Today marks the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower, which brought 35 Puritans to found the first permanent European settlement in New England.
Here are nine things you should know about one of the most significant journeys in American religious history.
1. The religious group that made the voyage were Puritan Separatists, a group of English Protestants that wished to separate from the perceived corruption of the Church of England and form autonomous local churches. Separatists generally favored a congregational form of church polity, with each individual church founded upon a formal covenant, electing its own officers, and restricting the membership to “visible saints.” A congregation of Separatists was living in exile in Leiden, Holland, because the country was considered more tolerant of religious freedom. But they feared a siege by Spain and so decided to re turn briefly to England and then set off the New World.
2. The Puritans were aware of the dangers and risks. The only English settlement to survive in America was Jamestown—which had lost about 500 settlers to starvation and disease. But the exiles of Leiden believed it was their sacred duty to settle in America. “We verily believe and trust the Lord is with us,” they wrote, “and that He will graciously prosper our endeavors according to the simplicity of our hearts therein.”
3. Two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, originally left for North America on August 5. But the Speedwell sprung a leak—three times—and had to return to England for repairs. Eventually, the Speedwell had to be abandoned, and a select group of passengers was chosen to go on the remaining ship. When the Mayflower left on September 16, only about a third of the 102 passengers (74 male and 28 female) were Puritan Separatists. The remaining passengers were what the Puritans called “Strangers”—hired hands, servants (including a group of four brothers and sisters, aged 4 to 8, who were indentured servants), and farmers recruited by London merchants and headed for the Colony of Virginia.
4. The first half of the journey across the Atlantic was relatively uneventful. But the latter half proved treacherous. Rough seas and storms caused the Mayflower to veer off course more than 500 miles. The Puritans intended to land in northern Virginia (which at the time included the Hudson River in the modern State of New York), but after being nearly shipwrecked, they turned back north and landed in what is now Provincetown Harbor in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The Puritans would spend the next month and a half exploring the area around Cape Cod trying to determine where to build their settlement.
5. Because the Mayflower did not land in Virginia, the “Strangers” argued the original Virginia Company contract they had signed was null and void. Since there was no valid contract and no official government, the strangers said they would not recognize the Pilgrim’s rules. To quell this burgeoning rebellion, a temporary set of laws for ruling themselves as per majority agreement was drawn up. The agreement, later known as the Mayflower Compact, was a short document that established that the colonists: would remain loyal subjects to King James, despite their need for self-governance; would create and enact “laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices . . . ” for the good of the colony, and abide by those law; would create one society and work together to further it; would live in accordance with the Christian faith. The Mayflower Compact was the first document to establish self-government in the New World and proved to be an early, successful attempt at democracy in America.
6. The full text of the Mayflower Compact is as follows:
In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, defender of the Faith, etc.:
Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith, and the honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another; covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.
In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, 1620.
7. The Puritans and Strangers were unprepared for the harsh New England winters. While they received some food aid from the natives, they had no shelter and were forced to stay aboard the ship. An outbreak of contagious disease—described as a mixture of scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis—afflicted them through the winter. By the Spring, only 53 settlers and half the ship’s crew remained. In the spring, the settlers built huts on land, and were finally able to disembark from Mayflower on March 21, 1621.
8. The health and economic condition of the settlers improved, and by that autumn Governor William Bradford invited neighboring native Americans to celebrate the bounty of that year’s harvest season in a “Thanksgiving.” Soon after, the Plymouth colony secured treaties with most local tribes, making the settlement even more attractive to European immigrants. By the mid 1640s, Plymouth’s population numbered 3,000 people (which was still smaller than their Puritan neighbors to the north, who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony almost a decade after the Mayflower landing).
9. The Puritan colonists of Plymouth were not referred to as “Pilgrims” until the early 19th century. The first reference comes from a manuscript in which Governor Bradford spoke of the “saints” who left Holland as “pilgrimes.” The term only entered common usage, though, after a bicentennial celebration of Plymouth’s founding in 1820 when statesman Daniel Webster spoke of “Pilgrim Fathers.”