Updated: May 18
Today in 1621 the Pilgrims from England left their ship the Mayflower and gathered on shore at Plymouth, Massachusetts, for their first religious service. They had set anchor in November, but they had no way of knowing that the ground would be frozen by the middle of November, making it impossible to do any planting. They wintered on board, and many died. Today's pod looks at their gruelling journey, their religious motivation and source of resilience, and the challenges they faced.
The journey had been gruelling and in mid-ocean, the ship came close to being totally disabled a storm had so badly damaged its main beam. By a stroke of luck or providence, one of the colonists had a metal jackscrew that he had purchased in Holland to help in the construction of the new settler homes. They used it to secure the beam, which kept it from cracking further, and maintained the seaworthiness of the vessel. Remarkably, despite the crowding, unsanitary conditions and sea sicknesses, there was only one fatality during the voyage. They had set anchor in November, but they had no way of knowing that the ground would be frozen by the middle of November, making it impossible to do any planting. A party had set out to find a suitable settlement site bit they were forced to spend the night ashore due to the bad weather they encountered. Wearing ineffectual clothes they spent the night in below-freezing temperatures with wet shoes and stockings that froze overnight.
William Bradford, the second governor of the colony later wrote, "Some of our people that are dead took the original of their death here" During the winter, the passengers remained on board Mayflower, suffering an outbreak of a contagious disease described as a mixture of scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. After it was over, only 53 passengers remained—just over half. In the spring, they built huts ashore, but the passengers waited to disembark until March 31
The survivors resilience can be put down partly to their strong religious beliefs. Most of the passenger were Puritans from England and classed as ‘Separatists’, unlike other Puritans they were not prepared to stay and work for change in England. They had moved to Holland which had greater religious tolerance, but as separatists, they were now considered illegal radicals by their home country of England. The pilgrims chose to separate themselves from the Church of England because they believed that it was beyond redemption due to its Roman Catholic past and the church's resistance to reform. In Holland life was becoming less secure, with Spain threatening to lay siege to Holland because of the civil unrest that was being caused by the public debates it was holding, attracting radical theologians. Meanwhile James I formed an alliance with Holland against Spain, with a condition outlawing independent English church congregations in Holland. The radicals found themselves between a rock and a hard place and planned to sail for the New World, beyond the reach of King James and his bishops.
Previous attempts by puritans to settle in North America had failed. Jamestown, founded in 1607, saw most of its settlers die within the first year. They were also aware of a constant threat of attacks by Indigenous peoples. In spite of these difficulties, they were still convinced that God wanted them to go and create a society that incorporated their own religious ideals. Not all the passengers were separatists, other passengers were hired hands, servants, or farmers recruited by London merchants, all originally destined for the Colony of Virginia. Out of all the voyages to the American colonies fand migration from Europe to the New World, the Mayflower's first crossing of Pilgrim Fathers has become the most culturally iconic, The American national holiday, Thanksgiving, originated from the first Thanksgiving feast held by the Pilgrims in 1621, which was a prayer event and dinner to mark the first harvest of the Mayflower settlers