children. There wasn’t an official school in Plymouth until the 1670s, but the Pilgrims thought reading was an important skill because it was needed for Bible study, so they usually taught their offspring at home. There wasn’t much time for children to play, because they were expected to work alongside their parents.
Worship: Religion was a dominant influence upon life in Plymouth. The Pilgrims, like other Puritans, believed that the entire Sabbath should be devoted to worship. Sunday included both a morning and an afternoon meeting, and people spent their free time in personal prayer as well. Work or recreation of any sort was forbidden. But playing music and singing psalms was an important part of their worship, and colonial leader Edward Winslow noted that some of the original Mayflower contingent were “very expert in music.”
Health: There weren’t many university-trained doctors in England in the 1600s, and healthcare was mostly provided by non-physician healers who prescribed medicine and even did surgery. The Plymouth Colony’s surgeon, Samuel Fuller, seems to have been one of those self-taught doctors, though he did have some medical books in his library. He had his hands full, since the early colonists were plagued by infectious diseases as well as scurvy—about half of the Mayflower contingent died in the first winter alone. Fuller himself died of fever during a 1633 epidemic.
Media: The Plymouth colony didn’t have a printing press until the late 1700s, so reading material was limited to what the colonists brought along with them. Miles Standish, for example, owned a copy of Homer’s “The Iliad” and Caesar’s “Commentaries.” They got news of the outside world from visitors and communicated through letters, such as one that Gov. Bradford sent to Massachusetts Bay Col. Gov. John Winthrop in 1638, inquiring about Anne Hutchinson, who had challenged the authority of the Puritan ministers.
Entertainment and Recreation: Since the colonists had to work pretty hard to survive and devoted one day out of seven to worship, they probably didn’t have much time to spend in leisure pursuits. Some of Plymouth’s non-Pilgrim inhabitants played stool ball, an English game resembling cricket. (When they made the mistake of playing on Christmas, though, the Pilgrims were so offended that Gov. Bradford had their balls and bats confiscated.) The colonists also enjoyed shooting contests at which they could demonstrate their prowess with muskets.
Life in the early days of the Plymouth Colony was very different from ours, and in many ways, much more difficult. But even so, the colonists survived and eventually prospered, and helped set the foundation for modern America.