After more than two months at sea, the Pilgrims aboard the storm-tossed Mayflower finally spied the New England coastline as dawn broke on November 9, 1620. Although William Bradford reported that the Pilgrims were full of joy after enduring a “long beating at sea,” his fellow passengers also knew that the Atlantic Ocean’s fierce storms had driven them more than 220 miles northeast of their intended destination—the mouth of the Hudson River. As Mayflower master Christopher Jones attempted to sail south toward the Hudson River along the uncharted coast of Cape Cod, however, the ship encountered blustery headwinds and “fell amongst dangerous shoals and roaring breakers.” With supplies running low and fears of a shipwreck running high, Jones turned back and found refuge in the harbor near present-day Provincetown Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims first made landfall on November 11. The following month, the Pilgrims crossed Cape Cod Bay and began to construct their permanent settlement in Plymouth.

During their years in exile in Holland, the Pilgrims had heard favorable reports of the lands around present-day New York City visited by Henry Hudson on his Dutch-sponsored voyage in 1609. They sailed from England with a royal patent to settle the region, which skirted the 41st latitude and marked the northernmost point of land chartered by the Virginia Company of London. Since the Pilgrims lacked royal authority to settle in New England, however, some Mayflower passengers threatened to abandon the colony. To ensure the colonists continued to respect the rule of law, 41 of the men aboard the ship signed the Mayflower Compact, which outlined the governing principles of the Plymouth Colony.

Once the Pilgrims set sail to stake their claim to the mouth of the Hudson River, Dutch traders felt compelled to colonize Manhattan. In 1624 the first permanent settlers established the fur trading post of New Amsterdam. From its earliest days, the settlement that would become New York City was a melting pot built on commerce rather than religion. Had the Pilgrims reached the mouth of the Hudson River as planned, however, New York City would likely be a much different place today.