Whilst they were not the first Europeans to travel to America, nor were they the first to establish a colony there (Jamestown had been founded in 1607), the first permanent European settlers in North America are commonly known as Pilgrims. They travelled across the Atlantic in a ship called the Mayflower which first set sail in August 1620. But their story begins a little before then…
Dissatisfied with the Church of England, a group of around 40 English “Separatists” (or “Saints” as they named themselves) gathered together in 1608 to move to the Netherlands with hopes of religious liberation. However, the Netherlands presented a much more secular way of life than they’d expected, which the Separatists viewed as dangerous and evil. In addition, Dutch laws meant that they couldn’t work in skilled jobs. They were instead forced to undertake low paid employment. Dissatisfied with their situation, the Separatists returned to England. There they decided on another move, this time to the New World.
The Virginia Company, an English trading company who were charted by King James I to colonise the east coast of North America, gave the Separatists permission to establish a settlement on a piece of English land in what is modern-day New York. By now, the group of would-be migrants had expanded to include the 41 Separatists, along with 61 “strangers” (some skilled craftsman who also sought a new life in the New World, along with indentured servants). The group first set sail from Southampton on the 15th August 1620 on two merchant ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. But the Speedwell immediately ran into trouble as it began to leak; the ships therefore headed to port in Plymouth. A month later, on September the 16th, with the Speedwell’s travellers now having also squashed themselves and their belongings onto the Mayflower, they set sail again.
As a cargo ship, the Mayflower wasn’t designed to carry passengers, and so the journey across the Atlantic was incredibly uncomfortable. The delay to travel meant that the voyage took place during storm season and many of the passengers suffered terrible seasickness – one man was even swept overboard (though he was successfully rescued). Miraculously, only one passenger died during the journey.
After sailing for 66 days across 3000 miles of open ocean, the Mayflower eventually reached North America. But they had accidentally arrived at the wrong place; Cape Cod, which was further north than the Virginia Company’s land. The migrants had no real right to be there, and so, to legitimise their new community, the group drafted a document, known as The Mayflower Compact, which set out some basic laws for how the colony would be governed. The colonists spent their first winter in the New World living aboard the Mayflower whilst they built homes for themselves on shore, but the brutal conditions and harsh North American winter meant that, by the spring of 1621, around half of the Mayflower’s passengers had died, succumbing to disease and the cold. The Mayflower set sail back to England in April 1621, leaving the remaining colonists alone to forge a life for themselves in this unknown territory.
Fortunately, the challenges of settling on a different continent were eased by the formation of an alliance with the native Wampanoag people, who taught the migrants how to farm the land and hunt. By the end of the following summer, the colonists were able to celebrate their first successful harvest, an occasion marked with a three-day long festival. This festival became the first Thanksgiving and was an opportunity for the Pilgrims (as they are now known) to share food and express gratitude to the Wampanoag people who were so crucial to their success at establishing a new life in the New World.
To learn more about this fascinating story, visit The Mayflower Story.