Why Did the Mayflower Set Sail and What Happened to its Crew?

Perhaps the most iconic moment in US history is when the Mayflower left England to cross the Atlantic on 16 September 1620, bearing 102 passengers who would become the founders of the Plymouth colony and the first Europeans ever to settle in what is now Massachusetts.

Though this was not the first successful English colony to be founded in America (Jamestown had been around since 1607) the hardships that the settlers faced,  combined with the uniquely well-documented nature of the voyage and subsequent survival, ensures that it remains the most famous of all early expeditions to America.

Religious roots

The driving force behind the Mayflower’s voyage was the rise of Puritanism. A hard-Protestant Calvinist ideology that had began to win converts at the end of the 16th century, the new sect believed the Church of England to be too weak and too Catholic for their liking, and were open in their separatism.

Henry VIII had established the Church of England almost 100 years before the Puritans set sail. David Starkey explains how the man behind the myth is a psychological enigma in the documentary series Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant on HistoryHit.TV.Watch Now

This inevitably brought them into conflict with the crown, the force behind the English Church, and in 1607 the most prominent Puritans were forced to flee to Holland, which had recently thrown off the rule of Catholic Spain and was famous for its tolerance.

In the Dutch city of Leiden William Bradford,  an eighteen year-old Puritan from Yorkshire, began to record the struggles of his fellows in this new country, and how they increasingly began to fear that they would lose their identity if they stayed any longer.

Salvation in the New World

After ten years, Leiden’s Puritan congregation met for a crisis meeting, and acknowledged that with their children growing up more and more Dutch and learning the customs and manners of the new country over the old, they faced extinction with the rise of the next generation.

Other issues also presented themselves, as many of the Protestant Puritans, who were literally preaching to the converted in Holland, wished to spread the word of God to far-off places, whilst preserving their English culture and customs. Only one alternative really presented itself.

Since the success of the Jamestown colony in America, that dangerous and unknown land was now, despite the risks, a place where a new future might be made.

Puritanism was greatly influenced by the ideas of John Calvin, a French theologian who advocated a brutal form of Protestantism focusing on predestination.

Joining the Jamestown settlers would not be enough though, as many of the Puritans believed that the company of too many other non-Puritan Englishmen would simply re-create the problems that had caused them to move to Holland in the first place. If the plan was to work, then a whole new colony would have to be founded – a risky undertaking. This, however, was the final decision.

Permission granted

In 1619 John Carver – a prominent member of the congregation – travelled back to London to try and secure land grants, allowing him and his people to settle the land north of the existing Virginia territory, which was already being called New England. In return for promising that his religion would not become the official one of the new colony, it was granted. Preparations then began quickly.

Two ships were leased, the small Speedwell, which had seen service against the Spanish Armada, and the larger Mayflower, which would carry the bulk of the settlers to their new home. The Speedwell picked up the Leiden congregation in July 1620, before returning to England to continue the journey alongside the Mayflower. 

Why did the Spanish Armada prove unsuccessful? Find out in the documentary Battlefield Britain: The Spanish Armada on HistoryHit.TV. Watch Now

Shortly after leaving Dartmouth however, it became clear that the Speedwell couldn’t be trusted to tackle the Atlantic (there were some suspicions that its crew had deliberately sabotaged it to avoid making the voyage) and its passengers were transferred aboard the Mayflower, which finally set sail for the New World on the 16th September.

A rough journey

The sea voyage began smoothly enough, before powerful storms changed the situation, carrying one crew member overboard and damaging the ship enough to force the captain to make a decision about turning back, despite being over halfway to his destination. There were a few families on board and one child – named Oceanus – was born during the crossing.

After sixty-five days of cold seasick misery, land was finally sighted on 9 November, which was good cause for a fervent prayer of thanksgiving. It was Cape Cod, and lay within the New England territory, though difficult shoals forced the settlers to turn back and anchor in Provincetown Harbor. There they signed the famous Plymouth Compact, which is seen by many as the world’s first ever modern-style constitution,

There the adult males on the ship swore to help each other by any means necessary and to uphold purely democratic rule, and voted for John Carver as their first governor. All this was recorded by Bradford, who had made the journey with his congregation.

This idealized painting does little to suggest the reality of landing in New England in November. The actual landings were delayed by two more excruciating weeks while the fitter men swam ashore to collect wood to repair the smaller boats.

Only the beginning

Once the landings and building began, so did the real hardship. Out of a ships’s population of 102, only 2 had died during the crossing, but this first winter would claim the lives of over half. Viciously cold temperatures and snowfall, disease and scurvy from the terrible food aboard the Mayflower meat that most of the passengers quickly fell ill, and at one point only six were fit to nurse the rest, and extinction seemed a real possibility.

No help came from the natives, who had already been brutally treated by European explorers and were dying themselves of the strange diseases that had come from across the Atlantic with the newcomers. Despite these terrible conditions, work continued, however.

Heading further west, the settlers found a place on the 21st December (now celebrated in Massachusets as Forefounder’s Day) that would become the settlement of Plymouth. In January permanent dwellings were constructed, though initially single men had to share with families to conserve space.

By February, however, the rudimentary settlement was complete, a remarkable achievement considering that there were only 47 colonists left by March. Carver was one of the dead, and was replaced by Bradford, who was still only thirty-one, and had recorded the death of his wife Dorothy in his journal in December.

He went on to serve as governor of the Colony until 1632. Today Plymouth, a thriving town of 58,000 people, is known as “America’s hometown.”

Plymouth rock is a simple but effective monument to the Puritans, who later became known as the Pilgrim Fathers. Over a million visit it every year.

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