In search of a new life

In September 1620, in Plymouth, England, 102 passengers boarded the Mayflower. Very few details about the ship itself are known. It is thought the vessel was built in Harwich, Essex, and was around 90 feet long.

Forty of the passengers were Protestant separatists hoping to establish a church in the ‘new world’ of the Americas. They joined a larger group of more secular colonists (‘strangers’), making up the 102 passengers. These became known as the pilgrims.

The separatists, who called themselves saints, had moved to Leiden, Holland, in 1608 to escape the Church of England and pursue their goal of religious freedom. They remained in Leiden for 12 years, many working in the textile trade. Concern grew among some separatists that their children were being raised in Dutch traditions, rather than their own. Life was also hard, and many were experiencing poverty. Around half of the ‘saints’ decided to pursue a new life and settled upon the ‘new world’ in America as the chosen destination.

The ‘saints’ returned to London from Leiden, and secured funding from prominent merchants in return for the promise of profit from their future plantations. They sought permission from the Virginia Company to establish a settlement by the Hudson River in what is now New York. They also received approval from King James I to leave the church.

These were not the first European settlers to set sail for America. There were already several colonial settlements in the ‘new world’, including the first permanent English settlement of Jamestown, Virginia. There were also many native tribes, pre-dating the European settlers by thousands of years. These tribes had suffered greatly over the preceding century due to disease and violence brought by the settlers.

The voyage

Two ships initially set sail in 1620: the Mayflower, for passengers not travelling for religious reasons, and the Speedwell, for the saints. However, the Speedwell began to leak soon after launch, forcing the two ships to return to land. After another failed attempt and several weeks’ delay, the Speedwell was declared unfit for the voyage. Some passengers dropped out, and the rest boarded the Mayflower.

The Mayflower finally set sail on 16 September 1620. The delay caused by the failure of the Speedwell meant that the Atlantic crossing had to be attempted in stormy season. Passengers were extremely seasick, with one stranger being swept overboard. Passage across the Atlantic took 66 days.

Arrival and the Mayflower Compact

The ship initially aimed to land at the Hudson River, where the pilgrims had obtained permission to build their settlement. However, rough seas meant the crew decided to remain at their initial arrival point in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Anchor was dropped in what is now Provincetown Harbor.

The unexpected diversion meant that the pilgrims had no legal right to build on the land on which they had arrived. Without action, the lack of legal system or social contract in this unknown land could have led to anarchy and rebellion amongst the ship’s exhausted passengers. To navigate this problem, the colonists wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact.

The Mayflower Compact created a set of laws for the pilgrims. It enshrined in law loyalty to the King of England and committed the pilgrims to creating “laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices” for the good of the colony. It is now generally agreed amongst historians that the Mayflower Compact was the first framework of government written and enacted in what became the United States of America.

A cruel winter

The first winter in the new settlement was harsh. The pilgrims continued to live on board the ship, and many perished in the bitterly cold conditions.

The ship finally sailed back to England in April 1621, leaving the surviving pilgrims to move ashore into the ‘new world’. The area, once known as Patuxet by its native inhabitants, became known amongst the settlers as Plymouth Bay.

The pilgrims received help in the harsh and unfamiliar conditions from the area’s native people. An alliance was formed with the Wampanoag tribe, who taught the pilgrims how to hunt and grow crops. The native inhabitants suffered badly from disease carried by earlier European settlers, and many tribes were wiped out completely. The period preceding the arrival of the Mayflower, from 1616 to 1619, became known amongst native peoples as ‘the great dying’.

The first Thanksgiving

The colony had a successful harvest in the autumn of 1621. They celebrated this with a three-day festival of prayer. Native peoples and the remaining 53 pilgrims joined together in a feast. This would go on to become the festival of Thanksgiving, held every year on the fourth Thursday in November.

A retelling

In 1691, Plymouth Colony was absorbed into Massachusetts Bay Colony. Today, visitors can explore a full-scale replica of the Mayflower, as well as exhibits on the Wampanoag Homesite. These are located in historic Patuxet, and celebrate the lives and cultures of the native Wampanoag people.

Members of the Wampanoag have stated that they hope the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage will give them the opportunity “to remind the world who [they] are, and that [they] are still here, as a viable and active nation of indigenous people”.

Events highlighting the suffering, disease and violence inflicted upon the native peoples of America by European settlers are scheduled to take place. These events include an ornate wampum (shell bead) belt, telling the story of the Wampanoag people, touring UK cities connected to the Mayflower. Community members hope that this may prompt the return of an original belt, which disappeared in 1677 after a bloody war between English colonists and native Americans.

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Image by Kathy Fowkes on Pixabay.