The Voyage of the Mayflower


You probably know that the Pilgrims sailed on the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Maybe you’ve been told that they left England to gain religious freedom. But Plymouth was not where they planned to live, and the passengers on the Mayflower had many reasons for wanting to leave England.

One group of Pilgrims, who wanted to eliminate some of the religious rituals from the English Church which they felt were unnecessary, left England for Holland. They settled in the town of Leyden, where they expected to stay. Although they could practice their religion as they wished, life in Holland was rough. Most of the Pilgrims were farmers, but they now lived in an urban town. Since they did not have a trade or speak the Dutch language, their jobs did not pay well. Even William Bradford, the future governor of Plymouth, was only an apprentice to a silk weaver.

After over a decade of living in near poverty, the Pilgrims decided to move. William Bradford wrote, “the place they had thoughts on was some of those vast and unpeopled countries of America, which are fruitful and fit for habitation.” The Pilgrims heard of the success of the Jamestown colony in Virginia where colonists profited from growing tobacco so they planned to sail there. Forty-six Pilgrims left Holland on a small ship called the Speedwell in July 1620. Later they met up with a bigger ship, the Mayflower, which brought emigrants from England who would join the group. Not all of these men and women were Pilgrims; some didn’t care about religious freedom and sought only to make money in the New World.

The Speedwell kept leaking and two groups repeatedly stopped so it could be repaired. Finally they decided that the Speedwell couldn’t make the trip to America. Everyone who could fit on the Mayflower did so; others returned to England because there was not enough room. On September 6, the Mayflower set sail again.

Between the passengers and crew, the Mayflower carried about 140 people. Although better accommodations were available for the officers and wealthier passengers, most people slept in hammocks or on beds of canvas filled with straw. When they felt like eating, bacon, biscuits, and smoked fish were on board. Although they brought cabbages, onions, and turnips, they eventually ran out of vegetables and ate boiled mush and oatmeal instead.

The passengers on the Mayflower probably didn’t feel very hungry since, according to Bradford, the ship encountered “many…cross winds and met with many fierce storms, with which the ship was shaken.” Finally on November 10, the passengers sighted land off of Cape Cod. Although they planned to land near the Hudson River, the ship encountered more storms and so they went back to the Cape.

The colonists set foot at Plymouth on December 11. Bradford wrote, “Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean.” However, it was winter in Massachusetts and the passengers of the Mayflower would have more trials ahead as they tried to survive in an unfamiliar land.