The Pilgrims in America

The following is an article from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader

Historical fact: The Pilgrims never called themselves “Pilgrims.” In fact, they weren’t known by that name until the 1840s. Here’s the second part of their story that began last week with Why the Pilgrims Came to America.


The Pilgrims finally set off from Plymouth, England, on September 6, 1620, more than a month behind schedule. Historians can only guess as to the Mayflower’s exact exact size and shape (no pictures of her were ever painted), although most agree that she had two decks and three masts. “Considering the proportions of a number of known merchant vessels of the era,” writes William Baker in Colonial Vessels, “the Mayflower might have had a keel length ranging from 52 tp 73 feet, a breadth of 24 to 27 feet and a depth of 10 to 13 feet.” Other historians say she may have been as a long as 90 feet. Even so, that’s roughly the size of a two story, three bedroom house. And that’s what 102 passengers, 25 crew members, two dogs, many cats, and even more rats squeezed into for 66 days on rough and often stormy seas.

The Mayflower was designed to carry cargo, not people, so there were few cots or hammocks to sleep on. Some of the wealthier families paid the ship’s carpenter to build cots, but most of the passengers slept on hard wooden floors on a constantly rocking boat. Seasickness was common. Because people were heading to a new life in an unknown land, they brought along as many of their possessions and rations as they could pack in… which made the living quarters below decks extremely cramped. A few of the passengers even slept in the shallop, a surveying boat that was stowed on the gun deck.


The Mayflower II, a replica of the Pilgrims' ship. (Image credit: OldPine)

The first few weeks of the voyage saw relatively calm weather, and the mood among the Pilgrims was good. It is commonly believed that the Pilgrims were a bunch of staid old men who wore black clothes and black hats with buckles. That’s a myth. In reality, there was only one man over 60; the average age was 32; and there were 30 children on board. The Pilgrims even wore colorful clothes; William Bradford, for example, owned a “green gown, violet cloak, lead colored suit with silver buttons, and a red waistcoat.” And unlike the stricter Puritans, the Pilgrims liked to sing and play games.


But after those first couple of weeks, the fun came to a stormy end. The sky grew dark and the ocean swelled. Then the rain began pouring and the wind blew- and hardly let up for the rest of the journey. The foul weather forced the Pilgrims to huddle in the crowded holds. The rain leaked in through the creaky deck boards, making their lives cold and damp. The children suffered the most- from both sickness and boredom. One the few nice days, kids were permitted to climb up on deck and run around. But Master Jones and the Mayflower’s crew of roughnecks weren’t interested in cavorting with or entertaining their devoutly religious passengers. One of the sailors especially despised the Pilgrims, telling them that his only wish was to “throw your dead bodies into the sea and claim your treasures for myself.” Luckily for the Pilgrims, he never got the chance. Bradford wrote:

It pleased God before they came half seas over, to smite this young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner, and so was himself the first that was thrown overboard.

Bradford and Master Jones also had more than a few heated discussions, arguing about the route, the crew’s attitude, and whether the creaky old ship was seaworthy. Jones made it very clear that even though Bradford was the leader of the Pilgrims, he was in charge of the Mayflower. Besides, in addition to the Pilgrims and the ship’s crew, there were other paying passengers on board, about 30 regular folks booking passage to America. (Little is known about who these people were or where they ended up.)


For the most part, the Pilgrims kept to themselves and stuck together, spending their days and nights below deck praying, reading the Bible, singing songs, and sleeping. In the mornings and evenings, the 20 women prepared the meals, which consisted of salted meats, peas, beans, hard cheese, water, and beer.

During a particularly rough storm, one of the Mayflower's main support beams cracked and splintered. This beam had been holding the ship together, and for a brief time it looked like and felt like the old wooden ship might break apart. Luckily, one of the passengers had brought a “great iron screw,” which was used to repair the beam and bind it back together.

During yet another storm, a 25-year-old Pilgrim named John Howland went up on deck to try to assist the crew, but when the Mayflower listed heavily, he fell overboard and was nearly lost in the North Atlantic. Howland was able to grab a rope hanging down from one of the masts… right before the current pulled him under. If Howland had been a little slower, or if the crew had not been on hand to haul him in, America might be different today, because two of Howland’s descendants would become presidents of his new homeland: George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. (Other presidents whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Zachary Taylor, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.)


Two of the Pilgrim women had especially rough voyages. Elizabeth Hopkins and Susanna White were each seven months pregnant when the Mayflower left England. The constant rain and the ship’s incessant tossing and heaving during six straight weeks of storms made their pregnancies that much more difficult. And the Pilgrims all wondered which would happen first: landfall or childbirth? Hopkins gave birth to a baby boy while at sea. He was called Oceanus. White didn’t give birth until shortly after they landed, when she delivered a boy named Peregrine.

Oceanus’ birth did little to lighten the mood- the Pilgrims were cold and weary, and many were sick. A 12-year-boy named William Butten fell ill early in the voyage and, despite the best efforts of the Pilgrims, died only two days before the Mayflower reached land.


The Pilgrims didn’t land on “Plymouth Rock.” They didn’t land on any rock at all. They didn’t even land at Plymouth. Their original destination was “Northern Virginia” -but not in the same region that currently resides next to Washington, DC. In the 1600s, many maps referred to the entire eastern seaboard as Virginia, because the Virginia Company laid claim to it. The Pilgrim’s actual destination was the Hudson River area in what is now New York, where they had been granted a land claim from the Virginia Company. But they didn’t land there, either.

As the Mayflower headed for the Hudson, yet another squall tossed and turned the ship, forcing it off course. When one of Master Jones’ men sighted a peninsula that they could safely reach, William Bradford begged Jones to land there. Jones agreed, so the battered ship immediately turned its rudders and headed for safety. On November 11, 1620, after more than two months at sea, the Mayflower dropped anchor off the sandy tip of Cape Cod, near what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts. William Bradford described the landing in his journal:

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, and delivered them from the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element.


It was there that 41 Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact- the first set of written laws in America. The Pilgrims realized during their voyage that if they were to survive in their new land, their congregation would need to form a government and draft laws. They didn’t want a repeat of the lawlessness they heard existed in Jamestown. And, in spite of their faith, they knew they were only human- a few squabbles had already broken out between the London and Leiden Separatists. These power struggles, they felt, would only escalate without a governor and arbiters.

In the hopes of creating a “city upon a hill” that would serve as a beacon to the rest of the world, the Pilgrims elected the most learned and respected member of the group, William Bradford, to be governor. “This day,” he later wrote,

before we came to the harbor, observing some not well affected to unity and concord, but gave some appearance of faction, it was thought good there should be an association and agreement, that we should combine together in one body, and to submit to such government and governors as we should by common consent agree to make and choose, and set our hands to this that follows, word for word.

Bradford then drafted what he called “An Association and Agreement” (it would later be renamed the Mayflower Compact in 1793). The document set forth that

in the name of God, Amen, We, whose names are underwritten… during a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in a the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid.


The Mayflower Compact was a covenant so well conceived that its basic principle would later be written into the United States Constitution: For a government to be legitimate, the people who are being governed must first agree to the structure of that body and pledge to follow its laws. Without that agreement firmly in place, the government will founder.

As important a document as it was, though, the Mayflower Compact lasted only a year. It was a temporary fix designed to get the community through those first difficult months while maintaining civility. And although all the Pilgrims agreed to the terms of the Compact, it lacked one important detail: the approval of the British government. So a year later they drafted the 1621 Pierce Patent, a more detailed contract that was approved by the Crown, and enabled the Pilgrims to live peacefully in the place newly christened “New England.”


But back to that first winter of 1620. The joy of having reached the New World was short lived. Because of the delays the Pilgrims encountered leaving England, the bite of winter was already in the air when they arrived in America. They had to find a home -a place with reliable food and shelter- fast. The Pilgrims spent the first few weeks exploring the sandy beaches and inlets around cape Cod, and then the Mayflower took up anchor and sailed farther north up the coast until they found an inviting harbor. According to a surveying map, the harbor had been visited by Captain John Smith seven years earlier. He named it Plymouth, the same name as the town in England from which the Pilgrims had set sail more than three months earlier. Plymouth Harbor, it was agreed, would be their new home. They landed there on December 21, 1620… the first day of winter.

While the snow fell, the colonists quickly sawed lumber and built clapboard houses. The Mayflower's crew dropped anchor off shore, judging that a return trip to England in winter would be too dangerous, and they spent that winter with the Pilgrims. Neither group fared well. Food supplies ran perilously low and more than half of those who arrived -including Oceanus Hopkins, the baby boy who was born on the Mayflower- did not survive to spring. (The other Mayflower baby, Peregrine, lived into his 80s.)


The English settlers referred to their new home as Plymouth, but the area was known as “Patuxet” to the native people. Only one member of the Patuxet nation remained, however; the rest had been wiped out by smallpox two years earlier. The lone survivor, a man named Tisquantum -the Pilgrims called him “Squanto”- had spent several years in Europe after being kidnapped by British sailors (which is how he avoided the smallpox outbreak). Squanto befriended the Pilgrims and became their interpreter, helping them negotiate with the two other area tribes -the Nauset and the Wampanoag.

Also aiding the Pilgrims was a professional soldier named Myles Standish. The Pilgrims weren’t fighters, but, because they were going into unknown lands, Pastor John Robinson thought it prudent to hire a military captain. The decision turned out to be crucial to the Pilgrims’ survival. Although Standish lost his wife that first winter, he remained loyal to protecting those who named him their captain. Standish also impressed the neighboring Indians with his wisdom and prowess as a warrior, and even fought alongside them when another tribe attacked… a tribe who had vowed to wipe out the English next.


Without the aid of Squanto and Captain Standish, the Pilgrims would not have been safe in their new home. But, thanks to their protection, the Pilgrims lived in peace with the Indians for nearly 75 years, until the Wampanoag challenged the Pilgrims’ claim to the land. In the meantime, they coexisted, traded goods and services, and in 1621 they celebrated their first (and only) Thanksgiving together. It wasn’t a solemn religious affair, as many history books have portrayed it -it was a lively, three-day harvest feast. The Pilgrims, having survived the journey over the ocean and the harsh winter that followed, were very thankful for their new home -and new friends- in Plymouth.

An account of that Thanksgiving survives, and it sheds even more light on what life was like for those early Americans. The celebration was described by a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow in a letter dated December 12, 1621.

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest 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 brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.


Master Jones and his beleaguered crew set sail for England on April 5, 1621. The Mayflower never carried Pilgrims again. She returned to her life as a merchant ship, but only for a short time- after a few more trading runs, Christopher Jones died in 1622. The battered ship was docked for more than two years in an English harbor, then appraised for probate while Jones’ estate was settled. the ship’s official condition: “In ruins.”

So in 1624 the Mayflower was sold as scrap. A farm in the Quaker village of Jordans, in Buckinghamshire, England, claims that that Mayflower's hull and keel still exist in the barn’s frame and outer walls, but no evidence exists to support this claim. The barn is definitely made from an old wooden ship, but no marking verify that it was the Mayflower. Still, the “Mayflower Barn” remains a popular tourist destination.


The Pilgrims’ journey to the New World was a major turning point in history for both England and North America. It marked the beginning of structured society in America, as well as the beginning of a mass exodus of English people to a new land of opportunity. And to say the Pilgrims were fruitful and multiplied would be an understatement: Experts say that as many as 35 million people around the world are descended from those few dozen who settled in Plymouth in 1620.

Today, a state park in Plymouth with a monument to those who landed there memorialize the Pilgrims’ accomplishments. And although Pilgrim Memorial State Park is the smallest state park in Massachusetts, it is by far the most visited, receiving more than a million tourists every year -people who want to stand in the same spot as those weary travelers whose only wish was to create a society where the citizens were free to live and worships as they chose.

See the first part of this story in Why the Pilgrims Came to America.

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute. The 19th book in this fan-favorite series contain such gems like The Greatest Plane that Never Was, Forgotten Robot Milestones, Ancient Beauty Secrets, and more.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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"While the snow fell, the colonists quickly sawed lumber and built clapboard houses."

It's my understanding that the Pilgrims made heavy use of the empty Patuxet houses in the first winter. Plymouth was largely built using a Patuxet settlement wiped out by small pox.
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