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The Pilgrims and the Mayflower—History and Facts

Who were the Mayflower pilgrims, and why did they come to America? Here’s a summary of the life and facts of the English settlers, their voyage, and the Plymouth Colony.

The Mayflower Pilgrims and the Voyage That Changed Their Lives

Some 100 passengers set sail on the Mayflower in 1620 to start a life in the New World. They landed in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and settled the first colony in New England, shaping the future of the American colonies. Who were the Mayflower pilgrims, and why did they come to America? 

Why Did the Pilgrims Come to America?

The pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom. At the time, England required its citizens to belong to the Church of England. People wanted to practice their religious beliefs freely, and so many fled to the Netherlands, where laws were more flexible. After several years there, fearing the loss of their native language and cultural heritage, they decided to set out for the New World and build a new life. With the help of the Virginia Company’s financing, the pilgrims boarded the Mayflower in 1620 and sailed to the Americas.

pilgrims walking out in the woods

Not all the passengers on the Mayflower were seeking a separation from the Church of England. Some were merely sympathetic to the cause and seeking a new life. Others were skilled workers, such as craftsmen or soldiers, who served vital roles in the success of both the voyage and the new settlement.

Who Were the Original Pilgrims?

The pilgrims of the Mayflower were a group of around 100 people seeking religious freedom from the Church of England. However, pilgrims were not the only passengers on the Mayflower. Other Mayflower passengers included servants, contracted workers, and families seeking a new life in America.

Among the notable Mayflower passengers were William Bradford and Myles Standish. Bradford was one of the founding leaders of the new colony, later serving as its governor for roughly 30 years. Standish, an experienced soldier, served as the colony’s military leader.

Learn about some of the other passengers aboard the Mayflower. Perhaps you can trace your ancestors all the way back to the Mayflower.

What Did the Pilgrims Do on the Mayflower?

The Mayflower was a merchant ship that usually carried goods such as wine, but its most famous cargo was the group of pilgrims destined to settle in Plymouth. The ship first set sail in August 1620 alongside another merchant ship called the Speedwell. After the Speedwell sprouted a leak, both ships returned to port, and all passengers crammed into the Mayflower.

mayflower interior

Because of the delays, the Mayflower left England in September, putting them in the middle of storm season for the duration of their voyage. With cramped quarters and rough seas, the trip turned out to be rather dreadful. Many on board were constantly seasick and rarely got up, but they held together with a sense of divine purpose as they approached their destination and withstood the storms.

After two long, hard months at sea, passengers were overjoyed to spot the coastline. For the following months, the Mayflower served as a source of shelter for many of the pilgrims during their first winter. 

Life in Plymouth

After a difficult voyage, the pilgrims were thrilled to land and start a new life. Together, they did just that as they founded Plymouth Colony.

How Did the Pilgrims End Up in Plymouth?

The Mayflower was intended to land in Virginia, but storms shifted the ship’s course north. As a result, they landed in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. After exploring the area, the Mayflower pilgrims eventually decided to stay, partially due to harsh seas and dwindling supplies.

image of first landing plaque

John Smith, the famous explorer, had previously named the area “Plymouth.” Having departed from the Plymouth port in England, the pilgrims decided to keep the name (which they likely found on their maps) and formed Plymouth Colony.

What Is the Mayflower Compact?

Because the Mayflower landed in Massachusetts, the charter allowing the pilgrims to join the Virginia colony became invalid. Naturally, passengers were not sure what to do, and confusion ensued. Fearing discord and mutiny, many of the men on board wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact.

mayflower signing painting

Under the Mayflower Compact, the pilgrims agreed to work together toward the success of Plymouth Colony. The compact also established rules and voting practices that helped in founding the colony’s government. Notably, it served as the first form of self-governance in the colonies.

What Was Life Like in Plymouth?

When the Mayflower pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in November, winter was upon them. Finding food and shelter was difficult, leading to rampant illness. Sadly, only half of the pilgrims who traveled on the Mayflower survived the first winter.

Spring brought new hope, and the remaining pilgrims started to plant crops, hunt, and build their colony. Along the way, they met Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe. Squanto proved invaluable to the survival of Plymouth Colony, serving as a translator, guide, and teacher in the New World.

plymouth colony homes for pilgrims of the mayflower

By the time fall came around, the pilgrims were well on their way to starting a successful colony. They famously celebrated the first American Thanksgiving alongside the Pokanoket people to give thanks for their newfound success and the harvest. This celebration set the precedence for Thanksgiving as we know and love it today.

In the first years of the colony, the Mayflower pilgrims negotiated peace treaties with local Native American tribes. They were also able to secure their colony’s standing and establish a “self-sufficient economy” based on farming, hunting, and trading.

However, life was not always picture-perfect in the New World. While the pilgrims on the Mayflower set out to seek religious freedom, they were not the only ones seeking freedom. Some other groups weren’t as tolerant of differing beliefs. Religious persecution and tensions between different groups often led to violence in the colonies.

Complex relationships with Native American tribes also escalated tensions in the area as the colony expanded. Eventually, the conflict led to King Philip’s War, also referred to as the First Indian War. Some tribes fought to prevent further English settlement while others sided with the pilgrims. The result for both sides was devastating.

Despite facing trials, Plymouth continued to grow and flourish. Three additional ships joined Plymouth Colony, and over 1,000 Puritans formed Boston nearby. Eventually, Plymouth became part of the larger Massachusetts in 1691. The legacy of the pilgrims lives on today, as can be seen in the yearly celebration of Thanksgiving.

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Source: Family Search

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