When the Pilgrims decided to build a settlement at Plymouth it was November 1620, and much like the first settlers of Jamestown thirteen years earlier they were ill prepared for the harsh winter. They also knew that they were outside the jurisdiction of Virginia in New England which at the time of their leaving did not have a legal patent, though one had been created after they left. For this reason a temporary contract, known today as the Mayflower Compact, was created to ensure the colonists could make decisions for the protection of their colony.
The Mayflower Compact is revered as the first written constitution in U.S. history, which is true to an extent. It was temporary, not permanent, but it was the first time the settlers themselves wrote a set of rules to govern their colony. In reality every single colony had a charter of some sort which established the authority of the proprietors and created a legal relationship with the colonists. In the case of the settlers of Plymouth, the compact was very necessary because they were divided on the key issue of religion between the Pilgrims and the “strangers. Such divisions could destroy the colony before it even began, and the harsh winter was to be bad enough without internal divisions.
For the next few months, the men explored the area, assigned every able body tasks, and each family began building their own dwellings. The Mayflower served as a shelter while the houses were constructed, but disease quickly spread, and by March 1621 only forty-seven of the original 102 colonists were still alive, and half of the thirty or so crewmen of the Mayflower had also died. The sickness was so debilitating that at one point only six or seven of the colonists were healthy enough to take care of everyone else.
Editors Note: Travis Childs is a history instructor at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. He is a graduate of Midway High School and lives in Bluegrove. He is currently president of the Clay County Historical Society.