When the Pilgrims set sail from Europe in 1620, several powerful reasons propelled them across the Atlantic Ocean to make new lives in America—but religious liberty was not their most pressing concern.

While it’s popularly thought that the Pilgrims fled England in search of religious freedom, the separatists’ quest had ended more than a decade before they boarded the Mayflower. After departing England in 1608, the Pilgrims found sanctuary in the Dutch city of Leiden, where they were free to worship and enjoyed “much peace and liberty,” according to Pilgrim Edward Winslow.

“The Pilgrims actually had no reason to leave the Dutch Republic in order to go to America to seek religious toleration—because they already had it,” says Simon Targett, co-author of New World, Inc.: The Making of America by England’s Merchant Adventurers. “Therefore, you have to look for other reasons as to why they might have risked the dangers of going across to the New World—and one of the big reasons was commercial.”

The Pilgrims’ Dutch Sojourn Left Them Poor and Disillusioned

Like tens of millions of newcomers who would follow in their wake to America, the Pilgrims were economic migrants. After working for more than a decade in Leiden’s textile industry, the Pilgrims possessed little beyond their religious freedom. The former farmers lived in poverty, laboring long hours for low pay by weaving, spinning and making cloth. The Pilgrims’ economic hardship made it exceedingly difficult to convince their fellow separatists to join them in Leiden, no matter their religious rights. “Some preferred and chose the prisons in England rather than this liberty in Holland with these afflictions,” Pilgrim leader William Bradford recounted.

As the Pilgrims’ economic prospects further dimmed with the collapse of the wool market, the onset of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe and the imminent end of a 12-year truce between Spain and the Dutch Republic threatened the tranquility of their safe haven. While the Pilgrim population dwindled, their fears swelled that the secular Dutch society that tolerated their religious beliefs also corrupted the morals of their children, causing them to turn away from their church and English identity. Bradford complained that “many of their children” were succumbing to Leiden’s “manifold temptations” and being “drawn away by evil examples into extravagant and dangerous courses.”

“The Pilgrims wanted their children to be English citizens, not Dutch citizens,” Targett says. “But if they were going to leave, they wouldn’t be able to go back to England because of religious reasons.” Pilgrim eyes, therefore, gazed across the Atlantic Ocean to America, where English merchants had been financing colonial settlements for decades. There they could freely worship, but also have greater economic stability and preserve their English identity. The Pilgrims also believed that the New World gave them the opportunity to evangelize to Native Americans and undertake, as Bradford wrote, “the propagating and advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world.”

The Pilgrims Joined a Money-Making Enterprise

Profit-seeking corporations launched England’s first commercial outposts in America, such as the one established by the Virginia Company at Jamestown. Even to investors more interested in profits than prophets, the Pilgrims made ideal candidates to launch a New World colony, given that they were close-knit, industrious and accustomed to hardship.

After the Pilgrims received a patent from the Virginia Company to establish a settlement in its jurisdiction, a group of 70 London businessmen called the Merchant Adventurers supplied the capital to finance the enterprise by purchasing shares in a joint-stock company. These backers paid for the Mayflower, its crew and a year’s worth of supplies.

The Merchant Adventurers expected a return on their investment and required that the Pilgrims work for the company during their first seven years in America. Each colonist over the age of 16 received one share for emigrating and working the land, which would be theirs along with any future profits after the expiration of the seven-year contract.

In order to finance the voyage, the Pilgrims were forced to take aboard the Mayflower fellow economic migrants who shared their quest for commercial success, but not their separatist beliefs. These “strangers,” as the Pilgrims called them, accounted for half of the Mayflower passengers. When the “strangers” argued that they were no longer bound by the Virginia Company’s charter after the Mayflower landed far north of its target in Massachusetts in November 1620, Pilgrim leaders drew up the Mayflower Compact to set the rules for self-governance and quell any potential rebellion.

The Plymouth Colony Struggled to Turn a Profit

Pilgrams worshiping at Plymouth
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Public worship at Plymouth by the Pilgrams.

As a business enterprise, the colonial start-up faced a beginning as rocky as the New England soil the Pilgrims were forced to sow. The Plymouth Colony barely survived, let alone thrived, after a brutal first winter in America, and the Mayflower returned to England empty of commodities. It was a sign of things to come.

“The early investors were dissatisfied with what the Pilgrims sent home,” Targett says. “They were meant to send back fur, timber and fish, and on a couple of occasions the ships sent back either sank or were captured by pirates, so the investors never saw the benefits.”

The Plymouth Colony finally gained its financial footing thanks to beaver pelts, which were in great demand back in England to make felt hats and other luxurious fashion accessories. “The Bible and the beaver were the two mainstays of the young colony,” wrote historian James Truslow Adams. “The former saved its morale, and the latter paid its bills, and the rodent’s share was a large one.”

The arrival of the Puritans and the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s, however, increased the competition for beaver pelts and cut into the Pilgrims’ bottom line. Not until 1648 did the Pilgrims pay off their debt. The Plymouth Colony ultimately faced a similar fate to many struggling businesses. It was consumed by a larger, more successful corporate entity when it was merged with other colonies to form the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1691.

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