Myth of the Mayflower: the voyage that made America?

Four hundred years after the Mayflower left Plymouth for the New World, its voyage is still credited with laying the foundations for American liberty and tolerance. But do the cold, hard facts match the mythology? James Evans investigates

The ‘Pilgrims’ stride onto American soil in 1620 after crossing the Atlantic on the Mayflower, as shown in a 20th-century painting. The colony that they established was – initially, at least – a genuinely enlightened place, writes James Evans. (Photo by Harold M. Lambert/Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

After 10 gruelling weeks at sea, the Mayflower finally dropped anchor off Cape Cod on 11 November 1620 (Old Style calendar). More than 130 people were squashed onboard what seems a tiny ship by today’s standards; the vessel was just under 100 feet long and 25 feet wide. Delayed departure meant that, during the second half of the voyage, in October, savage storms forced sails to be taken down. A structural beam of the ship was cracked, mended by the carpenter using a “great iron screw”. A man called John Howland was hurled by a wave into the ocean, managing to cling onto a rope and so to save his own life. Many passengers, some of whom had never even seen the sea before, let alone been on it, lay down and groaned, feeling dreadfully sick.

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The storms blew them north of their immediate target: the Hudson river, near modern-day New York. It was already a month later than they had hoped to reach America and their brief efforts to sail south from Cape Cod (in modern-day Massachusetts) were foiled by the currents.

As the colonists were not in Virginia, their ultimate intended destination, some passengers sought to take advantage of their circumstances, stating that they were not answerable to anyone. They would, they declared, “use their own liberty; for none had power to command them”.

What happened next would seal the Mayflowers place in American history. In response to this threat to go it alone, the colonists decided that all the adult males among them would draft and sign a civil covenant that committed themselves and their dependants to all laws later decreed, “for the general good of the colony”.

The Mayflower Compact – as this document is now known – became enshrined as what US statesman Calvin Coolidge called, on the 300th anniversary of the ship’s landing, the “liberty based on law and order” which has lain at the heart of American democracy. This principle has not, of course, always been extended to every segment of society. But, given that the compact required all adult men aboard the ship to endorse it – servants, as well as the rich and powerful – at the time, it was truly radical

The signing of the Mayflower Compact has since become a fundamental origin myth of the United States. But did it truly shape the evolution of a nation? Or were its ideals snuffed out in rapidly expanding New England? Before considering these questions, it’s worth considering the events that took the colonists to the Americas in the first place.

Reaching the New World had been a mighty undertaking, one that was fraught with danger. The voyage got off to a troubled start: before they’d even left England, the emigrants realised to their dismay that the Mayflowers companion ship, the Speedwell, was as “leaky as a sieve”. They were forced into Plymouth harbour in order for repairs to be attempted on the Speedwell – during which time the passengers used up precious supplies. The salvage operation failed, and all but 20 of the Speedwell’s passengers had to squeeze onto the Mayflower.

As a result, when it finally sailed out of Plymouth in early September 1620, the Mayflower was packed with 102 passengers. These consisted of both Protestant separatists (‘Pilgrims’, as they later became known – religious dissenters seeking to practise their faith free from persecution in the New World), and a larger proportion of ‘strangers’, who were emigrating for economic reasons. There were also around 30 crewmembers. It is reckoned there were 31 children on board, one of whom was born during the voyage (christened Oceanus). No previous transatlantic voyage had borne so heavy a weight of passengers and cargo in relation to its tonnage.

On the “furious” sea, later in the voyage, the cramped and uncomfortable colonists faced much “trouble and danger” – many “perils and miseries”.

Coats of iron

Once the colonists reached America, their troubles were not yet over. The weather in New England was freezing cold, and it got worse. When the colonists ventured inland near their future settlement, they were forced to wade ashore, thigh-deep through what seemed an interminable stretch of icy water. Water promptly froze and the ice clung to their clothes like “coats of iron”. For months on end, inches of snow carpeted the ground.

The weather in New England was freezing cold. The ice clung to their clothes like 'coats of iron'

However, compared to the depleted European waters with which they were familiar, the natural life in the New World’s waterways was astonishing. According to the Pilgrim account Mourt’s Relation, there were more birds than “ever we saw”, while the vast, dark shadows of whales moved silently beneath the surface of deeper water. Crew and passengers alike cursed the fact that they lacked the right equipment to catch them.

On the long hook of land where they landed at Cape Cod, there was no fresh water. Settlers continued living on the ship. The location was also dangerously exposed, any settlement visible from the sea. As the colonists explored the bay during early December, they finally found a suitable site inland, with trees of all kinds – oaks, pines, juniper, birch – growing thickly upon hills which tumbled down to the water’s edge. However, the winter weather and frozen soil often restricted construction work. They called their new settlement Plymouth, having left the old one behind on the shores of England.

A lethal winter lay ahead of them. More than 40 of the Mayflowers 102 passengers died during that first season, along with a similar proportion of the approximately 30-strong crew. But enough of them survived to establish a colony that will forever be associated with the United States’ foundation.

That colony was one of the first settlements in a huge area of land known as New England. But, ironically, many of the Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower had, for the decade before they set sail for America, not lived in England at all.

Most of the Pilgrims who journeyed across the Atlantic in the autumn of 1620 originally hailed from a district where Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and south Yorkshire meet. But their radical Protestant beliefs – which had seen them detach themselves from the English church – had exposed them to harassment and expulsion at home. And so, in the first years of the 17th century, many had moved across the North Sea to Holland.

The congregation worshipped in Amsterdam – that “fair of all the sects” – and then in the university town of Leiden. During the 1610s, the congregation swelled from around 100 to 500, with many travelling to join the Pilgrims “from diverse parts of England”.

In Holland, more than half the community worked in the textile trade, but some also devoted themselves to printing, producing books banned in England.

The word of God

For years the Pilgrims had pored over the command to Abraham, recorded in the book of Genesis, to “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house unto the land that I will show thee.” Like other biblical history, the Pilgrims did not read the text as a record, but as a direct command. God no longer spoke in dreams or visions as in ancient times, but directly, through his holy book. The words needed only to be “rightly understood and applied” – an endeavour about which Puritan Christians, reading the Bible freely now that it was translated, worried incessantly.

The command to Abraham posed one problem in particular. The meaning of “Get thee out of thy country” was obvious. Yet “Unto the land that I will show thee” was open to interpretation. How would this land be revealed? Was this Holland – those waterlogged lowlands in which, for now at least, an unusual degree of religious liberty prevailed – or somewhere else entirely?

The question grew increasingly urgent. In 1609, a 12-year truce had been signed with Habsburg Spain which divided the Low Countries into a Spanish south and an independent north, guaranteeing that places including Amsterdam and Leiden would not have their religious diversity suppressed. This religious toleration led to massive expansion and economic development, with settlements sprouting vast encampments within the marshy fields beyond the city walls.

Soon, however, this arrangement would expire, putting the community in grave danger. Under Spanish rule, anyone convicted of Protestant beliefs had been ruthlessly punished: burned, beheaded or buried alive. A branch of the Inquisition had been established. Memories of brutal sieges and suppressions – of Leiden in 1573–74, Antwerp in 1576 – were fresh.

For the Puritans in Leiden, this was no purely human conflict: Satan’s armies were marching nearby. Nothing now was audible, one wrote, but the “beating of drums and preparing for war”.

Increasingly, members of the community felt drawn to leave Holland behind and set out for “some place of better advantage and less danger”. It was felt that, in the western parts of the world, God’s favour would perhaps fall in “this last age”. The “youngest and strongest part” might lead the way, leaving behind these lands peopled by “close-fisted and unmerciful men” and beset by “bitter contention”. The newly discovered America – “a spacious land” that was “fruitful and fit for habitation” – could perhaps be this place of better advantage.

Certainly there were fears about travelling to the New World. Some who had left their home once already were getting too old for another more significant move, “out of a thronged place into a wide wilderness”. It was easy for pessimists to find “precedents of ill success and lamentable miseries”. The more optimistic pointed out that previous emigrants had often been motivated by greed or vanity: “carnal” reasons. No wonder God had not smiled upon them. “We verily believe and trust,” Pilgrim leaders assured themselves by contrast, that “the Lord is with us.”

Many thought that New England was an island, cut off, as England was, from mainland Europe

But where did the Pilgrims think that they were going? Even after all this time, the American coastline was described as unknown. Many thought that New England was an island – cut off, as England was, from the European continent. The geography of the two places was not dissimilar. There were no high mountains, but there were dales and meadows. The soil was “somewhat like the soil in Kent and Essex”, while the climate was moderate and healthy, if colder in winter.

Whereas in Europe there were clear signs of the age of human civilisation – terrible wars and religious clashes seeming to presage a final struggle when God would punish his people for “wanton abuse of the Gospel” – in America the divine plan seemed at an altogether earlier stage. Here it was “but the first days the dawning of this New World”.

Demented savagery

Even now, on the 400th anniversary of the dawning of those “first days”, the Mayflower’s story proclaims principles with which the US remains broadly happy – obvious caveats, such as its lack of gender equality, aside.

However, what unfolded over the two decades after the Mayflower first anchored in America casts serious doubt upon the centrality of the vessel’s status in American history. The colony was, genuinely, an uncommonly tolerant and enlightened place. But in a short space of time, New England moved from championing these ideals of liberty to the misogynist mutterings and authoritarian instincts of John Winthrop – the Suffolk lawyer who led the huge Puritan migration to the area in the 1630s – as well as the demented savagery of the Salem witch trials at the end of the century. How did it happen, it was asked in 1645, “that the persecuted have become persecutors?”

In New England, huge numbers of Puritans had soon followed the Pilgrims. They were not separatists, although they did disown what seemed to them a Church of England that remained dangerously Catholic. Thousands settled in the coastal and inland farming communities just north of Plymouth. Whereas the latter’s population reached perhaps 2,000 at the close of the 1630s, the rival Puritan colony of Massachusetts boasted more than four times that number.

Plymouth had always been welcoming, interested and inquisitive about Native American cultures (attitudes encapsulated in the Thanksgiving tradition of celebrating their first harvest with local Wampanoag people, who had given them agricultural assistance in return for defensive help against their enemy, the Narragansett tribe). By contrast, the colonies of Massachusetts and its satellite, Connecticut, were much more hostile towards the indigenous people – convinced that divine destiny required them to impose their own ideas.

Plymouth, over time, moved towards the Massachusetts way of thinking – Winthrop urging that all Native Americans be regarded as a “common enemy”. The trust which had existed between Plymouth and the neighbouring Native American communities dwindled. An old idea, strong in Plymouth, that Native Americans were the descendants of biblical Lost Tribes of Israel disappeared during the later 17th century.

As the English settlements expanded, their sense of doing “the work of God in the wilderness” became, as the historian Alfred A Cave observed, a “vital part of the mythology of the American frontier”. In the Pequot War (fought between the indigenous Pequot tribe and the colonists), mutual trust vanished while the self-perception of English colonies as militarised islands surrounded by enemies grew. ‘Praying Towns’ – where Native Americans lived like the English, worshipping the English God – reveal the English imposing their values. So does the fact that indigenous people wore English clothes, or cut their hair in English fashions.

Towards the end of the century, separate charters were revoked, a larger territory – called the Dominion of New England – was created, and direct royal rule was established. Taxes began to be imposed from London, without consent. The seeds of the American Revolution had been planted.

So how should all this colour our view of the Mayflower? To question whether the reality of its voyage matches its status in the American psyche is not to deny its signifi-cance in the nation’s story. Much in the Pilgrims’ attitudes towards local populations and the principles of equality and liberty does represent a potent example for the present. It’s just that, when considering this celebrated episode in US history, we should surely address the facts, as well as the myth.

James Evans is a historian and writer. His books include Emigrants: Why the English Sailed to the New World (W&N, 2017)

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This article was first published in the October 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine