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Colonial America | Colonies | The Mayflower

voyage of the Mayflower
This 1882 painting by William Formsby Halsall
depicts the historic voyage of the Mayflower.

In 1608, a group of English Separatists led by William Brewster and Reverend Richard Clifton left the village of Scrooby, Nottinghamshire. They traveled to the coast and took a ship to Holland, where they could live free from from the religious persecution they experienced in England. They ran into difficulties in their first attempt to leave England, as they were caught and imprisoned for a short time. Like other nations of the time, England forbade subjects to travel abroad without permission. However, the group's second attempt to leave proved successful, and they lived in Amsterdam for a year before moving to Leiden.

Economic conditions were difficult in Holland and since the English were not citizens and could not benefit from the privileges given to the Dutch. Employment was scarce, and many were forced to put their children to work. After nearly 12 years in Holland, the congregation voted to emigrate to America.

View the Mayflower
passenger list,
which lists
the ages and occupations
of each passenger.

Not everyone in Leiden left in 1620, the year of the Mayflower voyage. In fact, fewer than half left for the journey to America. Some followed later; others never left Holland. It was not a simple matter to board a ship and set sail to establish a new settlement. Colonization required money to pay for the ship, the crew, and provisions—provisions which had to be abundant enough to feed and clothe everyone, both during the voyage and, hopefully, for as long as it took the colony to become established. Thanks to the Brewster family's friendship with Sir Edwin Sandys, treasurer of the London Company, the group obtained two patents that allowed them to settle in the northern part of the company's sphere of authority. The Separatists, sometimes referred to as "Saints," arranged to sail from Plymouth, England, where they were joined by other Separatists and some merchant adventurers, or "Strangers"—people not of their faith, who were hired to protect the company's financial interests. The Calvinist Protestant Separatists, known as Pilgrims, who sailed on the Mayflower are still often confused with the Puritans, who later settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s.

Unlike today when most every
event is recorded by film, print,
or electronic media, there was
very little documentation of the
Mayflower voyage. William
Bradford's History of Plymouth
contains what may
be the only account of the voyage.

A small ship named the Speedwell brought the group to Southampton, England, where they joined another group of Separatists and boarded a second ship. From Southampton the group sailed to Plymouth from where they would sail. The voyage began in the two fully-loaded ships; however, the Speedwell sprang a leak and had to return to Plymouth. As many passengers as could be transferred from the Speedwell were put on the already overcrowded Mayflower, but some of the group was left behind. On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set sail alone.

The passengers of the Mayflower did not call themselves "Pilgrims." In fact, they had no name for themselves as a group. The word was first applied to them by Mayflower passenger William Bradford when writing his history of Plymouth Colony many years after the ship's arrival. It did not become a household word in America until 1856 when Bradford's notable book, History of Plimoth Plantation, was published.

The voyage of 66 days was most likely a difficult one. As well as some mishaps at sea (a main beam split during a storm; John Howland fell overboard but was rescued), the conditions on the Mayflower, an aging, squat merchant ship constructed for transporting wine casks, were primitive by today's standards. The ship was not big—only about 113 feet in length and weighing 180 tons. The number of passengers who sailed was 102, including the ship's crew of about 26 seamen. Space was tight, and there was little privacy. There was no place to bathe, nor were there decent sanitary facilities. Passengers probably lived on a diet of biscuits, dried fish, cheese, and raisins.

Pilgrim Monument
Today, visitors to Provincetown, MA, can
climb to the top of Pilgrim Monument and
enjoy breathtaking views of Cape Cod.

The original destination of the passengers of the Mayflower was intended to be farther south. However, on November 11, 1620, the Mayflower arrived at the shore of what is now Massachusetts. The group spent the first month exploring the Cape Cod area, particularly Provincetown Harbor. While still in Provincetown Harbor, the two factions—those from Holland and those from England—became concerned about the lack of a government outside of the territory for which they had been granted a patent. Because they had no legal right to settle in the region, they drew up the Mayflower Compact. This agreement pledged allegiance to the king of England, but also created a separate form of government.

Mayflower Compact
Read a detailed account about the pilgrims
and the Mayflower Compact.

The Mayflower Compact essentially stated that each person would be subject to majority rule. For its time, it was indeed a remarkable statement of new ideas and principles. While not a constitution in the literal sense, the Mayflower Compact addressed an issue that would ultimately influence the founders of the United States—a legitimate government must be based on the agreement and will of those being governed.

Mayflower II
Read the FAQs section about
the Mayflower II at the
Plimoth Plantation website.

On December 21, the Pilgrims began exploring Plymouth Harbor, where they would establish Plymouth Colony. A few months later, the Mayflower set sail for home, made a few more trading runs in Europe, then most likely lay dormant until 1624, at which time the ship was declared to be in ruins.

Today, the replica Mayflower II, built in Devon, England, between 1955 and 1957, is enjoyed by visitors to Plymouth, Massachusetts. Located near Plimoth Plantation, this museum ship was built in England in recognition of Anglo-American ties and helps tell the story of the Mayflower's historic 1620 voyage.

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Also see Plymouth.

The Mayflower | Bibliography

The Mayflower | Image Credits

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