This particular group wanted to sail to the northern coast of America (now New England) but was unable to get permission from the English Crown to do so. Instead they planned to head out to the Virginia Colony with a map that had been supplied by Capt. John Smith. Their preferred destination was the mouth of the Hudson River, where New York City now exists. The Virginia Colony boundary extended this far north at the time.
Their investors arranged for two ships to carry the passengers; the 60 ton “Speedwell” that was purchased; and the 180 ton “Mayflower” that was leased. The Mayflower was a merchant ship and quite large for its day.
The Mayflower’s Master was Captain Christopher Jones. He was an experienced seaman who owned and piloted the ship on many voyages between France and England transporting wine. It carried three upright masts and a spirit mast on the bow. She was 90’ long and 26’ wide (the beam).
In order to finance their journey and repay their investors in England, the Separatists agreed to take non-Separatists with them. They referred to them as the “strangers” or “adventurers” but these strangers made up more than half of the passengers on board. Mayflower left Plymouth, England on September 6, 1620, with 40 Separatists, 62 non-Separatists, and a crew of about 30.
William Bradford, later governor of the Plymouth Colony, recorded in his journal, “They put out to sea again with a prosperous word, which continued several days together, which was some encouragement unto them; yet according to the usual manner, many were afflicted with seasickness.”
After a week of clear weather, the ship ran into the violent Autumn storms expected by the crew. The storms lasted on and off for the next six weeks. The Mayflower struggled against the force of the Gulf Stream and westerly winds moving at a slow rate of two miles per hour.
As the raging sea continued, the mainmast had buckled leaving the Mayflower in desperate peril. “and for the buckling of the main beam, there was a great iron screw that passengers brought out of Holland, which would raise the beam into its place; which was done.” (Bradford)
Returning the mainmast to its normal position and anchoring it into the lower deck was sufficient to keep the ship moving, as long as the sails were not raised so as to put too much pressure on the mast. Frequently during the storms the sails had to be drawn in (called “clewed up”) to keep the Mayflower from being blown off course - but it happened nonetheless.
Leaking on the main deck was another problem. Many of the passengers were given chisels and caulk and set to work patching leaks on the main deck. This was just above the deck on which the passengers were sleeping, so their motivation to repair the leaks was strong.
“So they committed themselves to the will of God, and resolved to proceed.” (Bradford)
When not working to patch the main deck, the passengers were confined below on the “tween deck” just below the main deck and above the cargo hold. One hundred of them packed in together along with two dogs. John Goodman, travelling without family, had brought his two dogs on board for the trip. One an English Mastif which was essentially a guard dog; the other an English Springer Spaniel, a hunting dog.
There was no privacy to speak of but occasionally a cloth or piece of canvas was raised between families. Chamber pots were used as toilets. If you were lucky enough to be assigned the duty of emptying these pots, at least you got to go up on deck for some fresh air.
The ship tossed and rocked in the heavy seas. Many passengers were thrown against the inside of the hull during the storms and injuries were considerable. They were treated by Samuel Fuller, the future colony’s doctor.
If the weather cleared a little, passengers were allowed to go up on the main deck for short periods, as long as they didn’t interfere with the crew. But for most, the time between storms was filled with boredom.
Meals were prepared in the “forecastle,” an area one deck above the sleeping quarters and toward the bow of the ship. Meals typically consisted of salted pork, beans, peas, and cheese. These were all foods that could be stored for the long journey in the barrels. The fresh water for drinking was carefully guarded. At night, the Ship’s Master Jones would go out on the Quarter Deck or Poop Deck, both located near the stern, to chart the position of the stars and the horizon to determine the ship’s position.
Three of the passengers were pregnant. Elizabeth Hopkins and Susanna White were each in their seventh month and it was possible that they could deliver during the journey. Mary Norris Allerton was only in her third month so her baby would be born in the New World.
The pregnancies must have been torturous with the pitch of the ship in the storms. Elizabeth Hopkins was the first to give birth seven weeks into the voyage; a boy named Oceanus, named for his birthplace. Oceanus’ father, Stephen Hopkins was the only passenger who had been to America before. He had made a voyage to the Jamestown Colony in 1609 (after being shipwrecked in the Bermudas for 10 months).
Two weeks later, Susanna White also gave birth to a boy while the Mayflower was anchored off Cape Cod. He was called Peregrine (meaning seeker or pilgrim).
Sadly, Mary Norris Allerton died in childbirth the following Spring, the baby did not survive. Little Oceanus Hopkins also died at Plymouth during that first hard winter.
CHILDREN ABOARD THE MAYFLOWER
John Howland was a strong, young indentured servant whose passage was paid for by John Carver, later the first Governor of the Plymouth Colony. He was actually more a steward for Mr. Carver, with whom he was related. Midway across the
Atlantic, in a violent storm, John Howland fell overboard. He managed to grab hold of a topsail halyard line that was in the water trailing behind the ship. Howland was still well under the waves but managed to hold on and work his way to the surface. Luckily others on the Mayflower hauled him back up on board safely. It was lucky for America too. The Howland families’ descendents included five United States Presidents, a British Prime Minister, and nearly two dozen other very famous Americans.
LANDFALL IS SPOTTED
The last two weeks of the journey consisted of better weather. The Mayflower stopped at Newfoundland for supplies and fresh water.
On November 9th, 63 days into the journey, the crew spotted land. They were 220 miles north of the Hudson River; but since they had no way to calibrate their latitude and not knowing how far off course they had been driven by the storms, they headed southward along the Cape Cod coast. They didn’t realize how close they were to the mouth of the Charles River just a short distance to the north.
When they realized that they would land in an area to which they had no permission, tensions began to rise between the Separatists and the “strangers.” Two days after first seeing land, the passengers created a governing document that 41 “principal men” signed. This was the Mayflower Compact.
The Mayflower anchored off Cape Cod on November 11th. A small landing party, led by soldier Myles Standish, disembarked there to reconstruct the small boat carried on board the Mayflower called a “shallop” which had been transported in sections. This group of men sailed across the bay toward the mainland carrying John Smith’s 1614 map of the area. The map showed a smaller bay or inlet on the coast that he named Plimouth Bay. The party landed, explored a little, then gathered Juniper to be taken back to the ship and burned to “cleanse the air” on the Mayflower.
While anchored off the cape, two deaths occurred aboard ship. Dorothy, the wife of William Bradford, accidently fell overboard and drowned; and James Chilton, the oldest member of the party at age 64, died of seemingly of natural causes.
The first months of the settlement at Plymouth were extremely difficult. Eight passengers died during the first 30 days, and only four of the adult women survived the first year. The first winter alone saw three-quarters of the women and half of the men perish, as well as one-third of the children. The legacy of these few passengers has had a monumental affect on the United States. Their descendants include eight U.S. Presidents and over four dozen of the most famous Americans in history. But that’s another story.
Davis, William, T. (ed), “Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, 1606-1646” (1908).
“Journal of the Beginnings and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plymouth in New England” (London, 1622)
Morrison, Samuel Eliot, “Builders of the Bay Colony” (1930).