Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Issue #11 of the Anglotopia Print Magazine in 2018. Support great long-form writing about British History, Culture, and travel by subscribing to the Anglotopia Magazine. Every subscription helps keep Anglotopia running and provides us to the opportunity to produce articles like this. You can subscribe here.
On the 6th of September 1620, the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, England, carrying a cargo of hopeful, intrepid English pilgrims, eager to start a new life on the other side of the Atlantic. This group of settlers were part of the very early British colonising missions to North America, but their particular story and singular identity has created an enduring foundational myth in the American psyche. The Mayflower pilgrims were in search of a new land in which they could establish a somewhat utopian society, fleeing religious persecution and corrupting, immoral forces at home in England. The ‘New World’ offered a new start, allowing them the freedom to forge a new society based on the principles of faith, and austerity. The trials and tribulations of the Mayflower pilgrims have evolved into the stuff of legends, particularly with respect to their dealings with the local indigenous groups in and around Cape Cod. The modern festival of Thanksgiving, which is based on a shared harvest feast with the Wampanoag tribe, exists as a powerful reminder of the precarious beginnings of British settlement in North America.
- September 1607 – Migration of the Scrooby congregation to Leiden
- 5 August 1620 – The Mayflower and Speedwell set sail from Southampton
- 6 September 1620 – The Mayflower sets sail from Plymouth, England
- 11 November 1620 – The Mayflower lands at Provincetown Harbour, Cape Cod
- Christopher Jones – Captain of the Mayflower
- William Brewster – Early leader of the pilgrim community in Plymouth
- Edward Winslow – Early leader of the pilgrim community in Plymouth
- Samoset – English-speaking member of the Patuxet tribe
English Pilgrims: In Search of a New Home
In the century following the Reformation, England witnessed a period of intense religious conflict, as successive monarchs adopted contradictory policies concerning the right and ability of individuals to worship according to their own conscience. In this period, religion was inherently political, and any rejection of the Church of England was construed as a rejection of the crown, the monarch being the head of the Church of England. Those Protestants (usually Puritans) who rejected the doctrines and practices of the Church of England were therefore in an exceptionally precarious position and risked being accused of treason.
In the early 17th century, groups of Protestants emerged in English society that believed that the Reformation of the Church of England had been ineffective, and the only way to pursue a righteous path of Christian worship was to separate from it. These so-called ‘separatists’ did not have (at this point) any particular Church title and were distinct from the majority of Puritans, who accepted the Church of England while believing it to be in need of further reform. The separatists found their position in England increasingly untenable after the accession of James the VI of Scotland to the English throne, and in the first years of the 17th century, a significant group coalesced around the manor house at Scrooby, in South Yorkshire.
The congregation at Scrooby was led by William Brewster, who had previously lived and worked in Holland. As persecutions of separatists and non-conformists intensified, the congregation decided in 1607 to move to Leiden, in Holland, where Brewster and other members of the congregation had connections. In Holland, the congregation was free to worship, but over the course of the following decade, a number of issues emerged that caused tension and concern within the community. First, there was concern that the pilgrims were losing their English identity and assimilating to Dutch society. Concurrent with this process was a perceived corruption of the pure religious ideals espoused by the Puritan community: as a bustling, industrial city, Leiden offered too many temptations for younger members, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain the austere values and practices of the original congregation.
In addition to this, although the majority of the community was in a stable position, the prospects for work and reward in Leiden were limited by the labor and immigration laws, which kept the pilgrims in menial, low-paying jobs. The rising tensions between the Dutch and the Spanish also gave rise to fears that the permissive attitude to Puritanism that had prevailed in Holland might be about to come to an end. The future for the congregation was uncertain, and community leaders such as Edward Winslow argued forcefully that it was time to find an alternative home: a place where the pilgrims could start afresh and establish their community in an area without the threat of war, moral corruption and religious persecution.
North America appeared to offer an ideal solution, but it was not without considerable risks. The experiences of early settlers in Jamestown just a few years previously functioned as a salient reminder that any attempt to establish a colony in an inhospitable landscape amid hostile native peoples posed an enormous challenge. The journey itself would be arduous, and the threat of disease and starvation played heavily on the minds of the community leaders. Nevertheless, in 1619, Robert Cushman and John Carver opened negotiations with the London Company, with the intention of gaining permission for a new settlement at the mount of the Hudson River. The terms of the settlement would be similar to other early colonising missions: settlers would be under the jurisdiction of the London Company and were expected to provide labor for them for seven years after the foundation of the colony.
Finding Passage to the New World
Once the decision was made, the pilgrims leased a ship named the Mayflower that would transport them to America’s east coast. The pilgrims in Leiden needed to get to England in order to join the Mayflower and to say a final farewell to their ancestral home. As a result, a smaller ship named the Speedwell was hired to take them to Southampton, from whence the two vessels would transport the pilgrims to the New World. The Speedwell would remain in the colony where it would be used for fishing and exploratory ventures. However, these plans suffered considerable setbacks when it became apparent that the Speedwell was not seaworthy. Considerable delays were incurred as the ship underwent repairs, and it was not until the 5th of August that the Speedwell and the Mayflower departed from Southampton. Even then, the ships were forced to turn back twice due to further problems with the Speedwell, until finally, it was decided to abandon the plan and put all of the pilgrims and supplies on to the already-crowded Mayflower.
Finally, on the 6th of September, the Mayflower departed from Plymouth. It carried 102 passengers, around one-half of which were Protestant separatists: the remainder were non-separatists and crewmen. The early part of the journey progressed fairly smoothly, but the delays in departure meant that the ship would hit the stormy season. As the weather worsened, the Mayflower was thrown off course. The pilgrims had been aiming for northern Virginia and the Hudson River, but finally, after 66 days at sea, Cape Cod was sighted on the 9th of November 1620. Poor weather forced them to land at this point instead of continuing south to the Hudson, and so the new colony would, in fact, be established beyond the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company.
For approximately six weeks, the pilgrims spent their time exploring the Cape, trying to decide upon a site for their new colony. On Christmas Day, 1620, they finally agreed upon a location, named it Plymouth, and started to build their new settlement. In part, the decision to relocate to Plymouth had been motivated by tense encounters with the indigenous population, particularly after the pilgrims had disturbed burial sites and looted several grain stores along the coast.
The Mayflower Compact
As soon as the pilgrims arrived at the Cape, they were anxious to establish a firm basis for the administration and governance of the new colony. The new location meant that they were outside of the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, and the leaders of the community seized the opportunity to form their own system of governance and social organization. A group of 41 of the pilgrims and the other passengers on the ship agreed on terms and signed a contract, which they called the Mayflower Compact.
This agreement set a precedent for the creation of a ‘civil body politick’ that would be governed by an elected representative body and regulated according to just and equal laws. They swore allegiance to the English king, but their system of governance was an innovation. In effect, the signing of a civil covenant between peers of equal status would form the basis of secular government within America.
Surviving the Winter
The first winter proved to be a harsh wake-up call for the settlers. The majority lived on board the Mayflower, which remained in Plymouth until April of 1621 when it departed with a number of survivors and crew members. Half of the early settlers had died through malnutrition, starvation, and disease. The harsh winter and difficult terrain that they had encountered in the new world meant that cultivation and construction was a much more difficult feat than anticipated. For a time, it seemed that the colony would suffer the same inevitable fate of so many other attempted English settlements before them.
The survival of the community may be attributed to the local indigenous tribes, particularly the Wampanoag, who taught the settlers how to hunt, fish, and grow basic crops. A deal was brokered between the settlers and an English-speaking member of the Patuxet tribe named Samoset, who was living among the Wampanoag. He operated as an interpreter, providing assistance to the pilgrims, and developed strong relationships with a number of the key members of the colony. Samoset appears to have played a crucial role in brokering relations between the native tribes and the settlers, in particular in softening hostilities that had been caused by the settlers’ disregard for the property, lands, and customs of indigenous communities. As a consequence, the pilgrims were able to successfully cultivate crops over the summer of 1621 and reap a significant harvest the following September. The harvest was celebrated with a three-day feast, involving both settlers and natives, which is still remembered in North America today during the Thanksgiving festival.
The Mayflower Voyage and the early pilgrim colony at Cape Cod have taken on an iconic role in America’s national story. The pilgrim settlers represent the earliest incarnation of the American Dream: European migrants seeking a better life, opportunity, and possibility across the Atlantic. The stereotypical image of the Pilgrim Fathers as models of industry, austerity, and hard work has fuelled a value system in America that endures to this day. In addition to this, the social and political organisation of the early pilgrims set a precedent for fair, equitable governance and democratic collective organisation based on secular principles. This precedent was followed in subsequent processes of colonisation and organisation: the move to the new world facilitated this experimentation with different forms of social organisation and governance, that would fundamentally impact upon the future democratic development of the United States of America.
Finally, the culmination of the Mayflower voyage is celebrated every year in the United States during the festival of Thanksgiving. This festival tends to paint a rosy picture of indigenous-immigrant relations, and arguably occults the violence and suppression of local populations by what was effectively a colonising force. In recent years, there has been a greater recognition of the complexities that surrounded the relations between settlers and indigenous populations, and a re-narration of the story of Thanksgiving that takes account of these complexities. The Mayflower Voyage and settlement remain, therefore, a key event in American history, and one that deserves our continued attention.
Sites to Visit
The Mayflower Steps and Museum, Plymouth, UK. This heritage museum traces the history of the Mayflower pilgrims as they left England for the New World. The museum also includes the Mayflower Trail, which takes visitors to the Elizabethan Gardens and the preserved Merchant’s House, in addition to the port.
Harwich, Essex, UK. This site on the Essex coast is the point at which the Mayflower ship was launched, and the hometown of Captain Christopher Jones. The current Mayflower Project supports the building of a replica of the Mayflower ship, which will sail for the United States in 2020 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the voyage.
Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, MA, United States. This living history museum recreates the original settlement of the Mayflower pilgrims and contains a number of exhibits and museums, including a replica of the Mayflower ship, an English mill, a craft center, and an English village.
Film, Literature, and TV
Saints and Strangers. This two-part miniseries, made in 2015, tells the story of the Mayflower Voyage, the settlement on the east coast on the United States, and early encounters with indigenous American communities.
Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower. This 2006 documentary, made in conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company, re-enacts the Mayflower crossing closely based on original sources.
The Pilgrims. This 2015 documentary challenges the myths and misconceptions about the early pilgrims and situates the Mayflower Voyage in its broader historical context.
Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Voyage to War, (Harper Perennial, 2007). This book, from an acclaimed public historian, exposes the conflicts that emerged in the aftermath of the pilgrims’ arrival in America, providing a dramatic and gripping narrative.
Rebecca Fraser, The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America, (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). Rebecca Fraser charts the story of the Mayflower and the early pilgrims through the prism of one important pilgrim family: the Winslows.
Nick Bunker, Making Haste From Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World, A New History, (Pimlico, 2011). This accessible history provides the broader context for the pilgrims’ departure from England, exploring the historical conflicts and tensions that were then imported into the new settlements.