For almost a month, small groups of men explored the coast around Cape Cod Bay while the rest remained aboard ship. On December 21, the scouts chose a settlement location near Plymouth Harbor. There they found a freshwater stream, a land clearing, and a hill that would provide protection. The Mayflower sailed across the bay and anchored in Plymouth Harbor on December 26.


photo of Plimoth Plantation landscape houses and fences with ocean in background

Photo by Svetlana / CC BY-ND 2.0

photo of a pilgrim woman sitting in front of a thatch roof house

© U.S. Embassy / CC BY 2.0

The colonists continued living on the ship during the winter while the men rowed ashore during the day to build houses. It was a difficult time for the colonists. Hard work, a severe lack of food, and harsh weather took their toll. A devastating illness of colds, coughs, and fevers swept through the group, killing about half of the colonists and crew.


The Pilgrims were well aware of the native presence, especially because they were too weak to defend themselves from attack. They buried their dead at night to hide their dwindling number. The natives undoubtedly kept the settlers under constant surveillance and knew of their losses, but mostly kept their distance.


By mid-March, the weather began to clear, and there were enough houses for everyone to leave the ship. Soon after, a native named Samoset boldly walked into the village and introduced himself in broken English to the startled colonists. He was an Abenaki chief from present-day Maine, who had learned some English from European fishermen. He was on an extended visit with the nearby Wampanoag  tribe. Most New England tribes spoke the Algonquian language and could communicate with each other.


photo of pilgrim house interior with kitchen dishes pottery

Photo by Todd Van Hoosear / CC BY-SA 2.0

photo of Massasoit statue with green tree branches in background

Photo by Roger H. Goun / CC BY 2.0

Samoset answered many questions from the colonists, describing the land, people, places, and distances. He explained that the colonists had settled in an area previously inhabited by the Patuxet, a native tribe wiped out by an epidemic four years earlier. He told them there was one surviving Patuxet who could speak even better English than he did.


A few days later Samoset returned with Tisquantum, also known as Squanto. Several years before, Squanto had been kidnapped by Englishmen and taken to Europe, where he learned to speak English. He escaped and returned to America, only to find all of his people dead. With no home left, Squanto had settled with the Wampanoags.


Samoset and Squanto arranged a meeting that day between the colonists and Massasoit, the king of the Wampanoags. The meeting led to a long-lasting treaty of friendship and mutual defense. They agreed that (1) the Wampanoags would not harm the colonists; (2) if anyone did cause harm, Massasoit would send the offender so that the colonists might punish him; (3) if anything were stolen, Massasoit would see to its return, and the colonists would do likewise; (4) if anyone unjustly attacked the Wampanoags or colonists in an act of war, the other would give aid; (5) Massasoit would notify neighboring tribes of the treaty so that they might not harm the colonists; (6) when the Wampanoags visited the colonists, they would leave their bows and arrows behind; and (7) King James would esteem Massasoit as his friend and ally.


Squanto remained with the malnourished and weakened settlers and became an invaluable member of the colony. Over the summer, he taught them to grow corn, catch fish, dig clams, extract maple syrup, and avoid poisonous plants. Another Wampanoag, Hobbamock, also lived among the colonists. With the help and guidance of the natives, the Plymouth colony survived.


When the Mayflower sailed back to England in April, not a single surviving passenger left with the ship. By early fall, the colonists had regained their strength. They were living in freedom, and their food stores would carry them through the winter. They had reason to be thankful.


Did You Know?

Out of 102 passengers, only 51 survived the first winter.

The first thing women did upon arrival in the New World was laundry.

Full immersion baths were rare–they were thought to open the pores and allow diseases to enter the skin; however, the Pilgrims washed themselves regularly with "sponge baths."

Pilgrim children bowed and curtsied to their parents and other adults.

The colonists thought the Natives were too lenient with their children.

Pilgrim children's chores included fetching water, gathering firewood,

herding animals, gathering berries, and helping cook, clean, tend crops, and take care of the younger children.

Only 4 of 18 women survived the first year. They were in the ship's cramped quarters taking care of the sick.

Although daughters were generally believed too weak for the initial voyage, girls were by far the heartiest survivors.

Children did not go to school; they were taught to read and write by parents or neighbors.

Both boys and girls wore dresses or "gowns" until age six or seven, when boys began wearing knee-length britches.

The colonists were shocked by Samoset's nakedness, as he simply wore around his waist a leather belt with fringe. When the wind picked up, they threw a coat around him.

The Wampanoags did not wear feather headdresses or live in teepees. Those are characteristics of the Great Plain natives.