The Pilgrims and the Mayflower

If Faneuil Hall, in Boston, be regarded as the “Cradle of Liberty,” Plymouth may well lay claim to being the place where American Religious Liberty had its birth.  There were earlier settlements of Europeans mad in America.  Hendrik Hudson and his crew, for example, had sailed on March 20, 1609, from Amsterdam, in Holland, to found a New Amsterdam beyond the seas, upon an island purchased at a paltry price from the Indians, Such a voyage, however, and a settlement such as New Amsterdam, were merely two details in the history of the commerce of a commercial people.  New Amsterdam was founded as a colony for the purpose of trading – never as a refuge for those seeking freedom from religious persecution.

            The story of the Pilgrims and their wanderings in search of liberty of conscience are well known, and has been made the subjects of literature without end.  The reformation of the 16th century, to be sure, had freed England from what some thought to be the religious despotism of the Catholic Church, but it had resulted only in setting up in England the authority of the Church of England as by law established.  It meant only the exchange of one form of authority for another, which seemed to men and women in search of wide religious freedom to be equally intolerable.  The rule of Rome had indeed been thrown off, only to yield place to that of the Tudor or Stuart sovereigns.

Migration From England to Holland 

            From England to Holland, then the refuge in Europe for those oppressed for the sake of freedom of conscience, was the first stage in the journeying of the Pilgrims.  The Lowlands, it will be recalled, had been delivered from the yoke of Spain, and into the thriving towns of that corner of Europe were being gathered all those who were willing to migrate to a new home where religious peace and liberty were to be found.  Perhaps some of the Pilgrims themselves had witnessed the departure for the America of Hudson and his band, and what more alluring to a persecuted people than the glorious vision of laying, in a virgin land, the foundations of new state, the very corner stone of which should be freedom of conscience, the liberty of each man to worship God in his own way?

            A journey to the opposite side of the world, in the early part of the 17th century, was by no means a venture to be lightly entered upon, and particularly when it involved the migration of a colony which had been slowly growing during the ten or twelve years of its sojourn in Holland.  I meant the securing of passage, upon a ship about to make such a voyage, for the number of people who were willing to make the venture, and the engaging, as well, of space sufficient for such belongings and household possessions as must be taken with them to make possible their establishing themselves in primeval wilderness.

Departure For America 

            When such an opportunity at last arose, the ship upon which necessary passage was offered was to sail, not from Holland but from the English port of Southampton, which involved, of course, at least a brief stay in the country from which the Pilgrims had come.  Of the 102 people --- men, women, and children – who undertook this hazard of new fortunes, history relates that only two – William Brewster and William Bradford – are to be traced to the original migration from England into Holland.  During the years of residence in Holland, however, the little band had steadily increased to about 300 in number, so that without entirely wiping out the small congregation which they had build up at Leyden,  35 of its members set out by canal for Delft Haven, the port of Delft, and a ship called the Speedwell was taken for England, where they were joined by 67 others, finally sailing from the English seaport, Plymouth, Since after the Mayflower left Southampton it became necessary to put into Plymouth for repairs.

            The history of the Pilgrims and the voyage of the Mayflower have been so idealized and glorified during the past 300 years, that it is rather difficult now to view them in what might be called their “true perspective.” Shorn of the romance which legend and tradition have case about it, the migration of the Pilgrims probably differed little, if at all, from the coming of many little bands of brave and loyal souls who have come to these shores during the past few centuries.  America, in fact, might be said to have been peopled by countless such migrations, of which the coming of the Pilgrims to Plymouth was merely the earliest.

            The Mayflower could have been but little larger than a canal boat such as are used today upon the Erie Canal, - about 90 feet long, some 24 feet wide, and served by a crew of from 15 to 20 men.  Of her three masts those fore and aft have been described as being “square rigged and without jibs,” while the “mizzen” mast carried a  “lateen” sail.  The body of the vessel included a high forecastle and a high poop deck, which left the idle of the ship low.  History describes the Mayflower as being “broad of beam, short in the waist, low between decks and not thought in her upper works,” she was, in other words, what seamen know as a “wet” ship, and being heavily loaded was “low in the water.”  The crew occupied the quarters fore, and here were stored such scanty possessions of different kinds as the Pilgrims were taking with them, while the passengers –102—were placed aft “in bunks and cabins.”

Life on the Mayflower 

        It is rather difficult to understand how this number of people – men, women and children – could have been crowded into the “bunks and cabins” of a vessel of the Mayflower’s size.  It is even more difficult to understand how existence could have been maintained under such circumstances during the long period between the time of their leaving Southampton in England and the day of their arrival in Cape Cod Bay.  Life in America, during the first few years, was such as to the test of mettle of even such doughty of the voyage on the Mayflower were merely reckoned as part of the price which they were to pay for the liberty which awaited them beyond the seas.

            The food for the journey was simple in the extreme, and is described by historians of the period as consisting of “bacon, hard tack, salt beef, smoked herring and cheese, together with ale or beer.”  For “luxuries,” there were “butter, vinegar, mustard, lemons, and prunes,” not to mention “gin, brandy and Dutch schnapps.”  Such cooking as was done at all was over a fire set upon a small area filled with sand, on the Mayflower’s open deck, but little cooking seems to have been attempted, and probably for the most part the food was eaten cold; and there were but two meals each day, for food was precious and must be used with care.

            The relations which existed between the captain and the Pilgrims were no doubt strained during the greater part of the Mayflower’s voyage.  Since the Pilgrims were unable to afford the cost of chartering a ship for the expedition, the journey was “financed” by the Merchant Adventures, who expected to derive a certain profit from the merchandise from America, such as salt fish, shingles and clapboards, which the colonists would send to England on future trips of the Mayflower.  The captain probably regarded his passengers as hardly a profitable company, and life under such circumstances, and for so long a period, doubtless involved more than a little friction.  It has long been maintained that this friction resulted in the captain’s purposely steering the Mayflower away from the port to which she was to sail, -- the mouth of the Hudson or the Delaware, -- which ended in the Pilgrims being steered into what we know today as Cape Cod Bay.  The charter under which the settlement was to be made was to be within the domain of the Virginia Company; New England was under the jurisdiction of an entirely different company.

Arrival in Cape Cod Bay 

            Under these circumstances it may have been felt by some of the leaders of the Pilgrims that what had been attained was probably the best that could be had, while others maintained that Heaven had brought about the event and the Providence was directing their pilgrimage, particularly as the bleak shores about Cape Cod Bay, even in November, seemed to be not wholly without certain very solid advantages.  The “Compact,” signed in the cabin of the Mayflower on November 11, 1620, as she rode at anchor, and to which were signed the names of the Pilgrims, speaks of their desire of planting “the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia,” but the Mayflower’s captain refused to take them thither, and their settlement was accordingly made upon the shore near “Cape Cod.”

            With an apparently endless stretch of coast to choose from, the matter of selecting the spot most favorable for a form, the matter of selecting the spot most favorable for permanent settlement was naturally a matter of the first importance, and not lightly to e regarded.  For a month the neighboring coast was explored by parties which put out from the Mayflower in the ship’s shallop; different coves and bays were explored and their relative advantages probably discussed, but the sandy beaches and shallow water about Provincetown, where they first landed, seemed to be hardly adapted for the use of even such vessels as the Pilgrims were apt to employ.  Perhaps it was the excellence of the harbor which led the Pilgrims to select the spot where they reared their settlement. Stripped of all the romance which tradition has cast about it the “Landing of the Pilgrims,” which is recorded as taking place at Plymouth on December 21, 1620, was not the landing of the full body but the landing of the exploring party which had been cruising around the bay, and which had come again to examine anew the shores of what we know as Plymouth Harbor,  and to select one of the several favorable spots which had already been discovered and discussed.

            This exploring party was made up of “ten of their principal men,” according to Bradford, whose names, as given in “Mourt’s relation,” were Captain Myles Standish, governor carver, William Bradford, Edward Winslow, John Tilley, Edward Tilley, John Howland, from Leyden; with Richard Warren, Stephen Hopkins and Edward Dotey from London, and also two of the Pilgrim’s seamen, John Allton and Thomas English.  Along with them Captain Jones of the Mayflower send three of his seamen, with a mate and a pilot and the master gunner of the ship, making 18 in all – 12 of the Pilgrims and 6 of the Mayflower’s crew.  The circumstances of this landing are also fully described in “Mourt’s Relation.”  The exploring party having landed upon the Rock “marched also into the land and found divers cornfields and little running brooks, a place very good for situation.  So we returned to our ship again with good news to the rest of the people, which did much comfort their hearts.”

Preliminary Explorations 

It would seem that although the shores about Plymouth Harbor had finally been decided upon as the site of the Pilgrim’s settlement, the precise spot had yet to be agreed upon.  Nevertheless, the Mayflower sailed into Plymouth Harbor on December 26, 1620, and dropped anchor not far from the shore, not to be disturbed until the time came for her return to England in the spring.

            To some of the men who had examined the several available sites in Plymouth Harbor it seemed wise to select Clark’s Island, where they had spent one Sunday, as the place for the settlement.  I was surrounded by water, they argued, and could therefore be defended more easily from at the attacks of the Indians, which were always possible.  To others it seemed that the most suitable place for the permanent settlement would be the spot where the Jones River emptied its water into the bay. “So in the morning, after we had called on God for direction, we came to this resolution, to go presently ashore againe; and take a better view of two places which we thought most fitting for us; for we could not now take time for further search or consideration, our vitals being much spent, especially our beer, and it being now the 19th of December (old style).  After our landing and visiting the places, so well as we could, we came to a conclusion, by most voices, to set on high ground where there is a great deal of land cleared, and hath been planted with corn three or four years ago; and there is a very sweet brook round under the hillside, and many delicate springs of as good water as could be drunk, and where we could harbor our shallops and boats exceedingly well; and in this brook fish in their season; on the further side of the river also much corn ground cleared.  In one field is a great hill on which we point to make a platform, and plant our ordnance, which will command all around about.  From there we may see into the bay, and far into the sea, and we may see thence Cape Cod.  Our grates labor will be the fetching of our wood which is half a quarter of an English mile; but there is enough so far off.  What people inhabit here we yet know not, for as yet we have seen none.  So there we made our rendezvous and a place for some of our people, about 20 resolving in the morning to come all ashore and to build houses.”

            All this agrees with what the present site of Plymouth must have been in 1620.  The “brook” and at least one of the “many delicate springs” yet exist, and the “great hill” upon which the Pilgrims pointed” to make a platform” undoubtedly refers to Burial Hill where they soon built the “Old Fort and from Plymouth one may still “see thence Cape Cod.”

            Captain Jones of the Mayflower was anxious to sail for England.  The voyage to America had undoubtedly been for him a rather unprofitable venture and it would seem to have been, from the first, a series of disagreements between captain and crew on the one hand and the 102 Pilgrims upon the other.  Upon the whole, however relations towards the end of the period seem to have been more agreeable.  Captain Jones seems to have permitted unlimited use of the Mayflower’s small shallop for much exploring, which must necessarily be, of the numerous coves and inlets along the coast of Cape Cod bay, and, as already said, had sent he men of his crew to aid in the exploring; he even offered to take back to England any of the Pilgrims who cared to return, but this offer seems to have been unanimously declined.

Landing of the Pilgrims 

        With the site of the settlement now determined, and with the day of the Mayflower’s departure for England close at hand, it became necessary in the spring for the entire Pilgrim company to take leave of the ship and to establish themselves in their rude cabins, already well under way upon the shore.  This actual landing of the company would seem therefore to correspond more literally to the idea which most people have of the “Landing of the Pilgrims” than the landing of the exploring party which has already been mentioned.  This event, which for centuries has engaged the attention of painters of historical scenes, may be studied in countless pictures everywhere, not to mention several

Vicissitudes of the Rock 

            It might be supposed that a relic as important as Plymouth Rock would have be possessed of a fame of such continuity that questions regarding its identity – or shall we say its authenticity? – would not be possible.  But prophets are said to be not without honor save in their own countries, and if the plain and somewhat disappointing truth must be told, it must be confessed that Plymouth has not always held the rock in the high veneration which it deserves.  As the actual shore line shifted in the course of time, and the Rock came to e farther and farther from the water’s edge, popular interest, it would seem, was not strong enough to save the famous Rock from something closely skin to profanation.  If it would seem, was not strong enough to save the famous Rock from something closely akin to profanation.  If it was not actually built upon it was at least used as a sort of stepping stone for a structure of some kind, and in view of all these conditions it is perhaps hardly to be wondered at that in the course of time thee should grow up a tradition of skepticism as to the Rock’s actual identify.

            All these doubts were disproved and dispelled by Elder Thomas Faunce.   Having been born in 1647, and being the son of John Faunce, who came to Plymouth in 1623 in the “Ann,” he must have been raised in the actual company of many who had themselves landed upon the Rock from the Mayflower’s shallop.  At the age of 95, when he heard that the Rock which had been venerated from his youth was about the be disturbed, he visited the spot, released the history of the Rock as it had been told to him by his father and numerous members of the Pilgrim company, and in the presence of many witnesses declared it to be the identical Rock upon which the Forefathers had landed in 1620.  The vicissitudes of the Rock have been descried in another part of this little Guide, and the visitor who looks upon it may well hope that it will be forever treasured and venerated in Plymouth in memory of the Pilgrims of whom it is most famous relic.

presentments in Plymouth today.  Artists, quite naturally, are apt to make strict and literal historical exactitude somewhat subordinate to the requirements of a good picture, but upon the whole it may well be agreed that in dealing with this particular subject the painter have taken few liberties, if any at all.  It is recorded, and generally believed, that John Alden was the first of the Pilgrims to step from the shallop upon the plain gray boulder,  which perhaps seemed to be the obvious spot upon which to land, and that he next assisted Mary Chilton to plant her foot upon the Rock.  The name of Alden is not unknown in the annals of Plymouth chivalry, and it cannot be that he would have permitted Miss Mary Chilton to step unaided from a rocking boat to terra firma.  After them thee disembarked the others of the company, and it may well be that many other trips the shallop were necessary before all he Pilgrims and their possessions had been safely and finally landed.

            John Alden, who was the first of the Pilgrims to step upon the Rock, according to general belief, when the general company of the Mayflower’s travelers took permanent possession of Plymouth, is also known to fame through another tradition.  It will be recalled that when the Pilgrims undertook the building of the first log cabins, which were to be their homes, all single men were expected o “join themselves” to families, that the number of the houses built need not be larger than was necessary.  John Alden therefore joined the household of Captain Myles Standish, and continued to live with then until his marriage, which occurred in the early part of 1621.

            Within a very short time after the death of Mrs. Standish who was evidently among these member of the Plymouth Colony who died during the first winter, the Captain was ld to suppose that if he could procure the hand of a lovely Miss Priscilla Mullins, the daughter of Mr. William Mullins, one of he first comers and a worthy man, the breach in his family would be happily healed.

            “Captain Standish, therefore, according to the manner of his times, send to ask of the father, permission to visit his daughter.  The person chosen by the Captain to perform this delicate embassy was Mr. John Alden, then an inmate of his family, and who, although a Pilgrim, was young and comely.  The father did not object, as he might as will have done, on account of the recently of the Captain’s bereavement, but readily gave his consent, saying however that the young lade must first be consulted.  The damsel having been called into the apartment, Mr. Alden, who is said to have been of a most excellent form, and of a fair and ruddy complexion, arose and in courteous and prepossessing manner, delivered his errand.” The young lady listened with respectful attention and at last, after considerable pause, fixing her on eyes on him, replied with perfect naiveté, “Prithee, John, why do you not speak for yourself?”

            Tradition fails to record the means which Mr. Jon Alden employed to explain the situation to his constituent, who had every reason for resentment, but it is chronicled in Plymouth history that he rode to has nuptials on the back of a bull, and that he afterwards returned to his home with Mrs. Alden seated on the bull, which her husband led by a rope fastened to a ring in the bull’s nose.  John Alden is said to have been the last member of the Mayflower Company to die, but that distinction is also claimed by some for Mr. John Howland.  Considerable disagreement exists among historians regarding dates, and even sometimes regarding names and some historical question defy settlement.

            Such, in brief were the migration of the Pilgrims and their search for religious freedom.  It may well be that they compared their wanderings to the journeying of the ancient Israel and, like the Israelites; they found their faith justified by the results.