The origins of Plymouth Colony tend to puzzle readers, as it was not a simple matter of a single royal grant, but something more complex. For one thing, the role of the “merchant adventurers” who initially underwrote the venture is often confused with that of the Virginia Company of London and the Council of New England, which granted the charters or patents that licensed and later confirmed property ownership of the Plymouth settlement. Settlement in “Virginia”, as the entire English claim in North America was originally called, required legal permission from the Crown or its representatives. The colonization of Virginia had been entrusted to two corporations with overlapping jurisdictions in 1606: the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth and Bristol (England). All land between the latitudes of 34° N and 40° N was the responsibility of the London Company while the Plymouth Company controlled grants from 38° N to 45° N. The southern colony would later be extended north to the 41st parallel (which would include Manhattan and much of Long Island), while the 1620 patent for the Council for New England stretched from 40° to 48°, and west to the Pacific.
Both companies sent out colonizing expeditions in 1607. The southern project sponsored by the Virginia Company of London was successful – barely – in establishing the colony we know as Jamestown, but the Plymouth Company’s attempt under Popham to settle here in Maine failed. The Virginia Company of Plymouth never made any other attempt to exercise its rights, and was moribund by the time the Pilgrims decided to immigrate to America in 1618.
The London Virginia Company was responsible for sending people and equipment to its territory, but they had trouble attracting enough money and volunteers. A new idea called a “particular plantation” was introduced that year to speed up the colonizing effort. It was a sort of franchise, established by private initiative within the larger colony whereby an investor or group of investors or proprietors were given a temporary charter permitting them to settle within the Company’s territory. If the effort proved successful and the colony survived for five or seven years, the Company agreed to give the investors a number of acres for each adult that emigrated and stayed for at least a year (or died there), plus more property for public use. At the end of the agreed term, the investors could total up the numbers and apply for a charter which would give them legal title to as much land as they were due under the agreement. The Merchant Adventurers had gotten a patent for one of these “particular plantations” from the Virginia Company of London for the Pilgrims before they left England in 1620.
When the Pilgrims landed, they found themselves just outside of the territory in which their patent was valid. The Virginia Company of London’s jurisdiction extended to the 41st parallel. Degrees of latitude are about 69 miles apart, and the 42nd parallel runs across the northern northerly side of Plymouth harbor, so they were about 65 miles north of where they should have been. They drew up the Mayflower Compact as a temporary measure to keep the settlement together until they could get a new charter that would legalize their situation. After considerable expense and bother, they duly received a “particular plantation” charter from the new Council for New England which succeeded the old Virginia Company of Plymouth in 1621. This meant that although they were now legal residents of New England, they did not actually own the property they were on. It was not until they received their confirming charter signed by the Earl of Warwick in 1630 that they became the lawful owners of Plymouth Colony. This charter (which is on display in Pilgrim Hall), issued in the name of William Bradford and Associates, was eventually turned over to the Plymouth Colony freemen in 1641 along with any land not yet granted, once the colony’s debts that had been assumed or undertaken- by the Plymouth “Undertakers” (Bradford, Standish, Allerton, Winslow, Howland, Alden, Brewster, and Prence; and four London partners – Sherley, Beauchamp, Andrews, and Hatherly) had been paid off.
The original company of adventurers or “venture capitalists” was wound up in 1627, leaving a debt of £1,800 that was assumed by the Undertakers. It was this circumstance that led to the first “dividend” of privately owned land (at 20 acres a person) to each resident family or single man – together with shares in valuable milch goats and cattle – that began the expansion of the settlement beyond the bounds of downtown Plymouth. It included all the property along the shore of Plymouth Harbor from Powder Point to Eel River. The Warwick or Bradford patent extended from Cape Cod Bay on the east to Narragansett Bay on the west, and ran north to a line negotiated with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639. All this property was under the political jurisdiction of Plymouth Colony, as far as the laws of England were concerned, although the ownership might still be held by the native inhabitants or granted to later-arriving colonists. The rights of native land owners, whether Wampanoag or Massachusett, were recognized by the colony. Any land they might sell or alienate had to be the colonial government for its own use or to approved groups of proprietors – private transactions were not allowed. Some commons were issued to the Plymouth purchasers and their heirs as further dividends (they were still receiving property dividends in south Plymouth in the early 18th century), including reserved lots at what is now Tiverton and Little Compton in Rhode Island or between Yarmouth and Eastham. Other parcels were granted to groups of subsequent settlers, who then became administrators of their own communities and could grant land to themselves and others, Scituate and Sandwich being examples of this. New settlements such as Bridgewater or Middleboro were purchased with Plymouth Colony consent; the new purchasers being then the proprietors in these additional towns.
By the end of Plymouth Colony’s existence – it was absorbed into Massachusetts Bay by a new royal patent or charter sealed on 17 October 1691 and went into effect on 14 May 1692 – there were towns that had been divided into three counties in 1685:
Towns in Barnstable County
Towns in Bristol County
Little Compton* (1682)
[* now in Rhode Island]
Subsequent divisions of territory created the other towns that exist today, but their earliest history must be sought in the records and histories the initial townships. Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Elizabeth Islands [now Gosnold] were never part of Plymouth Colony [they were part of New York for a while] but were rather privately owned by the proprietor and Governor, Thomas Mayhew, who had bought them from William Alexander, 1st Earl of Stirling, and Sir Ferdinando Gorges in 1641. They became part of Massachusetts under the 1691/2 royal charter that then included the former Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony, as well as the Province of Maine, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and what are now the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
The 1630 Warwick Patent gave the Pilgrims more than just the southern Massachusetts lands, however – it also gave them title to a sizeable grant of land on the Kennebec. The new charter or patent deeded the Plymouth colonists a block of territory 15 miles wide on each side of the Kennebeck River from near Gardiner to about halfway between Augusta and Waterville. The lure of Maine was furs – the single most profitable commodity that New Plymouth found to pay down their debts and buy supplies for the colony. Plymouth established a trading post at Cushenoc (Augusta), and shortly after acquired another at Penobscot (Castine). The latter was founded by some of the Merchant Adventurers who hired an Edward Ashley to manage their trading post in 1630. Ashley, however, was soon found to be selling powder and shot to the Indians. He was arrested and sent back to prison in London, and the Plymouth colonists took over the Penobscot post. True to form, the post was raided the next year by the French, which cost the Pilgrims £500 in furs.
Plymouth held on to its Maine property despite setbacks, but never developed the area. Governor Prence went to Maine in 1654 to organize the governance of the grant and received an oath of fidelity from 16 people at Meetinghouse Bay. Finally, in the 1660s, Plymouth sold “the Kennebec Purchase” to four Massachusetts men: Antipas Boyes, Edward Tyng, Thomas Brattle, and John Winslow. Their heirs were still fiddling ineffectually trying to exploit the grant almost a century later by which time Maine, like Plymouth, was swallowed up by Massachusetts Bay in 1692.
Records describing the grants and sale of property, including those made by the colony, towns and private owners, are a rich source of genealogical information. The most important collection of these is in the six volumes of the official records of the colony. These were microfilmed by the Family History Library in Salt Lake City (FHL US/CAN mf #567788-567790) and are available at a number of libraries and research centers. In addition, the original volumes have been digitized and are now online at the website of the Plymouth County Registry of Deeds, but the site is tricky to use. Here is a partial index (Abel, Robert to Biddle, Joseph).
Note the volume and page number from our index, then enter these into the search box on the Registry's website. Make sure you have disabled pop-ups in your browser's preferences or you will not be able to see the document. When you get the results, click on the highlighted text. If that does not bring up a digital image, then click on the "View Images" tab. There will be a huge "Unofficial Copy" stamp across your document, but at least it's something!
The first volume of deeds was published in the series Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England, vol. 12, David Pulsifer, ed., Deeds, &c., Vol. I. 1620-1651 (Boston, 1861). This book is available online. It includes some of the early "Indian" Deeds, though these are published in Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, Indian Deeds: Land Transactions in Plymouth Colony, 1620-1691 (Boston, 2002).
A complete transcript of volume 2 was published in the Mayflower Descendant from v. 1 through v. 18.
Abstracts of the first 61 pages of volume 3 appeared in later volumes.
Grantor/Grantee Index to use with the Plymouth County records online.
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