Working Hard: Building Plymouth Colony

Last week I challenged you to learn something new about the Pilgrims…something that would help you see them as real people, not mythological giants casting a long shadow on history. We have explored their travel delay, and today we’ll study their work. The Pilgrims believed in working hard. While they lacked some of the skills necessary to succeed in the New World, they were accustomed to providing for their families and completing tasks to help their community.

A replica of a Pilgrim home (Plimoth Plantation Living History Village)

A replica of a Pilgrim home (Plimoth Plantation Living History Village)

The Protestant Work Ethic

Did you ever wonder: What made Plymouth successful as a colony?  What made it different from the earlier English colonization attempts at Roanoke and Jamestown?  There are many factors that can be taken into consideration when answering these questions: the climate, friendly native tribes, better leadership, etc.

While all these are factors, the most important thing that made Plymouth Colony a success was an understanding and fulfillment of the Protestant Work Ethic.  While the Jamestown gentlemen expected to have a life of ease and wealth (eventually importing slaves to make this a reality), the Pilgrims came to America expecting to work hard and make a new life in a new land where they could worship God freely.

The Protestant Work Ethic is the belief that work is a gift from God and a means of glorifying Him.  It is the belief that man is called to work and that a person serves God by working diligently and faithfully in his chosen occupation.  This was the belief held by the Pilgrims when they lived in Europe and when they migrated to the New World.

Men’s Work

The Pilgrims acknowledged the Biblical principle that men are the leaders, protectors, and providers.  The Pilgrim men worked hard at their trades in the Old World to provide a living for their families; when they lead their families to America, they continued in the roles as leaders, protectors, and providers by establishing the colony, defending the women and children, building houses, planting fields, hunting, and making peace treaties with the Native Americans.

I think sometimes we imagine the Pilgrims hiding and spending all their time in prayer before their trip to the New World. While it is true the Separatists faced persecution, they did not neglect to provide for their families. Thus, most of the men had a trade or skill set that they used to make an income.

(Note: We call the Plymouth colonists “the Pilgrims” and for sake of word-count I have adopted this practice. However, there were really two groups of “the Pilgrims.” There were the Separatists – the settlers seeking religious freedom – and the Strangers – the settlers simply looking for a better life in America.)

So what did the Pilgrim men do? Here’s a short list:

John Alden – cooper (built barrels)

Isaac Allerton – tailor

William Brewster – the pastor; a printer by trade

John Browne – weaver

Francis Cooke – wool comber (prepared wool for spinning and weaving)

Francis Eaton – house builder

Samuel Fuller – “say-weaver” (wove linens and coverlets); colonial legends claim he was the physician for the colony.

Stephen Hopkins – tanner (leather worker); possibly owned a London shop

Myles Standish – soldier of fortune

This example list shows the Pilgrim had successful jobs in the Old World and many of their skills would be useful in establishing a colony.

Baking bread was a woman's job. Here's a reproduction of an outdoor bake oven (Plimoth Plantation Living History Village)

Baking bread was a woman’s job. Here’s a reproduction of an outdoor bake oven (Plimoth Plantation Living History Village)

Women’s Work

The Pilgrim women accepted the Biblical role for women: keepers of the home, faithful wives, and loving mothers. They continued in their feminine role in the New World, just as they had in their old homes, though in America there were plenty of new challenges.

The Pilgrim ladies worked hard to make new homes in America and to care for their families.  They made the “houses in homes,” worked in the gardens, cooked and baked food, cared for the children, mended the clothes, cleaned the houses, and practiced hospitality to the visiting Native Americans.  Their tiny homes were crowded just with their own families, but the Pilgrim women accepted into their households those who needed care after the long winter.

Only six women survived the first harsh winter. So, yes, six women cooked a three day Thanksgiving feast! Here are the names of those remarkable ladies:

Elinor Billington

Mary Brewster

Dorothy “Carver” (actually a servant of the Carver family; she later married Francis Eaton)

Elizabeth Hopkins

Priscilla Mullins

Susanna Winslow

Kids, want to chop and stack the wood? This would've been a job Pilgrim boys helped with.

Kids, want to chop and stack the wood? This would’ve been a job Pilgrim boys helped with.

Children’s Work

There were no time-wasters like video games in 1620 – indeed, the idea of childhood being a time of freedom and play was a foreign concept back then. So what did the children do?

Children worked alongside their parents in the daily tasks; they learned how to be good providers or homemakers.  They helped care for younger siblings, hauled wood to keep their houses warm, carried water for the cooking, and, when there was time, they learned to read.  The Pilgrims believed that it was very important to read the Bible.

Did you know: after the first winter in Plymouth, the children outnumbered the surviving adults? So we have pretty strong evidence that children played a major role in preparing and serving the first Thanksgiving feast. (Kids, quit complaining about having to dry the dishes after your big meal! At least you didn’t have to chop the fire wood, haul the water, and turn the turkey on a spit over the fire…)

Skills They Didn’t Have

The Pilgrims had trades, good leadership, and faith, but they did lack some skills necessary for colony building.

They were not good hunters; hunting was forbidden in England, since most of the forests were owned by the king and nobility. They were not the world’s best farmers. Neither were they outstanding soldiers.

Make Peace, Get Help

Providentially, the Wampanoag Native American tribe was not hostile to the Pilgrims. Samoset and Squanto came to the colony in the spring of 1621 and helped the Pilgrims learn to hunt, fish, and plant corn properly.

The Pilgrims made a peace treaty with Chief Massasoit and his tribe and both people groups benefitted from the agreement.


The willingness to work hard for the glory of God enabled the Pilgrims of Plymouth to build a successful colony where they could live in freedom. An understanding of the Biblical roles for men, women, and children also contributed to the success of the colony.

In the autumn of 1621 they celebrated their first year in America by hosting a Thanksgiving Feast.  They invited their neighbors from the Wampanoag Tribe who had become their friends and who had taught them many skills needed to survive.  The Pilgrims gave thanks to God for His blessings to them. The Protestant Work Ethic, an understanding of the Biblical roles for men, women, and children, and a thankful attitude toward God for His blessings lead to the success of Plymouth Colony.

Perhaps a new understanding of the work ethics which built America will inspire us to re-discover the blessing of work. 

…doing the will of God from the heart with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord…    Ephesians 6:6-8

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. How does a reminder of America’s founding principle of hard work encourage you? Why do you think this principle is not viewed favorably by many people today?

One thought on “Working Hard: Building Plymouth Colony

  1. Pingback: Pilgrims In Armor | Gazette665

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