On September 16, 1620, a ship called the Mayflower left from Plymouth, England, to voyage to America—the New World.
Everyone on the Mayflower was looking for something. Some wanted a fresh start, an economic opportunity; others sought religious freedom. While they were not united in their religious convictions, the passengers became colloquially known as the Pilgrims.
Who were they?
More than 30 million people trace their ancestry to the Mayflower’s 102 passengers and 30 crew. On board were men, women, and children from across England and the city of Leiden in Holland. A significant number were “Separatists,” who mostly wanted to live a life free from the current Church of England.
Others were there because they anticipated the chance to build a better future for their families and the opportunity of new land, for some the offer of freedom and adventure was too good to turn down. Add the crew itself, along with servants and unaccompanied children sent to be looked after by the adults.
Historians often identify Mayflower passengers as “saints” or “strangers,” according to their motivations for the journey. There was no doubt overlap—even if the “strangers” weren’t part of the same particular religious group, they may have had religious reasons for leaving England, and many “saints” were likely skilled tradesmen. (For more on the “saints,” read William Bradford’s journal, Of Plimoth Plantation, which records among other things why the separatists felt they could no longer live peacefully in Europe. Bradford went on to become a governor of the Plymouth Colony, serving for more than 30 years.)
One doesn’t just pick up and go; a voyage such as this one has to be well funded. The separatists convinced some London merchants that funding their journey would see a return on investment thanks to the goods they would be able to send back to England. They also needed permission to land and establish a colony.
A ship called the Speedwell would carry the Leiden group to America, while another ship called the Mayflower, sailing from London, was hired to take additional passengers not necessarily traveling for religious reasons. The ships met in Southampton and proceeded together, but soon the Speedwell developed a leak (she may have carried too much sail, or there could have been sabotage) and they had to return to England. Repairs finished, they set off again, and again the Speedwell had problems.
By this time the passengers had already spent six weeks at sea. The Speedwell was finally declared unfit for the journey. Some of the Pilgrims dropped out. The remainder crowded onto the Mayflower, which—with funds already running low because of the delay, already required re-provisioning. They finally left Plymouth on September 16th, late in the year for the crossing.
Mayflower passenger list
John Carver, Pilgrim separatist
Catherine White, John’s wife
Desire Minter, servant of John Carver
John Howland, servant of John Carver
Roger Wilder, servant of John Carver
William Latham, servant of John Carver
Jasper More, child travelling with the Carvers
A maidservant of John Carver
William Bradford, Pilgrim separatist
Dorothy May, William’s wife
Edward Winslow, Pilgrim separatist
Elizabeth Barker, Edward’s wife
George Soule, servant of Edward Winslow
Elias Story, servant of Edward Winslow
Ellen More, child travelling with the Winslows
William Brewster, Pilgrim separatist
Mary Brewster, William’s wife
Love Brewster, William’s son
Wrestling Brewster, William’s son
Richard More, child travelling with the Brewsters
Mary More, child travelling with the Brewsters
Isaac Allerton, Pilgrim separatist
Mary Norris, Isaac’s wife
Bartholomew Allerton, Isaac’s son
Remember Allerton, Isaac’s daughter
Mary Allerton, Isaac’s daughter
John Hooke, servant of Isaac Allerton
Miles Standish, non-separatist
Rose Standish, Miles’ wife
John Alden, Mayflower crewmen
Samuel Fuller, Pilgrim separatist
Christopher Martin, non-separatist
Mary Prower, Christopher’s wife
Solomon Prower, servant of Christopher Martin
John Langemore, servant of Christoper Martin
William Mullins, non-separatist
Alice Mullins (maiden name unknown), William’s wife
Joseph Mullins, William’s son
Priscilla Mullins, William’s daughter
Robert Carter, servant of William Mullins
William White, Pilgrim separatist
Susanna Jackson, William’s wife
Resolved White, William’s son
William Holbeck, servant of William White
Edward Thompson, servant of William White
Richard Warren, non-separatist
Stephen Hopkins, non-separatist
Elizabeth Fisher, Stephen’s wife
Giles Hopkins, Stephen’s son
Constance Hopkins, Stephen’s daughter
Damaris Hopkins, Stephen’s daughter
Oceanus Hopkins, Stephen’s son born at sea
Edward Doten, servant of Stephen Hopkins
Edward Leister, servant of Stephen Hopkins
Edward Tilley, Pilgrim separatist
Agnus Cooper, Edward’s wife
Henry Sampson, servant of Edward Tilley
Humility Cooper, servant of Edward Tilley
John Tilley, Pilgrim separatist
Joan Hurst, John’s wife
Elizabeth Tilley, John’s daughter
Francis Cook, Pilgrim separatist
John Cook, Francis’ son
Thomas Rogers, Pilgrim separatist
Joseph Rogers, Thomas’ son
Thomas Tinker, Pilgrim separatist
Wife of Thomas Tinker
Son of Thomas Tinker
John Rigsdale, non-separatist
Alice Rigsdale, John’s wife
Edward Fuller, Pilgrim separatist
Ann Fuller, Edward’s wife
Samuel Fuller, Edward’s son
John Turner, Pilgrim separatist
First son of John Turner
Second son of John Turner
Francis Eaton, non-separatist
Sarah Eaton, Francis’ wife
Samuel Eaton, Francis’ son
James Chilton, Pilgrim separatist
Wife of James Chilton
Mary Chilton, James’ daughter
John Crackstone, Pilgrim separatist
John Crackstone, John’s son
John Billington, non-separatist
Ellen Billngton, John’s wife
John Billington, John’s son
Francis Billington, John’s son
Moses Fletcher, Pilgrim separatist
John Goodman, Pilgrim separatist
Digory Priest, Pilgrim separatist
Thomas Williams, Pilgrim separatist
Gilbert Winslow, non-separatist
Edmond Margeson, non-separatist
Peter Brown, non-separatist
Richard Britteridge, non-separatist
Richard Clarke, non-separatist
Richard Gardiner, non-separatist
Christopher Jones, captain
John Alden, cooper
John Allerton, seaman
John Clarke, ship’s pilot
Robert Coppin, master’s mate
Thomas English, seaman
Giles Heale, ship’s surgeon
John Parker, seaman
William Trevore, seaman
Ely (last name unknown), seaman
Andrew Williamson, seaman
Almost half the people onboard were fare-paying passengers seeking a new life rather than driven by religious convictions.
The Mayflower took 66 days to cross the Atlantic, a horrible crossing afflicted by winter storms and long bouts of seasickness so bad that most could barely stand up during the voyage. Not that they had a lot of room to stand up—the ship was seriously overcrowded! By October, the voyage became more treacherous with the encounter of Atlantic storms—the sails couldn’t be used and the ship just drifted.
Despite all that, they arrived in America almost on target. The crew spotted Cape Cod just as the sun rose on November 9, 1620. The Pilgrims decided to head south, to the mouth of the Hudson River in New York, where they intended to make their plantation. But the rough seas nearly shipwrecked the Mayflower and they decided to explore Cape Cod rather than risk another journey south. They anchored in what is now Provincetown Harbor. Shortly after, Susannah White gave birth to a son aboard the Mayflower, the first English child born in the colony. He was named Peregrine, derived from the Latin for pilgrim.
The Mayflower Compact
Knowing they had no right to settle in this land they had unintentionally arrived upon, the colonists decided to draw up a document that gave them some attempt at legal standing. (In fact, Plymouth has been referred to as “the first gated neighborhood.”)
Upon arrival, therefore, they drew up the Mayflower Compact. Signed by 41 men on board, it was an agreement to cooperate for the general good of the colony. They would deal with issues by voting, establish constitutional law, and rule by the majority.
The document read:
In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereigne Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, France and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc. having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honour of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civill body politick, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enacte, constitute, and frame such just and equall laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the generall good of the Colonie unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape-Codd the 11. of November, in the year of the raigne of our sovereigne lord, King James, of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fiftie-fourth. Anno Dom. 1620.
The Pilgrims would spend the next month and a half exploring Cape Cod, trying to decide where they would build their plantation. Most of the passengers stayed on board in Provincetown harbor while exploration parties searched the coastline.
Watching them was a small group of Native Americans, people for whom this area was already home. The new arrivals tried to follow them but got lost and stuck among some dense thickets. They decided to change course and came across cleared land with abandoned houses where corn had been grown. They found and stole buried corn, which they took back to the ship, with the intention of planting it and growing more, from which harvest they could return what they’d taken. They also found graves.
This village they stumbled upon was once called Patuxet. It was deserted following the outbreak of disease, a legacy of what Native American people had already experienced from European colonists. Before the Mayflower arrived, this region had greatly suffered from the effects of colonization, including the “Great Dying,” an outbreak of European diseases against which the native tribes had no immunity.
On December 25, 1620, the Saints and the Strangers departed the bleak shores of Provincetown and arrived, finally, in what is now Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts, on 26th December 1620. They decided this place, once home to the people of Patuxet, would be where they settled and began construction of their first buildings.
But the first winter was cold and many of the passengers stayed on board the Mayflower. The ship became home to the sick and dying, with many succumbing to a mixture of contagious diseases.
The United American Indians of New England, an activist group, continues to raise awareness of racism towards Native Americans and the consequences of colonialism. At the annual Thanksgiving ceremony in 1970, Wampanoag leader Frank James was informed his speech was inappropriate and inflammatory; he refused to read a revised, approved speech in its place.
Supporters followed James to hear him give his original speech on Cole’s Hill, next to the statue of Ousamequin. This became the first National Day of Mourning, which continues today for obvious reasons on the same day as Thanksgiving.