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History: Pilgrims Journey

American Experience: The Pilgrims
The challenges the Pilgrims faced in making new lives for themselves still resonate almost 400 years later: the tensions of faith and freedom in American society, the separation of Church and State, and cultural encounters resulting from immigration.

Pilgrim Fathers and The Journey of The Pilgrims To America

The Pilgrims or Pilgrim Fathers were early European settlers of the Plymouth Colony in present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States. The Pilgrims' leadership came from the religious congregations of Brownist English Dissenters who had fled the volatile political environment in England for the relative calm and tolerance of 16th–17th century Holland in the Netherlands.

Pilgrim Fathers

The Embarkation of the Pilgrims (1857) by American painter Robert Walter Weir at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC.

The Pilgrims held Calvinist religious beliefs similar to the Puritans but, unlike many Puritans, maintained that their congregations needed to be separated from the English state church. As a separatist group, they were also concerned that they might lose their English cultural identity if they emigrated to the Netherlands, so they arranged with English investors to establish a new colony in North America. The colony was established in 1620 and became the second successful English settlement in North America (after the founding of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607). The Pilgrims' story of seeking religious freedom has become a central theme of the history and culture of the United States.


Model of a typical merchantman of the period, showing the cramped conditions that had to be endured. The Speedwell was originally named Swiftsure. It was built in 1577 at sixty tons, and was part of the English fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada. It departed Delfshaven in July 1620 with the Leiden colonists, after a canal ride from Leyden of about seven hours. It reached Southampton, Hampshire and met with the Mayflower and the additional colonists hired by the investors. With final arrangements made, the two vessels set out on August 5 (Old Style)/August 15 (New Style). Soon thereafter, the Speedwell crew reported that their ship was taking in water, so both were diverted to Dartmouth, Devon. There it was inspected for leaks and sealed, but a second attempt to depart also failed, bringing them only as far as Plymouth, Devon. It was decided that Speedwell was untrustworthy, and it was sold; the ship's master and some of the crew transferred to the Mayflower for the trip. William Bradford observed that the Speedwell seemed "overmasted", thus putting a strain on the hull; but he attributed her leaking to crew members who had deliberately caused it, allowing them to abandon their year-long commitments. Passenger Robert Cushman wrote that the leaking was caused by a loose board.

Atlantic crossing

Of the 120 combined passengers, 102 were chosen to travel on the Mayflower with the supplies consolidated. Of these, about half had come by way of Leiden, and about 28 of the adults were members of the congregation. The reduced party finally sailed successfully on September 6 (Old Style)/September 16 (New Style), 1620.
Initially the trip went smoothly, but under way they were met with strong winds and storms. One of these caused a main beam to crack, and the possibility was considered of turning back, even though they were more than halfway to their destination. However, they repaired the ship sufficiently to continue using a "great iron screw" brought along by the colonists (probably either a jack to be used for house construction or a cider press). Passenger John Howland was washed overboard in the storm but caught a top-sail halyard trailing in the water and was pulled back on board. One crew member and one passenger died before they reached land. A child was born at sea and named Oceanus.

Arrival in America

Landing of the Pilgrims by Michele Felice Cornè, circa 1805. Displayed in the White House
1620 place names mentioned by Bradford Land was sighted on November 9, 1620. The passengers had endured miserable conditions for about sixty-five days, and they were led by William Brewster in Psalm 100 as a prayer of thanksgiving. It was confirmed that the area was Cape Cod, within the New England territory recommended by Weston.

Landing of the Pilgrims by Michele Felice Cornè, circa 1805
An attempt was made to sail the ship around the cape towards the Hudson River, also within the New England grant area, but they encountered shoals and difficult currents around Cape Malabar (the old French name for present-day Monomoy). It was decided to turn around, and by November 11/November 12 the ship was anchored in what is today known as Provincetown Harbor.

Mayflower Compact

The charter was incomplete for the Plymouth Council for New England when the colonists departed England (it was granted while they were in transit on November 3/November 13) They arrived without a patent; the older Wincob patent was from their abandoned dealings with the London Company. Some of the passengers, aware of the situation, suggested that they were free to do as they chose upon landing, without a patent in place, and to ignore the contract with the investors. A brief contract was drafted to address this issue, later known as the Mayflower Compact, promising cooperation among the settlers "for the general good of the Colony unto which we promise all due submission and obedience." It organized them into what was called a "civill body politick," in which issues would be decided by voting, the key ingredient of democracy. It was ratified by majority rule, with 41 adult male Pilgrims signing for the 102 passengers (seventy-three males and twenty-nine females). Included in the company were nineteen male servants and three female servants, along with some sailors and craftsmen hired for short-term service to the colony. At this time, John Carver was chosen as the colony's first governor. It was Carver who had chartered the Mayflower and his is the first signature on the Mayflower Compact, being the most respected and affluent member of the group. The Mayflower Compact was the seed of American democracy and has been called the world's first written constitution.

First landings

Thorough exploration of the area was delayed for over two weeks because the shallop or pinnace (a smaller sailing vessel) which they brought had been partially dismantled to fit aboard the Mayflower and was further damaged in transit. Small parties, however, waded to the beach to fetch firewood and attend to long-deferred personal hygiene.
Exploratory parties were undertaken while awaiting the shallop, led by Myles Standish (an English soldier whom the colonists had met while in Leiden) and Christopher Jones. They encountered an old European-built house and iron kettle, left behind by some ship's crew, and a few recently cultivated fields, showing corn stubble.
An artificial mound was found near the dunes which they partially uncovered and found to be a Native grave. Further along, a similar mound was found, more recently made, and they ventured to remove some of the provisions which had been placed in the grave, as the colonists feared that they might otherwise starve. Baskets of maize were found inside, some of which the colonists took and placed into an iron kettle that they also found nearby, while they reburied the rest, intending to use the corn as seed for planting.
William Bradford later recorded in his book Of Plymouth Plantation that, after the shallop had been repaired,
They also found two of the Indian's houses covered with mats, and some of their implements in them; but the people had run away and could not be seen. They also found more corn, and beans of various colours. These they brought away, intending to give them full satisfaction (payment) when they should meet with any of them, – as about six months afterwards they did.
And it is to be noted as a special providence of God, and a great mercy to this poor people, that they thus got seed to plant corn the next year, or they might have starved; for they had none, nor any likelihood of getting any, till too late for the planting season.
By December, most of the passengers and crew had become ill, coughing violently. Many were also suffering from the effects of scurvy. There had already been ice and snowfall, hampering exploration efforts. During the first winter, 50-percent of them died.

First contact

Explorations resumed on December 6/December 16. The shallop party headed south along the cape, seven colonists from Leiden, three from London, and seven crew, and chose to land at the area inhabited by the Nauset people (roughly present-day Brewster, Chatham, Eastham, Harwich, and Orleans), where they saw some native people on the shore who fled when the colonists approached. Inland they found more mounds, one containing acorns, which they exhumed and left, and more graves, which they decided not to dig.
Remaining ashore overnight, they heard cries near the encampment. The following morning, they were met by native people who proceeded to shoot at them with arrows. The colonists retrieved their firearms and shot back, then chased the native people into the woods but did not find them. There was no more contact with native people for several months.
The local people were already familiar with the English, who had intermittently visited the area for fishing and trade before Mayflower arrived. In the Cape Cod area, relations were poor following a visit several years earlier by Thomas Hunt. Hunt kidnapped twenty people from Patuxet (the place that became New Plymouth) and another seven from Nausett, and he attempted to sell them as slaves in Europe. One of the Patuxet abductees was Squanto, who became an ally of the Plymouth colony.

The Pokanoket also lived nearby and had developed a particular dislike for the English after one group came in, captured numerous people, and shot them aboard their ship. By this time, there had already been reciprocal killings at Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod. But during one of the captures by the English, Squanto escaped to England and there became a Christian. When he came back, he found that most of his tribe had died from plague.

Samuel de Champlain's 1605 map of Plymouth Harbor, showing Wampanoag village Patuxet, with some modern place names added for reference. The star is the approximate location of the 1620 English settlement.


Plymouth Colony Continuing westward, the shallop's mast and rudder were broken by storms, and their sail was lost. They rowed for safety, encountering the harbor formed by the current Duxbury and Plymouth barrier beaches and stumbling on land in the darkness. They remained at this spot for two days to recuperate and repair equipment. It was named Clark's Island for a Mayflower mate who first set foot on that island. Resuming exploration on Monday, December 11/December 21, 1620, the party crossed over to the mainland and surveyed the area that ultimately became the settlement. The anniversary of this survey is observed in Massachusetts as Forefathers' Day and is traditionally associated with the Plymouth Rock landing tradition. This land was especially suited to winter building because it had already been cleared, and the tall hills provided a good defensive position.
The cleared village was known as Patuxet to the Wampanoag people, and was abandoned about three years earlier following a plague that killed all of its residents. The "Indian fever" involved hemorrhaging and is assumed to have been fulminating smallpox introduced by European traders. The outbreak had been severe enough that the colonists discovered unburied skeletons in abandoned dwellings. With the local population in such a weakened state, the colonists faced no resistance to settling there.
The exploratory party returned to Mayflower, anchored twenty-five miles away, having been brought to the harbor on December 16/December 26. Only nearby sites were evaluated, with a hill in Plymouth (so named on earlier charts) chosen on December 19/December 29.
Construction commenced immediately, with the first common house nearly completed by January 9/January 19, twenty feet square built for general use. At this point, single men were ordered to join with one of the nineteen families, in order to eliminate the need to build any more houses than absolutely necessary. Each extended family was assigned a plot one-half rod wide and three rods long for each household member, then each family built their own dwelling. Supplies were brought ashore, and the settlement was mostly complete by early February.

When the first house was finished, it immediately became a hospital for the ill Pilgrims. Thirty-one of the company were dead by the end of February, with deaths still rising. Coles Hill, a prominence above the beach, became the first cemetery, with the graves allowed to overgrow with grass for fear that the Indians would discover how weakened the settlement had actually become.
Between the landing and March, only 47 colonists had survived the diseases that they contracted on the ship. During the worst of the sickness, only six or seven of the group were able to feed and care for the rest. In this time, half the Mayflower crew also died.
William Bradford became governor in 1621 upon the death of John Carver. On March 22, 1621, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony signed a peace treaty with Massasoit of the Wampanoags. The patent of Plymouth Colony was surrendered by Bradford to the freemen in 1640, minus a small reserve of three tracts of land. Bradford served for eleven consecutive years, and was elected to various other terms until his death in 1657.
The colony contained roughly what is now Bristol County, Plymouth County, and Barnstable County, Massachusetts.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony was reorganized and issued a new charter as the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1691, and Plymouth ended its history as a separate colony.

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