2020 sees the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower.
This ship took 102 passengers, many fleeing religious persecution and known as the Pilgrim Fathers, as well as adventurers and others – across the treacherous North Atlantic from Plymouth, Devon, to the New World. Here the settlements they established laid the foundations for what would become the United States of America.
Today it is estimated that around 30 million Americans can trace their ancestry back to that momentous journey. Here are nine places that tell the Mayflower story.
1. Scrooby, Nottinghamshire
The Separatists were Protestants, many of whom lived in or around the village of Scrooby and in the adjoining counties of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.
They believed the Church of England was still tainted with unacceptable Catholic dogma and corruption, despite having broken away from the Papacy and the Roman Catholic church in 1534 during the reign of Henry VIII.
William Brewster, brought up in the village, is believed to have opened his manor house home to the Separatists. Here believers were free to worship simply in their own way, but it was an underground movement, fraught with danger.
In 1593, parliament outlawed independent congregations. Separatist beliefs were considered treasonable and seditious. Believers lived under the threat of imprisonment or death.
2. Gainsborough, Lincolnshire
Another centre of covert religious dissent was Gainsborough. Here a similar group worshiped clandestinely – drawn from the town and local villages and led by the Reverend John Smyth – possibly in the Old Hall pictured above.
But, in King James’ England (1603-25), pressure was mounting on Separatist congregations, with surveillance, arrests and imprisonment. The two groups decided to flee to religiously tolerant Holland.
3. Boston, Lincolnshire
In the autumn of 1607, the Separatists slipped away from their homes at night and secretly made their way to the north-east Lincolnshire coast. Here at Scotia Creek a boat they had hired was waiting to take them to Holland.
But, the boat’s captain betrayed them. The Pilgrims were arrested by the local militia; their possessions confiscated. They were taken to local Boston where they were paraded in front of the townspeople and reputedly held in the Guildhall. After a month’s imprisonment, most were allowed to return home, although the ringleaders were put on trial.
4. Immingham, Lincolnshire
More than a year later, the Pilgrims made another attempt at fleeing persecution. Led by their pastors, including John Robinson, and accompanied by William Brewster, families left from Gainsborough by river barge; others travelled on foot. They met at Immingham Creek on the Lincolnshire coast where a Dutch sailing boat was ready to take them to safety.
As the men initially went on board and their families waited on the shore, a group of armed militia were spotted. The Dutch captain quickly weighed anchor rather than face arrest, leaving the distressed women and children behind. They were arrested and questioned, eventually being released and managing to leave for Holland to join their menfolk at a later date.
5. Leiden (Leyden), Holland
The Separatists settled in Leiden, a booming industrial city already home to refugees, a large number also fleeing religious persecution. They lived in the city for the next 12 years.
Some worked in hard menial jobs in the textile industry; others as shoe, glove and hat makers, coopers, masons, carpenters. William Brewster set up a printing press – later referred to as the Pilgrim Press – where he printed dissident religious pamphlets, smuggling them into Britain.
The political and religious situation in Holland was becoming unstable. Half the group wanted to emigrate to the New World after hearing about earlier settlers there. It was a dangerous journey, but they wanted religious freedom again and a better economic future. Some had anxieties about their children growing up more Dutch than English.
The Pilgrims persuaded London merchants to invest in their journey in return for establishing a colony and sending back trading goods such as valuable furs. The Pilgrims purchased a ship, the Speedwell, to take them to Southampton where they would meet up with the Mayflower before both sailing across the Atlantic.
On 22 July 1620 they set off from Holland.
6. Rotherhithe, Southwark, London
Rotherhithe, with its long seafaring and shipbuilding history, was the home of many of the Mayflower’s crew, and of Captain Christopher Jones, part owner of the ship. (He died 15 March 1622, having returned from the New World on the Mayflower, and is buried in St Mary’s church – opposite the pub – where there is also a modern sculpture dedicated to him in the churchyard.)
About 65 people embarked on the Mayflower in Rotherhithe. Many of these passengers were not driven by religious beliefs, but by a desire to find work and start a new life.
The Mayflower sailed down the River Thames and into the English Channel, anchoring at Southampton on the south coast to wait for the Speedwell.
7. Southampton, Hampshire
When the Speedwell arrived at Southampton, she had sprung a leak on her voyage from Holland and had to undergo repairs. The city was a thriving seaport and already had trading links with the New World.
The Pilgrims benefited from advice from local seafarers who had sailed across the Atlantic before.
8. Plymouth, Devon
The Speedwell and the Mayflower first set sail from England to the New World early August 1620. But the smaller Speedwell started taking on water and both ships had to turn back twice, eventually ending up at Plymouth, Devon, where she was declared unseaworthy.
By now, the passengers had been at sea for several wasted weeks. Some Pilgrims lost heart and decided not to continue on the journey. The remainder joined the Mayflower, making conditions on the small ship extremely cramped. There were now 102 passengers, over 20 of whom were children.
Among the Pilgrims were William and Mary Brewster from Scrooby and their children Love and Wrestling, John and Catherine Carver – he was credited with drawing up the Mayflower Contract (see below), and William and Dorothy Bradford from Yorkshire – he later became Governor of the Plymouth colony in the New World.
The crew numbered around 30.
The Mayflower finally set sail from Plymouth 16 September 1620.
9. Cape Cod, Massachusetts
For around two months the Mayflower battled Atlantic storms and huge waves. One passenger was lost overboard and a baby, named Oceanus, was born during the voyage.
The Pilgrims had been bound for Virginia where they had permission to settle but the seas were so rough that, in November, when they sighted what is present-day Cape Cod, they decided to anchor there.
At the end of November, Captain Jones led an expedition by open boat, exploring the harsh snow-covered coastline to find a suitable site for the colony. They came across buried corn and burial sites in an abandoned village, Patuxet – before the Pilgrims’ journey, other settlers had brought European diseases which wiped out indigenous communities.
At Christmas 1620, the Mayflower set sail again, arriving at what would be their new home, known today as Plymouth, Massachusetts.
10. Plymouth, Massachusetts
With temperatures below freezing, the Pilgrims remained on the Mayflower. The ship offered some protection from the bitter winter but they were starving and many had been struck down with scurvy, tuberculosis and pneumonia. Only around 50 passengers survived, along with just half the crew.
In early spring 1621, the remaining passengers disembarked and started building their new colony. Knowing there were indigenous people around, they feared attack and fortified the settlement.
The Pilgrims were colonising traditional lands belonging to the Wampanoag, one of the many warring indigenous peoples in the region. Their leader, Massasoit, sought an alliance with the Pilgrims against their enemies. He sent an English-speaking Wampanoag to talk to the colonists who had learnt English from fishermen on English ships that had long been plying their trade in the waters of the New World.
The result was an historic peace treaty. The Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims about planting corn, where to fish and how to hunt deer, fowl and beaver. Without such help, they almost certainly would have starved to death.
Following an abundant harvest in the autumn of 1621, the colonists celebrated with a festival of prayer, inviting the Wampanoag to a great feast. This became known as the First Thanksgiving.
One of the senior Pilgrims Edward Winslow, who chronicled the Pilgrims’ experiences, described the First Thanksgiving: ‘…many of the Indians (came) amongst us…their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they… bestowed upon our Governor and upon the Captain and others…’
Thanksgiving is an American tradition that continues to be celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday in November.
Written by Nicky Hughes.