The Plymouth Colony Records Project and Our Plans for 2020

Plymouth Colony Records published 1855-1861 (12 vols. bound as 10).

Photocopies of the unpublished Plymouth Colony Records.

A random page from the photocopies of unpublished records.

Plymouth Colony Records, Deeds, &c., vol. II, 1651-1663

Plymouth Colony's Private Libraries

What Records Remain?

Plymouth Colony's records are extraordinarily complete, covering many aspects of seventeenth-century colonial life. Despite this wealth of potential information, nearly half the official records of Plymouth Colony have never been transcribed and published. Town records from the colony were also published only partially, leaving large amounts of information unknown. Histories of the Pilgrims and their colony are all distorted and skewed by their authorsí unfamiliarity with these documents. Publication of the records will generate a comprehensive understanding of the lives of New Englandís first European settlers and their Native American neighbors.

Since 1992 I have been transcribing and publishing for the first time this neglected and forgotten archival documentation. That long-range project is the Plymouth Colony Records Project, a project of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum. The goal is to produce a new history of the colony by 2019 (to herald the commemoration of the 1620 "Mayflower" voyage in 2020), together with publication of the transcribed and edited documents, so that the forgotten sources will be available to everyone. The transcription project is about half complete; but its continuation and accomplishment requires financial support.

The following comments describe the archival material and the extent to which it has been transcribed, published, and used.

The preserved documents related to Pilgrim history can be considered in four distinct categories:

A. Documents created by the Plymouth Colony Court, consisting of the assembled freemen or selectmen meeting at least twice annually, as well as the colony's central governing council of Governor and Assistants (magistrates), and the acts of the United Colonies of New England though the participation of Plymouth Colony's delegates.

Twelve volumes of Plymouth Colony's court records were transcribed and edited by Nathaniel Shurtleff and David Pulsifer, published in a series that came out from 1855 to 1861. These comprise Court Orders (vols. 1-6), Judicial Acts (vol. 7), Misscellaneous Records (vol. 8), Acts of the Commissioners of the United Colonies (vols. 9, 10), Laws (vol. 11), and Deeds (vol. 12). The Civil War interrupted the project, leaving 11 volumes of manuscripts still unpublished, continuing the "Deeds" material. A volume of uncategorized fragments was edited by Charles Henry Pope and published in 1918 as "The Plymouth Scrap Book." The documents published in the 19th and early 20th centuries have been studied by several historians of the colony working since then, e.g. Langdon and Stratton.

The colony's probate records from 1633 to 1669 have been transcribed and edited by Charles Simmons, published in 1996 (under the title "Plymouth Colony Records, Volume 1" but also including vol. 2). Two further volumes of probate records (post 1669) have not been published. Catherine Martin, Joelle Stein, and Anne Yentsch had transcribed all the probate volumes ca. 1980, but their work remained unpublished. James Deetz and his students used the published material and these typescript probate inventory transcriptions (by Martin, Stein, and Yentsch) as the basis for commentary on Plymouth colony topics.

I have transcribed about half of the remaining unpublished Plymouth Colony Records. Among them are all the records of transfer of land from Indian Sachems and other Indian land owners to the colony court, and from the colony court to the first European owners. These records are published and discussed in my book Indian Deeds: Land Transactions in Plymouth Colony, 1620-1691. It will take three or four years more to complete the transcription and a year to edit the remaining material.

B. Documents created by the towns within Plymouth Colony

Excerpts from town records appear in 19th-century histories of towns in Plymouth Colony. The complete town records of Plymouth were transcribed and published for Plymouth in 1889 by W.T. Davis. I transcribed and edited those for Scituate (3 vols.), published in 1997, 1999, and 2001; and I did the same work for Eastham, published in 2012. My full transcription of Marshfield's records is currently being published in The Mayflower Descendant. Excerpts from town records of Duxbury, Bridgewater, and Dartmouth were published in the 19th century. I have transcribed entries omitted then, and this material will appear in The Mayflower Descendant. I have recently finished transcribing the unpublished records of Sandwich, which will be published in 2014.

C. Documents written by Pilgrims, e.g. journals, letters, not in the official archives of Pilgrim territory

The Pilgrims' reports on their colony ("Mourt's Relation" and "Good Newes from Newe England") and William Bradford's memoir "Of Plymouth Plantation" and his "Letter Book" form the most important examples of this category. They have been published in various editions and have formed the major source of information for all authors writing about the Pilgrims. They are augmented by numerous incidental loose official papers (typically copies of deeds issued to private owners), personal letters, and private documents from Plymouth Colony residents, e.g. James Cudworth's 1634 letter to his step-father John Stoughton now in the National Archives, Kew; the farm account book of John Cushing of Scituate, in the Massachusetts Historical Society; and the 17th-century manuscripts in the collections of The Pilgrim Society, all transcribed by me for the society in 1993-1996. Photographic copies of most of these manuscripts or their transcriptions are part of the research collections of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum.

D. All other documents of any kind referring to the Pilgrims but not in subsets A, B, or C; i.e. mainly documents in the archives of places outside Pilgrim territory, e.g. England, Netherlands, other parts of America Whereas every single document in the archive of (e.g.) Scituate belongs by definition to subset B, subset-D documents are mostly in archives that contain vast quantities of other documents not relevant to Pilgrims, such as the National Archives at Kew, the London Metropolitan Archives, the Nottinghamshire Archives, and the Leiden Regional Archives (now called Leiden Heritage Center).

Some of this raw material has also been exploited by historians to varying degrees, for example, H. M. and M. Dexter (1905) and I (2009) have used the records at Leiden and at Kew. Although much of this material will be used in composing narrative history, transcibing all documents in subsets C and D goes beyond the ambitions of the Plymouth Colony Records Project.

The writing of books that exploit this material is not part of the Records Project. That, in so far as it is done by the Foundation, counts as Historical Research.

A note for clarification: The Plymouth Colony Records Project, begun in 1992 with the Scituate records, is not the same as, nor is it a part of, a different (internet) project begun independently in 1998, called the Plymouth Colony Archive Project, initiated by James Deetz. That very interesting project consists of analytical commentary from an anthropological point of view, on topics excerpted from the records published in the 19th century, together with sociological conclusions derived from study of probate inventories.

The Records Project - An Update, 2016

Financial support to complete the transcription project within the predicted time (by 2019) was not found. An unexpected halt (in 2012) to funding by a major Pilgrim-related genealogical society required a shift of attention and effort.

What has been accomplished is the publication of the town records from Plymouth Colony, with The Town Records of Marshfield during the Time of Plymouth Colony, 1620-1692 (LAPM, 2015, available print-on-demand from Lulu) joining those of Sandwich (2014), Eastham (2012), Scituate (3 vols., 1997, 1999, 2001), and Plymouth (1889), together with fragmentary records from the other towns, that were partially published in the 19th century and are now completed and corrected in a series of contributions in issues of The Mayflower Descendant. In 2017, a final volume of town records will be published in the same series, bringing together the complete texts of the records for towns whose material is only fragmentarily preserved (such as Duxbury and Bridgewater, for which corrections and additions to the 19th-century transcriptions appeared in The Mayflower Descendant) and a revised edition of the town records of Plymouth for the period of Plymouth Colony.

Regarding the Plymouth Colony Records, three volumes of deeds are finished; two of these (bound as one) have been published in 2016, as funding for an editorial assistant was generously provided by The Delano Kindred. This volume continues the 19th-century series, with the title Plymouth Colony Records, Deeds, &c., vol. II, 1651-1663. We hope to publish a third volume in 2017, if funding for the final editing and indexing is available. For the next three or four years, however, I shall be working on an unrelated archival project - the transcription, translation, and publication online of over 5,000 documents from the Leiden Archives concerning artistic production in the city from 1475 to 1575. The work is based on and elaborates my own research notes from 1970-1977. The project is hosted by the Netherlands Institute for Art History / Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie. https://www.erfgoedleiden.nl/schatkamer/inleiding/arts-and-crafts

This work began in September, 2015, and leaves me very little time for the Plymouth Colony Records Project.


To commemorate the Pilgrims in the anniversary year 1620-2020, the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum and the Leiden Municipal Museum "De Lakenhal" will organize an exhibition focussing on the intellectual world of the Pilgrims, examining the range of thought and interpretation represented by the books in their libraries. Topics of political theory, history, philosophy, Bible interpretation, theology, military strategy, and geography will receive attention as we see how the Pilgrims' involvement in the new ideas of their time, discussed in the universities of Cambridge and Leiden and beyond, shaped the choices they made as they moved from England to Holland, and from Holland to New England. What ideas formed the foundations of the new world they created? Our collections include around thirty sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books that are listed in the inventories of people who lived in Plymouth Colony, and within the next three years we hope to add several more. Through collaboration with other museums and libraries we hope to be able to illustrate a major aspect of their changing lives that is rarely given much attention. Besides the books themselves, the exhibit will include paintings, prints, and objects related to the themes. A basis for selection is provided by the new book just published - Plymouth Colony's Private Libraries, in which all references to books in the probate inventories of Plymouth Colony are included and, where possible, authors are identified and full titles given. The book is available from Lulu: http://www.lulu.com/shop/jeremy-dupertuis-bangs/plymouth-colonys-private-libraries/hardcover/product-22706406.html