The Story of The Mayflower – 400th Anniversary of its Voyage

The Story of The Mayflower – 400th Anniversary of its Voyage

Four hundred years since its voyage in 1620, The Mayflower and its Pilgrim Fathers landed on the shores of the New World. The effect that these new settlers would have on the history of America would be far more significant than they could ever imagine. In honour of the 400th anniversary, we’ve had a look at the story behind this historic ship and its effect on history.

‘The story of the Mayflower has been mythologised and misunderstood for generations.’

Richard Holledge

The Story of The Mayflower

The Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, UK, on the 16th of September 1620. Its passengers were a mix of religious exiles, known as Separatists, skilled workmen, women and children. These settlers would become known throughout history as the Pilgrims.

At the time of the voyage, King Henry VIII had founded his new religion, The Church of England, so that he was able to divorce his first wife – Catherine of Aragon. The new religion was radically different from the standard form of Catholicism of the time, yet still dictated many aspects of public life. With any rebellion against the King’s new religion ending in persecution, many people looked for a fresh start further afield.

Before the voyage of The Mayflower was organised, an earlier group of Separatists fled to Holland to live out of religious persecution. After settling there for 12 years, the British exiles decided that they needed to settle in a new land without pre-existing boundaries. The voyage of The Mayflower from England was organised to travel to the new world, carrying more Britons keen to leave the religious restrictions imposed on them at home.

The Holland group liaised their English counterparts to organise the voyage, asking for funding from merchants in return for imports across the Atlantic. The plan was for the group of Separatists living in Holland to come over to England on a smaller ship, The Speedwell, and meet The Mayflower in Southampton before setting off across the Atlantic.

The voyage had two failed attempts before The Speedwell was declared unfit for the journey, and The Mayflower eventually set off alone, carrying over 100 passengers and 30 crew. The passengers were split into two groups, Separatists, or Strangers. The Strangers were skilled workmen, women and children, sent over by the merchants to help build the new world.

It took 66 days to cross the Atlantic before The Mayflower landed on the shore of Province Town, Cape Cod. They had aimed to land in the Hudson River (now New York) but due to the harsh weather conditions, had ventured south instead.

It was here that the Mayflower Compact was drawn up by the nobles on board. This set of rules to maintain the general good of the colony, dealt with issues such as voting, and constitutional law:

Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith, and the honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another; covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

Years before The Mayflower landed in America, the Native American tribes inhabiting the land had suffered dramatically from European diseases bought over by previous European Settlers. This was called ‘The Great Dying‘ and had such an almighty impact on the numbers of native people, that their numbers reduced by 90% in the century following Christopher Columbus‘ journey in 1492.

When the passengers from England explored their first stop in Cape Cod, they found it mainly abandoned and went on to explore further down the coast. They finally settled in Plymouth Harbour in December 1620. It was here that the Pilgrims of The Mayflower built their colony. Each family was assigned a plot to build their own home, and the settlement was nearly completed within two months. By the time the first settlement was completed, around 50 of the 130 passengers were still alive, with many having died from illnesses such as scurvy and pneumonia. When the remaining crew were healthy enough, the captain Christopher Jones sailed The Mayflower back to England in the spring of 1621.

Four months into their settlement, contact was made with The Native American people of the Wampanoag Tribe. They were inhabiting the land when The Mayflower had landed and had been for thousands of years. During March of 1621, an English speaking member of the Wampanoag tribe entered the Plymouth colony and began the first treaty talks.

The peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag leader, Ousamequin, agreed to not cause harm to either side and allied the two parties in times of war. The tribe’s extensive knowledge farming of the land was of high value to the English settlers. One of their English speaking members, named Squanto, came to live with the Pilgrims and taught them how to grow Indian corn.

In the autumn of 1621, the settlers marked their first bountiful harvest with a 3-day celebration, joined by members from the Wampanoag. This celebration was later made famous in the 1800s and became the basis for the story of the first ThanksGiving.

The Collapse of The Peace Treaty

After the success of the first settlers, more and more people began to arrive from England. Just three years after The Mayflower voyage, 1000 Puritans arrived under Governor John Winthrop, who went on to establish Boston as the Capital of the Massachusetts bay colony. These new passengers arrived in Plymouth intending to spread their unique beliefs, free from the new Church of England and Roman Catholic practices. Unfortunately, they created a society just as intolerant as the one they had left behind.

More passengers continued to arrive from England, and with the tumultuous society they were creating, tensions began to rise between the colonists and the surrounding Native American Tribes. Their tribes continued to suffer significantly from the European diseases bought over by the settlers, with smallpox ravaging what was left of their numbers. By the 1630s, the population of native American people in the area was so small, that when the Pequot War broke out in 1636, it reduced their numbers even further. The Pequot Tribe, their largest neighbouring tribe, declared war on the colonists of Massachusetts bay and their allied Native American tribes. Although the Pequot Tribe were defeated in combat, the conflict significantly depleted the remaining numbers of the Wampanoag people.

The carefully maintained treaty ended with King Phillip’s War in 1675. When the Wampanoag leader, Ousamquin, died, his second son Metacom decided that he no longer believed in the value of the treaty with the colonists. With the settlers fast encroaching on Native American land and collapsed trade agreements, relations hit a breaking point. Metacom (known by the colonists as King Phillip) led an uprising of the Wampanoag and three other surrounding tribes (Nipmuc, Pocumtuck, and Narragansett) which would go on to become one of the deadliest wars in American history.

Lasting 14 months, the colonists dominated, destroying nearly all of the tribe’s villages and decimating their remaining numbers. It was fought by the colonists without any help from overseas aid and is historically seen as the moment that a new American identity was born.

The Pilgrim’s Legacy

The legacy left by the Pilgrims Fathers is widely glorified as the beginning of American History. Praised later in the 1800s as the basic story of the first Thanksgiving, it’s celebrated across the United States every autumn.

However, there is continued contention around the ‘sugar coating‘ of the brutal reality behind the celebration of colonial heritage. The Native American activist group, The United American Indians of New England, continues to raise awareness of racism towards Native Americans and the consequences of colonialism.

If Americans continue to insist on associating Thanksgiving with Pilgrims and Indians […] we should put Wampanoags at its centre and acknowledge the remarkable fact of their survival to this very day.

David J. Silverman

In 1970, when the Wampanoag leader, Frank James, was informed that his speech was inappropriate for the annual Thanksgiving ceremony, he refused to read their revised speech. Supporters followed to hear him give his original speech on Cole’s Hill, next to the statue of Ousamequin. This became the first National Day of Mourning, which continues today in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on the same day as Thanksgiving.

Loved this post? Say it with a pin!

Sign-Up to our newsletter


Thomas Chatterton - Remembering the Bristol Poet


H. G. Wells Library - The Life and Work of H. G. Wells