The Mayflower Pilgrims: The First Generation

2020 was to be a year of grand celebration and remembrance for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower on November 11, 1620. Sadly, COVID and the ill winds of political correctness and historical revisionism have put a damper on the commemoration and this incredible story.

The Pilgrims’ story and legacy deserve an accurate retelling. Some journalists have put a spin on this fascinating and complex story, unfairly depicting the Pilgrims as communists, intolerant and hypocritical religious zealots, or only as economic refugees. These portrayals are inaccurate, incomplete, and don’t consider the Pilgrims in the proper historical, religious, and cultural contexts.

Who Were the Pilgrims?

John Robinson’s Home in Scrooby where the Separatists held meetings.

The 102 men, women, and children we refer to as Pilgrims were three distinct groups of people who sailed on the Mayflower from England. Thirty-seven were Separatists from Leyden, Holland. The rest were “Strangers,” and either members of the Church of England, Puritans, or perhaps a few who didn’t identify with any religious group. Most of the Strangers were likely quite pious and participated in the Separatists’ religious and worship meetings.

Separatists were radical Puritans who wished to completely disassociate from the corrupt Church of England. Their congregation was initially formed in the village of Scrooby, England, where they held secret religious gatherings that were against the law. King James had a dislike for any religious dissenters, especially the Scrooby congregation.

The Scrooby congregation covertly immigrated to Holland in 1617 for the freedom of worship. The sea captain of their getaway ship betrayed the group, and some of their leaders were imprisoned. They were more careful on their second attempt, but the women and children were left behind when the local militia arrived before they could join the men onboard. The captain immediately set sail, and most of the male congregation onboard watched helplessly as the ship escaped to Holland. The families were reunited after several months and settled in the university town of Leyden.

There were just a few “ne’er-do-wells” in the group of Strangers. William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, considered the John Billington family as “one of the most profane families” amongst the Pilgrims. Billington became the first person to commit a crime in America in 1621 when he refused to obey military orders and then was America’s first murderer in 1630.

Why Did the Separatists Want to Immigrate to America?

Peiterskerk in Leyden

The congregation lived in unity for about eleven years in Holland, and most lived near a garden behind Pastor John Robinson’s home near Pieterskerk, a large church in Leyden.  This small village of the Scrooby Separatists came to represent the ideal of a Christian community to which they would aspire for the rest of their lives.

Separatists working in the textile industry in Leyden

Life in Holland was difficult for the Separatists. Every family member performed backbreaking work in low-paying industries. The elders saw many of their children becoming “worldly” and also losing their English identity. Some were forced to serve in the Dutch military and became Dutch through marriage. Also, the threat of war with Spain was looming as Holland’s eleven-year truce was about to end.

The Mayflower’s Journey to America

Myriad circumstances forced the Separatists to consider immigrating to America. The desire to worship in freedom, gain land of their own, and thrive according to Godly principles compelled them to find the finances for the voyage.

First, the congregation made several attempts to secure a patent (royal permission) to settle in America but were unsuccessful on their own. They contracted with Londoner Richard Weston, who worked with a group of businessmen named the Merchant Adventurers. The Separatists agreed to send back valuable resources such as beaver pelts, wood, etc., to repay the Adventurers. The London group purchased a larger ship named the Mayflower, and some of their representatives joined the sailing. The Separatists secured the Speedwell, which was to be used by the colonists for fishing.

A ship similar to the Speedwell

Bad luck followed the Separatists for the next few months. Weston continued to change the contract for his benefit, and many delays caused the group to set sail in late summer rather than late spring as they had initially planned. Weston’s true nature soon became apparent. “He was eager to reap quick profits from the New World, and not very scrupulous about the means.” according to his contemporaries.

Leyden, Holland

The Speedwell developed severe leaks almost immediately, and both ships had to return to England. Some of the original passengers were forced to stay behind and rejoin the others on the next sailing.

Recent theories suggest the captain had sabotaged the Speedwell at the directive of the government of Holland, who wanted to be the first to settle in the Hudson River Valley, the area designated by the Separatists’ patent. It appears that “over-masting” caused the leaks. The Speedwell was refitted with smaller sails when it returned to port after this debacle and had many successful subsequent voyages. Holland appears to have had a deep state operating back in the early 1600s.

Finally, in early September, the Pilgrims journeyed for two months in treacherous weather. Onboard were thirty-seven Separatists, sixty-five representatives of the Merchant Adventurers, and about thirty crew. The passengers were sick and miserable and likely were never completely dry in the leaky, dank “between deck” area. The crew mocked the religious group, but the most vile crew member was the first to succumb to severe illness and die at sea.

They had originally intended to settle near the Hudson River but had been blown off course, and dangerous shoals and weather forced the ship to seek shelter at Cape Cod. It was at this point that the Strangers suggested the group split apart because their patent was not valid in this more northerly region, but the wiser Separatist leaders convinced them to unify. On November 11, 1620, to maintain order and establish a civil society while waiting for a new patent, the adult male passengers signed the Mayflower Compact.

The Pilgrims had to deal with snow and horrible weather that December

After a few weeks of determining the best area to settle, they landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The majority lived on the ship for the first few months, while the healthy built the first structures and ventured out to explore the land. They were aware that the natives were watching them, but it wasn’t until early spring that Samoset arrived in Plymouth. “He saluted us in English and bade us welcome,” according to Mourt’s Relation, a 1622 account of the early days of Plymouth Colony.

Samoset’s arrival at Plymouth

Meeting the Natives

Squanto, on behalf of the Sachem, arrived five days later, on March 22, 1621. He explained how he and others were captured and taken prisoner to Spain but gained his freedom. Squanto returned to his village only to find most of his tribe to be wiped out by disease and plague. While Squanto was of great benefit to the Pilgrims and likely was the reason for their survival, he was also suspect by both the Pilgrims and Massasoit. As the primary interpreter, no one could be certain if some of the tensions were due to his manipulation. Massasoit was aware that Squanto wanted to be the most powerful Sachem in the region and distrusted him. For example, Squanto told Massasoit the Pilgrims kept the plague in barrels buried beneath their storehouse. Still, Squanto was regarded as the one person the Pilgrims could not do without.

Squanto, an indispensable friend to the Pilgrims

The great chief Massasoit visited the Pilgrims soon after, establishing the beginning of the generally harmonious relations the early Pilgrims enjoyed with the local natives. Bradford and Winslow recorded an agreement with Massasoit to live in harmony with one another.  The need for good relations was essential to both. Massasoit’s people had been ravaged by what some consider the plague just a few years before the Pilgrims arrived. His chief enemy, the Narragansetts, seemed to be unaffected by the diseases brought by earlier traders. Massasoit’s alliance with the Pilgrims was not only practical but provided the promise each would come to one another’s aid if attacked.

Meeting Massasoit

Massasoit’s relationships with the first Pilgrims were surprisingly harmonious. Upon hearing of Massasoit being on his deathbed, Edward Winslow brought medicine and fed him some fruit preserves from the tip of a knife. He also noticed the old Sachem had an exceedingly furred tongue, so swollen it prevented him from swallowing. Winslow scraped the “corruption” from his mouth and tongue. Within a half-hour, Massasoit had improved so much that his sight returned. Winslow nursed him back to health for the next several days and even scraped the tongues of other Indians who were similarly affected. Massasoit never forgot Winslow’s care and said, “Now I see the English are my friends and love me, and whilst I live, I will never forget this kindness they showed me.”

PLYMOUTH: MASSASOIT, 1623. Edward Winslow and John Hambden of Plymouth Colony nursing Massasoit on his sickbed, 1623. Wood engraving, 1853.

Most of the fifty-two people who survived the Mayflower voyage lived remarkable lives according to the original Scrooby congregation’s ideals. Unfortunately, subsequent immigrants sponsored by the Merchant Adventurers didn’t share the same level of spirituality or integrity. The group arriving in 1621 brought no supplies and were mostly aggressive young men who wanted to venture out in competing enterprises. They and groups that followed violated the peace agreements with the natives and spawned Indian uprisings that eventually lead to King Phillip’s War.

The First Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving in the early fall of 1621 was more of a traditional English harvest festival than a solemn religious observance. Bradford had ordered four men to go out “fowling,” and then the women prepared the plentiful ducks and geese. In the autumn months, there was plenty of striped bass, cod, and bluefish in addition to the recently harvested crops. Massasoit and ninety Pokanokets arrived, probably uninvited, at the settlement with five freshly killed deer and joined the Pilgrims for the next three days.

The first Pilgrims came to respect and greatly appreciate their native friends. Although some of their habits, such as their refusal to wear much clothing, were considered ‘savage”, the Pilgrims grew to believe the natives much like themselves− “very trust(worthy), quick of apprehension, ripe witted, just,” according to Edward Winslow.

Edward Winslow

For further reading on the topic of the Pilgrims, please read Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Mayflower and Thanksgiving by Glenn Alan Cheney, both faithful retellings based on primary sources and extensive research.

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