The Pilgrims were a group of English citizens who chose to separate from the church of England and practice Christianity freely. Much of what we know about their journeys is taken from William Bradford's Of Plimoth Colony and Mourt's Relation. Bradford was himself a member of the Pilgrims, and so his writing is an eyewitness account of the events and decisions that shaped their destiny.
In England during the early 1600's, King James ruled over the church of England. Those who chose to separate from his rule faced almost certain persecution, imprisonment, and sometimes even death. The Pilgrims (separatists) saw James' rule over the church to be corrupt and not in keeping with the teachings of the Word of God. They began to meet in secret to study the Bible and worship God together in a manner that they believed to be right and holy. After enough persecution and secretive worship, they decided that it was time to leave England in search of a new land where they could practice their religious beliefs freely.
In 1608 they were exiled from England to Holland for 12 years. At first they arrived in Amsterdam, but later moved to Leiden where they would stay for the rest of their time in Holland. The Pilgrims were attracted to Leiden because it was a town with a university. The University of Leiden had been founded in 1575, and was said to be at the forefront of scholarship in the Christian world.
While they were welcomed by the people there, they began to feel uncomfortable in their new country. The Pilgrims were living in poverty and had great difficulty integrating with the local economy due to the language barrier. They were also quite uncomfortable with what they perceived as immoral influences of the highly industrialized Dutch society. In spite of all of this, accounts tell us that the locals viewed the Pilgrims as productive and honorable members of society, and they welcomed their presence and contributions to the community.
Funding a New Journey
As the Pilgrims considered leaving Holland, they faced a choice between Guiana and America. Eventually, the group decides to leave Holland for the New World. After months of pleading to join the existing Virginia Colony, they are eventually accepted. The Pilgrims briefly considered settling in Jamestown, but decided against this due to fear of once again encountering persecution for their religious beliefs. At this time the Virginia Colony extended from Jamestown in the South all the way to the mouth of the Hudson river in the North. They chose to settle far to the North near present day New York City in a location they felt would be their own.
Most of the Pilgrims were not well off, and as such would require some other source of financing for their journey. They sought support from a man named Thomas Weston. Weston was a successful and wealthy iron merchant in London. He agreed to fund their move to America in exchange for 7 years of service from them after they arrived. Furs, lumber, and crops would be shipped back to England and sold for a profit. After this time, the Pilgrims would own their new colony themselves. During this initial 7 years they would not be able to profit from their new colony. Although many opted out of this agreement, still the opportunity for religious freedom was enticing enough to motivate most of them to accept none the less.
The Journey Begins
So it was that in search still for a more noble existence, the Pilgrims departed Leiden aboard the ship Speedwell on July 22, 1620. William Bradford's account of this event shows it to be a decision made with much sadness. Although they had not been greatly successful in Holland, they still loved and appreciated it as their home for 12 years and were sorrowful to leave it. Knowing who they were and why they were making sacrifices, they none the less lifted their eyes towards heaven and thanked God for what opportunities they had.
The journey was not an easy one. On July 22, 1620, the Pilgrims left from Leiden. 15 days later they returned due to a water leak in their ship. The Speedwell lands in Southampton, England and is hastily repaired.
On August 5, 1620, a second attempt is made to depart. This time two ships, the Speedwell and the Mayflower, set sail from Southampton. After only a few days the Speedwell was once again "open and leakie as a sieve."
Finally on September 6, 1620, the Pilgrims depart from Plymouth, England. This time the Mayflower goes solo.
The Mayflower is a small cargo ship, it is not built to carry many passengers. It had primarily been used to carry clothing and wine. Over the years spilled wine had seeped into the wood of the ship making it a very smelly vessel by passenger accounts. The Mayflower was a total of 90 feet long. On board were 102 Pilgrims and 30 sailors. Conditions were not pleasant, and the sailors routinely mocked their fellow passengers for their on board religious habits as well as their frequent sea sickness.
The New World
by William Formby Halsall (between 1900 and 1920)
photo credit: Library of Congress
On November 9, 1620, after 66 days at sea, land is finally spotted. Rather than Virginia, the original plan, they arrive at the tip of Cape Cod in present day Massachusetts. The Pilgrims would have pressed on towards the mouth of the Hudson River if they would have been able to. They had landed in the New World much later in the year than they had originally planned. Poor winds during this time of year and a lack of supplies force them to make land.
After enough time at sea, the stored fresh water had become contaminated. So the only drinkable liquid on board was the beer. In these days beer was much more safe to drink than water, as it had been boiled when it was made. The alcohol content was also much lower than common beer is today. So using it as a water source for passengers would not be unheard of during this time. Still, even stores of beer on the Mayflower were running low as they approached the continent. As written by colonist William Bradford on the implications this had on the decision to settle:
"We could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer, and it being now the 19th of December" ~ Mourt's Relation, commonly attributed to colonists William Bradford and Edward Winslow, 1622
"As this calamity fell among the passengers that were to be left here to plant, and were hasted ashore and made to drink water that the seamen might have the more beer, and one in his sickness desiring but a small can of beer, it was answered that if he were their own father he should have none" ~ Of Plimoth Plantation, William Bradford, circa 1650
They Mayflower lands and all are greatly overjoyed to have reached an end to their long and difficult journey. Upon landing, the Pilgrims immediately say a prayer of thanks for their safe arrival:
"Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees, and blessed the God of heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof…" ~ William Bradford
The Mayflower Compact
by Edward Percy Moran (between 1910 and 1930)
photo credit: Library of Congress
The Pilgrims needed a document that would serve as a contract of cooperation among their new colony. Although the core of the group were religious separatists, there were other colonists who were not. Some wanted to go against the agreement that was made with the investors in England since they did not settle in the location originally agreed upon. To deal with this, a contract was drawn up and signed by 41 of the passengers. The compact stated that the settlers would vote on any issues that came up and that they would remain loyal to England. Additionally, the first governor of the colony was chosen, John Carver, who had chartered the Mayflower. On November 11, 1620, the Mayflower Compact is signed in the cabin of the Mayflower. This document reportedly influenced the way the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were drawn up.
A search party of 18 of the strongest and healthiest men set out to scout the area for a suitable location to build their new colony. Three trips were made. They were briefly lost in a snowstorm and encountered indians during their excursions but eventually find the place John Smith had discovered years earlier which he had named Plimouth. Here there were running brooks and rivers, fields had already been cleared, and there was a harbor safe enough for small boats. There were also no signs of enemy Indians.
A Rough Winter
On December 16 the Mayflower arrives in Plymouth Harbor and construction begins on the new colony. Many stayed onboard the ship until construction of new homes was complete. The first building project is The Common House, it was completed on January 9, 1621. It served as a meeting house, church, a place of storage, and later a hospital for the sick. The remainder of initial construction for the new colony was completed by late February.
That Winter was especially rough for the new colony. Since they had reached the New World much later in the year than they had originally planned, it was too late to begin planting crops. The Pilgrims did the best they could to survive until Spring. By March, only 52 settlers survived. William Bradford succeeded John Carver as Governor after Carver died in 1621. The Mayflower returned to England on April 5, 1621.
The Pilgrims buried their dead in secret at night and did not mark the grave sites. They did this out of fear that the local Indians might overtake them after seeing that their numbers had diminished.
A Friendship is Born
by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (c. 1932)
photo credit: Library of Congress
The Native Americans who lived in the area were primarily from the Wampanoag tribe. In March of 1621 a man from the Wampanoag tribe named Samoset entered Plymouth Colony and spoke to the settlers in English. A few days later he brought a native named Squanto with him. Squanto had learned English and been converted to Christianity when he was previously taken captive in 1605 by Captain George Weymouth (an English explorer). Squanto forged a friendship with the settlers and taught them how to plant corn.
On March 22, 1621, a treaty was signed between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag enjoyed a great friendship and would exchange knowledge and culture over the years. In October of 1621, Plymouth Colony was thriving. They celebrated their first harvest with their new friends. The governor declares a three day celebration and invites Chief Massasoit telling him to bring as many friends as he likes (he brings 90).
The Indians and Pilgrims would live in harmony for the next 50 years.
Today in America we celebrate this day as Thanksgiving every year, to remind ourselves of how blessed we really are.
Of Plimoth Plantation by William Bradford
Mourt's Relation commonly attributed to colonists William Bradford and Edward Winslow
Thanksgiving Timeline from The Library of Congress
The History of Massachusetts from The Library of Congress