On 16 September 1620, a merchant ship called the Mayflower departed from Plymouth, England, to voyage to the New World of America. Its passengers sought a new life, for some this meant religious freedom and for some a fresh start in a new land. They would go on to be known as Pilgrims, and influenced the United States of America in a myriad of ways.
Here are 5 common myths about the Mayflower Pilgrims and facts behind them:
1. The Pilgrims celebrated the First Thanksgiving in what is now the United States
This is definitely not true. Half of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower died during their first winter at Plymouth, and the survivors were thankful for their first harvest. They celebrated with a multi-day feast, and their recreational gunfire induced several score Wampanoag men to come to their settlement.
The Pilgrims did not consider this a Thanksgiving, however. For them, as for other puritans, a Thanksgiving was a formal day of prayer and worship.
Other Europeans had already celebrated such occasions in the New World. Spanish documents refer to a Thanksgiving Mass celebrated shortly after conquistadors landed at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, and it’s possible that Spanish colonists did the same in Texas even earlier.
Before the Spanish massacred them, French Huguenots in Florida probably observed a Thanksgiving as well.
2. The Pilgrims came ashore on Plymouth Rock
This is possible, but the evidence is hardly rock solid. Here’s the chain of transmission.
Two centuries after the Mayflower reached New England, Plymouth physician James Thacher narrated that a ninety-four-year-old man named Thomas Faunce had positively identified the boulder back in 1741. The long-lived Faunce had known several of the Mayflower passengers.
Apparently, Faunce had objected when informed that the town would construct a wharf that would obscure the rock that he regarded as sacred. Thacher, though, did not get this story from Faunce himself. Instead, he cited as his source eighty-three-year-old Ephraim Spooner, six years in 1741.
Thacher compared the transmission of this “unquestionable tradition” to the three generations of relationships that bound together the early Christian bishop Polycarp with Jesus Christ himself.
Why all the fuss about a rock anyway? Many people who go to Plymouth to see the rock come away disappointed. It’s not that big, and it’s a bit hard to imagine that anyone would want to come ashore on it.
The rock has had a rough past for several centuries. It’s been moved around, split in two, and chipped away it. It used to be bigger, and the greater part of it is buried under the sand today.
When they used a smaller vessel to ferry themselves from the Mayflower to the shore, the Pilgrims could have chosen to come ashore on the rock, as countless paintings depict. No contemporary writings, however, reference such a landing.
The Pilgrims didn’t care about their exact landing spot. They simply wanted to get started on a settlement that would enable them to survive the winter that was already underway.
3. The Pilgrims came to the New World for religious freedom
This myth is partly true but needs qualification and contextualisation.
The majority of the free adult passengers on the Mayflower were separatists, puritans who had concluded that the Church of England was irredeemably corrupt.
Separatists cherished what they termed “Christian liberty” or the “liberty of the gospel.” For them, this meant the freedom and indeed the obligation to form churches according to their particular understanding of the Bible, and it included the liberty to elect their own officers and exercise congregational discipline.
As far as the crown and the bishops were concerned, such congregations were illegal conventicles, and a number of separatists were executed in the 1580s and 1590s. When future leaders of Plymouth Colony such as William Brewster faced persecution in the first decade of the 17th century, they fled England for the Dutch Republic, which offered them a substantial amount of religious freedom.
Many of the future Mayflower passengers belonged to a separatist congregation in Leiden pastored by John Robinson. As long as they remained discreet, English separatists in the Netherlands largely could exercise their Christian liberty.
Why then did the Pilgrims leave? For starters, their liberty in Leiden was tenuous. A twelve-year truce between the Dutch Republic and Spain was about to expire, and the Dutch government had just cracked down on alleged heresy within its Reformed (Calvinist) Church.
Moreover, the English separatists in Leiden hoped that if they prospered on the other side of the Atlantic, more English puritans would choose to embrace their religious principles.
In Plymouth Colony, Pilgrim-style Christian liberty did not mean religious toleration. There were also non-separatists on the Mayflower, but the separatist majority did not grant them or later arrivals to Plymouth the right to form their own congregations.
4. The Mayflower Compact was an inspiration for the American founders
Shortly before going ashore for the first time, the adult male passengers on the Mayflower formed a body politic:
“for our better ordering and preservation … [and] to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, or ordinances, acts, constitutions, offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony.”
Plymouth’s leading citizens cherished this agreement. They had it read aloud when they met periodically to revise the colony’s laws. But after the colony’s demise in the early 1690s, the compact was largely forgotten until Americans reclaimed its significance a century later.
Then, politicians like John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster began drawing straight lines from the Mayflower cabin to the Constitutional Convention. It is remarkable that such a high percentage of men aboard the Mayflower signed the compact, but the terse document exerted no known influence on the trajectory of the American founding.
5. The Mayflower passengers called themselves “the Pilgrims”
The separatists aboard the Mayflower understood themselves as “pilgrims,” but only in the generically New Testament sense that all Christians were “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”
William Bradford, who became the colony’s governor, recalled how difficult it was for them to part from their fellow congregants in Leiden. “But they knew they were pilgrims,” he wrote in his history, “and looked not much on those things, but lift[ed] up their eyes to the heavens.”
Only in the years after the American Revolution did Americans who noticed such language begin referring to Bradford and his fellow colonists as the Pilgrims.
So what’s left of the Mayflower story after one sets aside these myths? Quite a lot, actually.
The Mayflower passengers established a colony and a frame of government that endured for seventy years, no mean feat by 17th-century standards. Some settlers found prosperity they would have been very unlikely to achieve in England, but many others struggled to survive in a place of dubious fertility.
The English inhabitants of the colony – Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, and those who stood aloof from the churches – engaged in never-resolved and often fierce debates about the proper bounds of religious toleration.
Meanwhile, the colony’s steady expansion threatened the survival of Wampanoag communities. Decades of dispossession eventually led to King Philip’s War, a conflict that began in Plymouth Colony and engulfed all of New England in the mid-1670s.
This more expansive and complex history is not as simple or sunny as the myths that Americans fashioned about the Pilgrims. Nevertheless, four hundred years after the Mayflower crossing, there are many things about this small but significant colony that deserve a second look.
John G. Turner teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at George Mason University and is the author of They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty (Yale University Press, 2020).