The Mayflower Story


The Anglican Church

During the 16th century, Henry VIII was king of England. When his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, failed to bear him a son, Henry sought to have their marriage annulled. When the Pope refused to annul the marriage, Henry broke with the Church of Rome and started the Anglican Church. Many people felt that there were still too many similarities with the Church of Rome, and demanded greater reforms. Some even wished to ‘purify’ the Anglican Church of all Catholic rituals. They became known as the Puritans. Others called for a break with the existing church, and became known as the Separatists. However, Henry VIII had decreed that all citizens were required to follow the state religion: the Anglican Church. Those who did not, would face prosecution. By the time King James I ascended the throne in 1603, the situation had become more tense.


The Separatists

Many of the Separatists came from Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. William Brewster was one of them. It is believed that Brewster founded a Separatist church in his family home, Scrooby Manor. Brewster strongly influenced a local young man, William Bradford. Bradford’s diary, Of Plimoth Plantation, is an account of his group’s story, including their persecution in England which made it impossible for them to lead a peaceful life.



John Smyth, the minister of different Separatist group from Gainsborough, decided that he and his congregation would emigrate in pursuit of freedom of religion. However, leaving England without permission was punishable, and so they quietly slipped away from Gainsborough and re-emerged in Amsterdam.

The Scrooby congregation also chanced an escape to the Netherlands via Boston, Lincolnshire. During the Autumn of 1607 they secretly travelled to Scotia Creek, near Boston, where they had chartered a boat to smuggle them out of the country. To their horror, they came to realise they had been betrayed by the captain. They were seized and imprisoned in Boston. After a month of captivity, most of them were released.

Nevertheless, the Scrooby Separatists were not deterred. The next year, they travelled North to board a ship in Immingham. Once again, they were pursued. Though this time, the men succeeded in fleeing to the Netherlands. The women and children were aboard a different boat, which was seized. In the end, they were released and reunited in Amsterdam.




At the time of the Separatists’ arrival in the Netherlands, the so-called Twelve Years’ Truce had just been signed.  The truce made a temporary end to the hostilities between Spain and the Netherlands, and marked the start of a relatively calm period. Following a disagreement with the John Smyth group, the Scrooby group moved from Amsterdam to Leiden. Their pastor, John Robinson, sent a message to Leiden, requesting to admit some hundred men and women into the city. The city authorities agreed to welcome them, on the condition that they would abide by the rules.

They started a new life in the tolerant city of Leiden. They remained a close-knit community, and many of the group lived together, married among themselves and worked together. Many of them found a job in the flourishing textile industry. Their children were baptised at the Pieterskerk, the Hooglandse Kerk or the Vrouwekerk, as they were not permitted to have a church building of their own. They would often gather at John Robinson’s house, located next to the Pieterskerk.

Life in Leiden was tough for the Separatists. They came from rural England and were not accustomed to the urban setting they found themselves in. Many of them found it hard to adjust to the changes in their work, and earned very little. The parents among them also worried about their children losing touch with their English roots under the influence of the Dutch.


Leaving Leiden

After some 12 years, close to the end of the Twelve Years’ Truce, a number of Separatists were determined it was time to move again. They contacted the congregation which had remained in England, and decided they would all travel to Virginia, America to set up a new community there. They would found a new town where they could live and practise their religion as they wished.

They realised it would be an expensive journey. In order to raise the money they needed, the Separatists made a deal with the Virginia Company, a business with the objective to establish colonies in North America. The Company needed people to populate the colonies and send them trading goods. The Separatists would work hard to pay back the money invested by the Company.


The Speedwell

The Separatists in the Netherlands sold their personal belongings in order to purchase a ship named the Speedwell. In August 1620, they sailed away from Delfshaven to England where they had arranged to meet the Mayflower. A small part of the group remained in Leiden.



The Mayflower

The English group had chartered a ship named the Mayflower, an armed merchant vessel boasting three masts that were 30 metres tall and up to 7,5 metres in width. The ship had been built in Harwich and was under the command of captain Christopher Jones. In 1611, Jones decided to leave Harwich and head for a more southerly location, one mile downstream from the Tower of London at the Thames.

Many of the dissidents from London had fled to the Netherlands, though some of them continued their secret gatherings in England. In 1620 they received permission to travel to America. They joined the Mayflower and sailed to Southampton, where they were due to meet the Speedwell.

There were some concerns about the Speedwell, as it had sustained damage an was taking on water. However, the Speedwell was repaired and on 15 August, the two ships weighed the anchor and hoisted the sails.



Soon after the two ships had set sail, the Speedwell started to take on water again. Some believe too many sails had been hoisted, which caused an immense amount of pressure on the entire structure, others say sabotage by the reluctant crew was to blame. They diverted their course to Dartmouth in Devon. Here, it took the harbour labourers approximately one week to repair the damage.

Unfortunately, the second attempt proved equally unsuccessful.

The Mayflower and the Speedwell had sailed 500 kilometres beyond Land’s End, the westernmost point in mainland England, when the smaller of the two vessels was found to be taking on considerable amounts of water. Sailing on was deemed too risky, and so they turned back to Plymouth. By this time, the passengers on board had spent six wretched, dank weeks in a confined space at sea and had made virtually no progress at all. Had their luck not changed for the worse, they could have been well near their destination at this point in time.

The Speedwell was declared unseaworthy. Consequently, a number of Pilgrims gave up, and the rest of the group crowded aboard the Mayflower. They were in need of provisions, but funds were running low.


Saints and Strangers

On 16 September, the ship set sail with approximately 30 crew and 102 passengers on board. Almost half of them were Separatists, or “Saints”. They had chosen this name to emphasize the fact that they were part of a specific group with particular views. All others were referred to as “Strangers”, as this is how the Saints regarded anyone who was not part of their group. The Strangers were a group of skilled workers who were sent along by the investors to help build the colony.



The Mayflower passengers lived in a cramped space. Many of them were hungry and suffered dire living conditions, and this was only the beginning of their ordeal. The situation worsened when the ship was blown off course by winter storms. Although the Mayflower was bound for Virginia, the ship landed in Cape Cod on 21 November 1620.



Cape Cod

On this date, the settlers drew up the Mayflower Compact. This document, signed by 41 men aboard the Mayflower, was an agreement stating they would cooperate “for the general good of the colony”. It established constitutional law and the rule of the majority. Issues would be decided by voting. The Mayflower Compact can be regarded as the foundation of American democracy.

Some days later, Susannah White gave birth to a son aboard the Mayflower: the first English child to be born in New England. His parents named him Peregrine, derived from the latin word for “pilgrim”.

Their need for fresh water and fertile land led a group of Pilgrims to go ashore and explore the area for the first time on 25 November. They spotted a small group of Native Americans and attempted to follow them, but they got lost in the forest and were hindered by the dense undergrowth. They decided to try a different route and came upon a patch of deforested land which had been used to grow corn. Besides the corn, they also found a number of graves. The village that once stood there, Patuxet, used to be inhabited by the Wampanoag, but it had been deserted after the outbreak of a disease.

The settlers did not expect to meet with resistance if they started their colony here. They left the bleak coast of Cape Cod and arrived in Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts on 26 December 1620.


Plymouth, Massachusetts

Life was hard in this new land. The winter was severe and many of the passengers remained aboard the Mayfower. The ship became a sanctuary for the sick and those who were dying, many of them died of a combination of contagious diseases. By the end of the first winter, less than half of the crew and passengers were alive.

The colony feared they would be attacked by  the Native Americans. Come February, captain Christopher Jones ordered the ship’s cannons to be moved to the mainland. Each cannon must have weighed almost half a tonne.

At the beginning of April, his crew was finally on the mend, and Jones sailed the Mayflower back to England. They made it back in less than half the time it took to make the journey to America.


De Wampanoag

The Wampanoag inhabited the area where the Pilgrims landed. Each tribe had its own territory where they would fish, hunt and harvest. Their hunting grounds had strict boundaries, as certain areas were very densely populated. The Wampanoag were skilled at cultivating the land, and moved from one area to another in order to maximise their harvest. During the summer, they would stay near the coast, and during wintertime they would move further inland, into the forests.

The Wampanoag had been in contact with Europeans before. During the 16th century, European merchant ships had sailed to the American East Coast. As a means to increase their profits, the captains would capture Native Americans and sell them as slaves. In 1641, captain Thomas Hunt captured a great number of Wampanoag and sold them in Spain. One of them, Squanto, was purchased by Spanish monks. They tried to convert him, but in the end, they released him.

In the years prior to the landing of the Mayflower, the Wampanoag had been attacked by neighbouring tribes and they had lost areas of land along the coast. Subsequently, between 1616 and 1619, up 90% of the population died during an epidemic. It is likely that the diseases were brought to America by the Europeans. The settlers were more or less immune, whereas the native population was extremely susceptible to the diseases.



In March 1621, an English-speaking Native American called Samoset entered the Plymouth colony and introduced himself. According to reports, he asked if they had any beer, and he spent the night talking to the settlers. He returned some time later to introduce Squanto to the Pilgrims. Squanto spoke better English than Samoset. They arranged a meeting with Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag tribe.

From this moment, a relationship between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims started to develop. The Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims to hunt and to grow crops, and they started trading fur. Squanto stayed with the Pilgrims, acting as an adviser and interpreter, to secure safe and sound relationships with other local tribes.

During the Autumn of 1621, the settlers and the Wampanoag celebrated a successful and rich harvest together, the festivities lasted three days. We now look back on this event as the first Thanksgiving.

The Narragansett, another Native American tribe, had not been affected by the epidemic and were a powerful tribe. The Narragansett forced the Wampanoag to pay tribute to them by  submitting valuable goods. Massasoit of the Wampanoag formed an alliance with the English of the Plymouth colony to help the Wampanoag repel the attacks of the Narragansett.

In 1621, the Narragansett sent the Plymouth colony a threat in the shape of a bundle of arrows wrapped in a snakeskin. William Bradford, the Plymouth colony governor, responded to this threat by filling the snakeskin with bullets and gun powder, and sending it back. The message was clear, and the Narragansett did not proceed to attack.


American customs from Leiden

The Pilgrims brought a number of customs from Leiden to their new settlement. One of these customs is civil marriage. In the early days, they had no-one who could conduct church weddings, so civil marriage was a good alternative. They also adopted Leiden’s administrative structure of small, self-regulatory districts. Last but not least, it is believed that the first Thanksgiving was inspired by the annual “Leidens Ontzet” celebration.



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