When the Mayflower neared America’s coastline on Nov. 9, 1620, she had carried the Pilgrims to Cape Cod and not the original destination. The entire voyage, beginning with the departure from England, was filled with delays. Each portion of the delayed journey created higher risks for the passengers, crew and the ship.
The decision to sail to America was a last resort for a group of English Protestants. They had moved from their village of Scrooby, Nottinghamshire to Leyden, a town in Holland, in 1608. They believed the Church of England was corrupt and did not want to pledge their allegiance to it. These Protestant Separatists had moved to Holland in search of religious freedom.
The Separatists, or “Saints” as they called themselves, discovered that life in Holland was more difficult than they had thought it would be. They had religious freedom, but they hadn’t expected the Dutch craft guilds to exclude foreigners. As a result, the only jobs they could get were those of low-paying servants. They also felt the worldly and easygoing cultural environment was too distracting for their children. They decided on a new location where they were sure to be free of government interference and secular distraction – they would sail across the Atlantic to America.
In order to prepare for their voyage, they returned to London. They secured an advance from a wealthy merchant and the Virginia Company approved their request to establish a plantation or settlement between Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the Hudson River. The king had given his permission for them to leave the Church of England. They and another group who were secular colonists, or “Strangers,” would be sailing to America at the same time aboard two merchant ships. Those ships were the Mayflower and the Speedwell.
The Mayflower was a merchant ship that had been purchased by Master Christopher Jones, a sea captain, and other business partners in 1607. Her first voyage of record was in 1609 from London to Trondheim, Norway. She’d been hired to take a shipment of various goods from London to Norway, sell them and return with Norwegian goods of lumber, tar and fish. A fierce North Sea storm forced Jones and crew to throw most of the goods overboard during the return voyage. After that, Jones frequently sailed her from London to Bordeaux, France, and occasionally to other European ports in Spain and Germany to exchange English goods for wine, cognac, vinegar, salt and other items.
After returning to London in May 1620 from a voyage to Bordeaux, France, Jones and the Mayflower were hired to take the Pilgrims to their destination of Northern Virginia. Neither the ship nor Jones had sailed across the Atlantic before, but several of the crew had. They sailed to Southampton, in July 1620, to stock tools, supplies, food and drink in the cargo hold. The Pilgrims who were still living in Holland boarded another ship, the Speedwell, in Delfshaven, and also sailed to Southampton. Just as planned, the Mayflower was waiting when the Speedwell arrived. Instead of departing though, the voyage was temporarily on hold because the Speedwell had been leaking.
One week later, the two ships set sail on Aug. 5. The Speedwell started leaking again which meant another delay. Both vessels had to stop at Dartmouth for repairs on Aug. 12 and were able to return to sea on Aug. 21. They had gone approximately 300 miles when the Speedwell started leaking a third time. She couldn’t be repaired so the ships turned around and went to Plymouth, England. The Mayflower would have to make the voyage alone. Some passengers gave up and went home but others had their cargo transferred to the Mayflower and crammed aboard.
The ship departed Plymouth, England on Sept. 6, about six weeks later than the originally planned departure date. The passengers’ quarters were on the gun deck, also known as the “tween deck.” This area had four gun ports on each side for cannons in case of attack. The ceiling height was about 5 feet 6 inches. The widest part of the deck was 24 feet and length was 80 feet. Within that space, 12 feet of the length was off-limits to passengers because it was the gun room, used to store supplies, powder and shot for cannons and guns. Additional space was taken up by the windlass and capstan, used for moving cargo from one deck to another, the masts and hatches that allowed access to the cargo hold. There was also a 30-foot shallop, or small boat with a single sail, stored on this deck. The total living space for 102 passengers was 58 feet by 24 feet.
The first half of the voyage was relatively calm. From October on, storms and accompanying winds were so strong that it wasn’t safe to use the sails. The ship had to drift with the wind and waves. On Nov. 9, they saw land. They were supposed to be in Northern Virginia, at the mouth of the Hudson River in what is now New York, but they had drifted to Cape Cod. They tried heading south but rough seas made it impossible and dangerous. They sailed around the tip of Cape Cod and anchored inside the harbor on Nov. 11.
The voyage had taken 66 days. The men spent the remainder of November and most of December exploring the area. They finally selected a location, on Dec. 25, 1620, where they would build their plantation. They named it Plymouth, after the port in England. Out of 102 passengers, only 53 survived the first winter. They had to live on the ship until the land was cleared and their houses were finished. Out of roughly 30 crew members, only half of them survived. The ship’s master, Christopher Jones, was one of the survivors.
Today, visitors can see the Mayflower II, a historically accurate replica of the original Mayflower. Anchored on Plymouth’s waterfront as part of Plimoth Plantation, this living museum interprets the culture of the Colonial English and the Wampanoag communities. The year 2020 will be the 400th anniversary of that incredible voyage. The Mayflower carried the Pilgrims to America, but bad weather forced them to land at Cape Cod, not their original destination.
By: Cynthia Collins
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History of the Mayflower