The Waterway That Brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth

Town Brook gave sustenance to the Plymouth’s early settlers, but years of dam building have endangered the struggling stream

Town Brook, the once main water supply for Pilgrims in 1621 has been ailing for decades due to multiple dams constructed along the 1.5-mile stream. (Courtesy of David Gould)

In the spring of 1621, Plymouth Colony’s Town Brook—the main water supply for the newly arrived Pilgrims—filled with silvery river herring swimming upstream to spawn. Squanto, the Indian interpreter, famously used the fish to teach the hungry colonists how to fertilize corn, by layering dead herring in with the seed. The resulting crop fueled festivities the following fall, at a celebration now known as the first Thanksgiving.

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“That story that everyone learns as a kid?” says David Gould, environmental manager of Plymouth, Massachusetts, who oversees modern-day Town Brook. “This was that brook. These were those fish.”

But Town Brook—which helped support commercial life in Plymouth well into the 20th century—has been ailing for many decades now. Because of multiple dams constructed along the 1.5-mile stream, the historic herring runs have dwindled. Hundreds of thousands of fish once reached their spawning grounds each spring; today hardly any complete the journey on their own. To sustain the run, a state agency trucks thousands of additional herring to the head of the stream, where they are released to reproduce.

The town is now trying to restore the storied but struggling waterway. One of the six mostly defunct dams along the tiny snippet of river has been completely removed and another significantly lowered; the removal of two more could happen as early as this summer. The absence of these dams, and the help of recently improved fish ladders—artificial passages that let fish swim over dams—would let tens of thousands of herring breed unaided.

River restoration advocates hope the brook will be a model for other Northeastern waterways, which, from Pennsylvania to Maine, are constricted by an estimated 26,000 dams, many of them no longer in use because industry has moved elsewhere, but still blocking the passage of species like herring, Atlantic salmon and shad. Opponents of dam removal say that the effort to save fish obliterates too much local history.

It was the brook that enticed the first settlers to Plymouth. The Mayflower initially landed in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. But the hundred-odd Pilgrims were wary of the scarcity of fresh water on the sandy peninsula, especially since their supplies of beer, the preferred puritanical refreshment, were running low.

They rounded the tip of the cape and sailed across to mainland Massachusetts, where they spied what one person later described as “a very sweet brook,” fed by cool springs of “as good water as can be drunk.” The brook’s mouth was a convenient salt marsh, where the colonists could anchor their boats. And not far from where the brook met the sea was what would later become an extremely famous rock.

The settlers built their houses close by, and an early encounter with the Indians occurred “across the valley of Town Brook,” Nathaniel Philbrick wrote in Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. “The Indians gestured for them to approach. The Pilgrims, however, made it clear that they wanted the Indians to come to them.” Along with water and fish, the brook supplied eels (Squanto, for one, knew how to trample them out of the mud) and plenty of waterfowl, which flocked to the little pond at its source that they called, rather grandly, Billington Sea.

The colonists soon discovered even more uses for the brook. Almost totally dependent on European imports when they first arrived, they needed to manufacture necessities, and dams provided power. The first corn mills were built along the brook in the 1630s—prior to that, the Pilgrims pounded corn into flour by hand.

Other water-powered mills followed, to treat wool and, later, produce leather and snuff. The Town Brook’s mills became still more important after the Revolutionary War. Since much of the town fishing fleet was captured or sunk in the Revolution (the remainder was mostly finished off in the War of 1812), the locals were eager to find land-based employment in the mills, which soon focused on iron production and paved the way for the Industrial Revolution, making everything from nails to shovels.

About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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