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Ideas | John Butman and Simon Targett

How the Pilgrims learned marketing

“Portrait of Pocahontas” by printmaker and sculptor Simon van de Passe.
“Portrait of Pocahontas” by printmaker and sculptor Simon van de Passe. wikicommons

In the spring of 1621, the Pilgrims were in a desperate condition. They had lost almost half of their 102-person colony to disease and cold that first winter at Plymouth. Now they needed more food and supplies and, above all, more people. But how to reach potential settlers in England, 3,000 miles away, and attract them to a community that was struggling just to survive?

Governor William Bradford and his supporters in England turned to a business discipline we don’t typically associate with the God-fearing Pilgrims: marketing. It was an auspicious time to do so, because things were changing in England. Fifty years earlier, there had been few established channels for communicating with, let alone advertising to, the general public. People got their news and information from letters, printed pamphlets, posted broadsheets, and books. But literacy rates were low — as low as 30 percent for men and 10 percent for women — so the most popular source of intel was word of mouth. Preachers shared news from the pulpit, travelling salespeople related the latest as they moved from village to town, and everybody exchanged stories in the tavern and the marketplace. We can only imagine the accuracy of the reporting.


But by the time the Pilgrims set sail in the Mayflower, literacy rates were on the rise, the English language itself was taking shape — people flocked to see Shakespeare’s plays and recited the poems of John Donne — and there was a tremendous demand for new reading material. In 1620, there were 200 booksellers in London alone and 400 titles were published. Also, at about this time, an exciting and immediate new format was introduced called the coranto, a single-page newsletter carrying government-authorized versions of the latest stories from abroad. These were squarely aimed, as one official put it, at the “ploughman and the artisan” — precisely the people the Pilgrims wanted to reach.

So, probably during that spring and summer of 1621, Bradford and his associate, Edward Winslow, wrote up some aspects of the story of the Mayflower and the Plymouth Colony, intended for distribution back home.

We tend to think of the founding of the country in religious or political terms. But the settling of the colonies was primarily an economic enterprise. And it was done at a time when the information barriers were extraordinarily high. Setting up a distant colony would be a formidable task today, even with the communication advancements. Doing so in the 1600s was even more audacious.


Winslow knew something about the publishing trade, having apprenticed with a printer in London named John Beale, and he knew there was great popular interest in exotic travel narratives. In the two years before the Pilgrims left England, 1618 to 1620, at least 17 new works had been published about overseas adventures — including a reprint of a classic part fact part fiction travel work “The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville,” reports of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia and the English colony in Newfoundland, and George Abbot’s ambitiously titled tome, “A Brief Description of the Whole Worlde.”

In early December 1621, the ship Fortune arrived at Plymouth from England, carrying a few supplies and 35 new settlers, not even enough to replace those who had died. The Pilgrims quickly loaded the Fortune with the animal furs they had purchased from the local Indians and gave the manuscript to one of their shipboard associates, Robert Cushman.

Once in England, the manuscript was rushed into production and, in the spring or summer of 1622, was offered for sale at a central London bookshop called the Two Greyhounds. The title — “A Relation or Journal of the beginning of the English Plantation settled at Plymouth in New England by certain English adventurers both merchants and others” — was hardly the work of a marketing wizard. But the text, which included material from other contributors, put a happy face on America for English readers. An introduction, probably written by Cushman, recorded the “joyful building” and “comfortable planting” of the village of New Plymouth and described New England as “one of the most pleasant, most healthful, and most fruitful parts of the world.” Also, it reported an abundance of fish and shellfish, and many varieties of fruit. The one and only thing lacking? “Industrious men” who were willing to seize this rare opportunity.


The Pilgrims’ foray into marketing, while novel for them, was not the first such effort undertaken by merchant adventurers seeking to reach a general audience. As early as 1553, the organizers of a trading voyage bound for China commissioned Richard Eden, a Cambridge-educated writer and translator, to produce a promotional pamphlet containing stories that extolled the riches of distant markets. It was a trailblazing publication, introducing a host of new words into the English language, including “China,” “Brazil,” “canoe,” and “globe” (meaning the Earth rather than a mere sphere). And it helped convince 240 people to invest a total of £6,000, an impressive amount for the day.

In the 1580s, when the English turned toward America and moved from one-off voyages to ventures of colonization, it proved much harder to recruit settlers than to entice investors. That’s why Walter Raleigh, the organizer of the first serious attempt at settlement — at Roanoke, on the coast of what is now North Carolina — took pains to commission glowing promotional material. An Oxford scientist, Thomas Harriot, wrote a lively account of the place and a gentleman-painter, John White, produced exquisite watercolors of the country and its native inhabitants. “A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia” was published in 1588, and gave the English public their first real look at America. Although more people signed up, the settlement ultimately failed.


In 1589, a massive work of promotion — bordering on hype, really — whetted the popular appetite for English adventuring overseas. Richard Hakluyt, the most ardent supporter of American “planting,” as he termed it, came out with a book now simply known as “Principal Navigations.” It contains eyewitness accounts and personal narratives of all the important English ventures going back 1600 years. Hakluyt’s work gave England a new way to think about itself — as a bold seafaring people whose brave navigators, sent out by forward-thinking merchants and courtiers, were able to voyage across the oceans, venture to new lands, and establish a presence there.

But even with this new appreciation of colonization at home, the problem of settler recruitment remained — even at the first major settlement at Jamestown. Thomas Smythe, leader of the Virginia Company, which oversaw the colony from England, employed a number of inventive marketing techniques to create awareness, raise capital, and sign up volunteers. In 1612, the company sponsored a public lottery, open to all. A specially prepared pamphlet, “The New Life of Virginia,” exhorted ordinary citizens to take part in the lottery because it was “of such consequence” for the nation. Thomas Sharplisse, a tailor, won first prize and the Virginia Company was a big winner, too, raising some 60,000 ducats.


In 1616, the Virginia Company staged its most audacious marketing effort — a personal appearance in London by Pocahontas, daughter of the great Indian leader Wahunsonacock and wife of a Jamestown settler, John Rolfe. Accompanied by her husband and a contingent of a dozen Powhatans, she made a huge impression on the public. With good grace and poise, Pocahontas, barely 20 years old, arrayed herself in English clothes, sat for an oil portrait, and met with King James at court. Her visit ended in tragedy, however, when she died aboard ship just as her homeward voyage began. But her appearance, and the accounts of it, went a long way toward easing fears of living in what was thought of as an American wilderness—and left a lasting legacy on the popular imagination.

Given this background, we should not be surprised that the Pilgrims, as religious as they were, and their backers employed the techniques of marketing to build their community. Although there were no data-gathering organizations at the time, and we don’t know how many copies of Bradford and Winslow’s “Relation” were distributed, we do know that more settlers did sign up to live in Plymouth and then to found new settlements in Massachusetts as well as Maine over the next few years. The pitch was successful enough that an updated edition of “Relation” came out in 1624 and this time the Pilgrims demonstrated that they had learned some of the age-old lessons of marketing — to be direct, simple, and positive. For the new version they dumped the cumbersome first-edition title and made sure the reader could get the message with even a casual glance at the cover and its much catchier title: “Good Newes from New England.”

John Butman and Simon Targett are the co-authors of “New World, Inc.: The Making of America By England’s Merchant Adventurers”