In September 1620, a merchant ship called the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, a port on the southern coast of England. Normally, the Mayflower’s cargo was wine and dry goods, but on this trip the ship carried passengers: 102 of them, all hoping to start a new life on the other side of the Atlantic. Nearly 40 of these passengers were Protestant Separatists—they called themselves “Saints”—who hoped to establish a new church in the New World. Today, we often refer to the colonists who crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower as “Pilgrims.”
Pilgrims Before the Mayflower
In 1608, a congregation of disgruntled English Protestants from the village of Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, left England and moved to Leyden, a town in Holland. These “Separatists” did not want to pledge allegiance to the Church of England, which they believed was nearly as corrupt and idolatrous as the Catholic Church it had replaced, any longer. (They were not the same as the Puritans, who had many of the same objections to the English church but wanted to reform it from within.) The Separatists hoped that in Holland, they would be free to worship as they liked
In fact, the Separatists, or “Saints,” as they called themselves, did find religious freedom in Holland, but they also found a secular life that was more difficult to navigate than they’d anticipated. For one thing, Dutch craft guilds excluded the migrants, so they were relegated to menial, low-paying jobs.
Even worse was Holland’s easygoing, cosmopolitan atmosphere, which proved alarmingly seductive to some of the Saints’ children. (These young people were “drawn away,” Separatist leader William Bradford wrote, “by evill [sic] example into extravagance and dangerous courses.”) For the strict, devout Separatists, this was the last straw. They decided to move again, this time to a place without government interference or worldly distraction: the “New World” across the Atlantic Ocean.
READ MORE: Why Did the Pilgrims Come to America?
The Mayflower Journey
First, the Separatists returned to London to get organized. A prominent merchant agreed to advance the money for their journey. The Virginia Company gave them permission to establish a settlement, or “plantation,” on the East Coast between 38 and 41 degrees north latitude (roughly between the Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the Hudson River). And the King of England gave them permission to leave the Church of England, “provided they carried themselves peaceably.”
In August 1620, a group of about 40 Saints joined a much larger group of (comparatively) secular colonists—“Strangers,” to the Saints—and set sail from Southampton, England on two merchant ships: the Mayflower and the Speedwell. The Speedwell began to leak almost immediately, however, and the ships headed back to port in Plymouth. The travelers squeezed themselves and their belongings onto the Mayflower, a cargo ship about 80 feet long and 24 feet wide and capable of carrying 180 tons of cargo. The Mayflower set sail once again under the direction of Captain Christopher Jones.
Because of the delay caused by the leaky Speedwell, the Mayflower had to cross the Atlantic at the height of storm season. As a result, the journey was horribly unpleasant. Many of the passengers were so seasick they could scarcely get up, and the waves were so rough that one “Stranger” was swept overboard. (It was “the just hand of God upon him,” Bradford wrote later, for the young sailor had been “a proud and very profane yonge man.”)
The Mayflower Compact
After sixty-six days, or roughly two miserable months at sea, the ship finally reached the New World. There, the Mayflower’s passengers found an abandoned Indian village and not much else. They also found that they were in the wrong place: Cape Cod was located at 42 degrees north latitude, well north of the Virginia Company’s territory. Technically, the Mayflower colonists had no right to be there at all.
In order to establish themselves as a legitimate colony (“Plymouth,” named after the English port from which they had departed) under these dubious circumstances, 41 of the Saints and Strangers drafted and signed a document they called the Mayflower Compact. This Compact promised to create a “civil Body Politick” governed by elected officials and “just and equal laws.” It also swore allegiance to the English king. It was the first document to establish self-government in the New World and this early attempt at democracy set the stage for future colonists seeking independence from the British.
The First Thanksgiving
The colonists spent the first winter living onboard the Mayflower. Only 53 passengers and half the crew survived. Women were particularly hard hit; of the 19 women who had boarded the Mayflower, only five survived the cold New England winter, confined to the ship where disease and cold were rampant. The Mayflower sailed back to England in April 1621, and once the group moved ashore, the colonists faced even more challenges.
During their first winter in America, more than half of the Plymouth colonists died from malnutrition, disease and exposure to the harsh New England weather. In fact, without the help of the area’s native people, it is likely that none of the colonists would have survived. An English-speaking Abenaki named Samoset helped the colonists form an alliance with the local Wampanoags, who taught them how to hunt local animals, gather shellfish and grow corn, beans and squash.
At the end of the next summer, the Plymouth colonists celebrated their first successful harvest with a three-day festival of thanksgiving. We still commemorate this feast and remember it as the first Thanksgiving, though it did not occur on the fourth Thursday in November like it does today, but sometime between late September and mid November 1621. The colonists were outnumbered two to one by their guests. Attendee Edward Winslow noted there were “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men.”
Eventually, the Plymouth colonists were absorbed into the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. Still, the Mayflower Saints and their descendants remained convinced that they alone had been specially chosen by God to act as a beacon for Christians around the world. “As one small candle may light a thousand,” Bradford wrote, “so the light here kindled hath shone to many, yea in some sort to our whole nation.”
Today, visitors wishing to see Plymouth Colony as it appeared during the time of the Mayflower can witness reenactments of the first Thanksgiving and more at Plymouth Plantation.
There are an estimated 10 million living Americans and 35 million people around the world who are descended from the original passengers on the Mayflower like Myles Standish, John Alden and William Bradford. include Humphrey Bogart, Julia Child, Norman Rockwell, and presidents John Adams, James Garfield and Zachary Taylor.