The Plymouth Company

 

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Plymouth Company. The domain in America assigned to this company extended from latitde 41 to 45 N. Members of the company were in the field of adventure before it was organized. Adventurers from England had been on the coast of New England, but had failed to plant a permanent settlement. The principal members of the company were Sir John Popham (then chief-justice of England, who had, with scandalous injustice, condemned Raleigh to die on the scaffold), his brother George Popham, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, Sir John and Raleigh Gilbert (sons of Sir Humphrey Gilbert), William Parker, and Thomas Hanham. In 1606 Justice Popham sent a vessel at his own cost, commanded by Henry Challons, to make further discoveries of the north Virginia region. Challons and his crew of about thirty persons were captured by the Spaniards, and the vessel was confiscated. Soon after the departure of Challons, Thomas Hanham, afterwards one of the company, sailed in a small vessel for America, accompanied by Martin Pring, to discover a good place for a settlement; and his report was so favorable, so confirmatory of Gosnold's statements (see GOSNOLD, BARTHOLOMEW), that the above-named gentlemen and others formed an association called the Plymouth Company, and received a charter from King James late in that year.

In the spring of 1607 they sent three small vessels to the domain with 100 emigrants, and George Popham as governor of the colony. They landed, late in August, at a rather sterile place near the mouth of the Kennebec, Maine, afterwards known as Parker's Island, where, after a sermon had been delivered, and the patent and other laws read, they dug a well, built a stone house, a few log-huts, and a stockade, which they called Fort St. George. They experienced the bitter fruit of Weymouth's kidnapping in the hostility of the natives, who refused to furnish them with maize or other food. The season was too far advanced to raise food for the colony, so, on Dec. 5, two of the ships returned to England, leaving forty-five persons, with sufficient stores, Popham being president of the colony, and Raleigh Gilbert admiral. During the severe winter their storehouse was burned by accident. The next spring a vessel arrived at Fort St. George with supplies, and with the intelligence of the death of Chief-Justice Popham and Sir John Gilbert, two of the most influential members of the company. Discouraged and disheartened by the severity of the winter, during which their houses were almost covered with snow, their losses by disease, and the death of their governor, Henry Popham, the colonists forsook their new abode and returned to England.

For a few years the operations of the company were confined to fishing voyages and a little traffic with the natives. Their prospects brightened by the first successful voyage of Captain Smith, but were again darkened by subsequent misfortunes. The company had indignantly dismissed Hunt from their service on hearing of his conduct, and when they found Squanto had escaped from Spain and made his way to England, they sought him out, loaded him with presents, and sent him to New England with Captain Dermer to pacify the natives. But they were still too indignant to listen, and they attacked and dangerously wounded Dermer and several of his party. The company now abandoned all thoughts of establishing colonies in New England at that time, and looked forward to receiving large profits by the fisheries and by traffic. The London Company had by its second charter obtained new territory. The Plymouth Company desired to secure greater privileges by a distinct and separate grant, by which they might have the monopoly of the fisheries on the New England coast. The London Company and private traders warmly opposed them, for they wished to keep these fisheries free; but they obtained a charter from the King, Nov. 3, 1620, known as the " Great Patent," and the popular name of the association was changed to " The Council of Plymouth."

By the new charter all North America, from lat. 40 to 48 N., excepting places possessed by " any Christian prince or people," was granted in full property, with exclusive rights of jurisdiction, settlement, and traffic, to forty wealthy and influential persons, incorporated as "The Council established at Plymouth, in the County of Devon, for the Planting, Ruling, Ordering, and Governing of New England, in America." The line between the London and Plymouth colonies was nearly coincident with that between the late slave-labor and free-labor States. But that powerful organization was not permitted to make the first permanent English settlement within its domain; it was done by a handful of feeble liberty-loving people fleeing from persecution in England (The Pilgrims). The pretences of the council to an exclusive right of fishing on the New England coast were denounced in the House of Commons (1621), soon after the granting of the charter, as a "grievance," and a committee reported that the charter was vitiated by the clause in it which forfeited the ships of intruders without the sanction of Parliament.

That body had not met for seven years, and were strongly tinctured with the idea that the people had " divine rights "as well as the King, and acted accordingly. Sir Ferdinando Gorges appeared before it in defense of the charter. So also was the King there to defend his prerogative if it should be assailed. Sir Edwin Sandys, the wise statesman and friend of Virginia, opposed Gorges. Sir Edward Coke, a member of Parliament and of the privy council (who had been lord chief-justice of England), also opposed the monopolists; and then began his famous contest with King James which resulted in a notable exhibition of wrath and despotism on the part of the sovereign. Sandys pleaded for freedom in fishing and in general commerce, which was then the staple source of wealth for England. " America is not annexed to the realm, nor within the jurisdiction of Parliament," said George Calvert, a supporter of the monopoly. " You therefore have no right to interfere." "We make laws for Virginia," retorted another member ; " a bill passed by the Commons and the Lords, if it receives the King's assent, will control the patent." Coke argued (referring to many statutes of the realm) that, as the charter was granted without regard to preexisting rights, it was necessarily void. This attack upon his prerogative stirred the anger of the monarch, who was sitting near the speaker's chair, and he blurted out some silly words about the divine right of kings," when the Commons, in defiance of his wrath, passed a bill giving freedom to commerce in spite of the charter.

Before the bill had passed through the form of legislation the King dissolved the Parliament, and forbade by proclamation any vessel to approach the shores of New England without the special consent of the Council of Plymouth. He also caused the imprisonment of Coke, Pym, and other leaders of the Commons, after adjournment, for their alleged factious behavior. The next Parliament proceeded to perfect what the former one had begun. Under the King's proclamation, the council sent out Francis West as admiral of New England, to impose a tribute upon fishing-vessels on the northeast coast; but the final decision of Parliament took away his occupation, and virtually destroyed the power of the council. Many of the parties withdrew their interests in the company, and those who remained, like Gorges, did little more than issue grants of domain in the northeastern parts of America.

After the accession of Charles I. (1625) there was much restiveness concerning the monopoly, even in its weakened state, and the merchants prayed for a revocation of the charter. The Commons, growing more and more democratic, regarded it as a royal instrument; churchmen looked upon it as a foe to prelacy, because Puritans were sheltered on its domain; and Charles, as bigoted a believer in the doctrine of the " divine right of kings " as his father, suspected the New England colonists were enjoying liberties inconsistent with the royal prerogative. The company prepared for its dissolution by dividing north Virginia into twelve royal provinces, assigning each to persons named, and at their last meeting (April, 1635) they caused to be entered upon their minutes the following record: " We have been bereaved of friends; oppressed by losses, expenses, and troubles; assailed before the privy council again and again with groundless charges; weakened by the French and other foes without and with in the realm; and what remains is only a breathless carcass. We therefore now resign the patent to the King, first reserving all grants by us made and all vested rights - a patent we have holden about fifteen years." (See PLYMOUTH, NEW)

 

 

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