They Knew They Were Pilgrims

FOR SIXTY-FIVE DAYS, the Mayflower had blundered her way through storms and headwinds, her bottom a shaggy pelt of seaweed and barnacles, her leaky decks spewing salt water onto her passengers’ devoted heads. There were 102 of them—104 if you counted the two dogs: a spaniel and a giant, slobbery mastiff. Most of their provisions and equipment were beneath them in the hold, the primary storage area of the vessel. The passengers were in the between, or ’tween, decks—a dank, airless space about seventy-five feet long and not even five feet high that separated the hold from the upper deck. The ’tween decks was more of a crawlspace than a place to live, made even more claustrophobic by the passengers’ attempts to provide themselves with some privacy. A series of thin-walled cabins had been built, creating a crowded warren of rooms that overflowed with people and their possessions: chests of clothing, casks of food, chairs, pillows, rugs, and omnipresent chamber pots. There was even a boat—cut into pieces for later assembly—doing temporary duty as a bed.

They were nearly ten weeks into a voyage that was supposed to have been completed during the balmy days of summer. But they had started late, and it was now November, and winter was coming on. They had long since run out of firewood, and they were reaching the slimy bottoms of their water casks. Of even greater concern, they were down to their last casks of beer. Due to the notoriously bad quality of the drinking water in seventeenth-century England, beer was considered essential to a healthy diet. And sure enough, with the rationing of their beer came the unmistakable signs of scurvy: bleeding gums, loosening teeth, and foul-smelling breath. So far only two had died—a sailor and a young servant—but if they didn’t reach land soon many more would follow.

They had set sail with three pregnant mothers: Elizabeth Hopkins, Susanna White, and Mary Allerton. Elizabeth had given birth to a son, appropriately named Oceanus, and Susanna and Mary were both well along in their pregnancies.

It had been a miserable passage. In midocean, a fierce wave had exploded against the old ship’s topsides, straining a structural timber until it had cracked like a chicken bone. The Mayflower ’s master, Christopher Jones, had considered turning back to England. But Jones had to give his passengers their due. They knew next to nothing about the sea or the savage coast for which they were bound, but their resolve was unshakable. Despite all they had so far suffered—agonizing delays, seasickness, cold, and the scorn and ridicule of the sailors—they had done everything in their power to help the carpenter repair the fractured beam. They had brought a screw jack—a mechanical device used to lift heavy objects—to assist them in constructing houses in the New World. With the help of the screw jack, they lifted the beam into place, and once the carpenter had hammered in a post for support, the Mayflower was sound enough to continue on.

They were a most unusual group of colonists. Instead of noblemen, craftsmen, and servants—the types of people who had founded Jamestown in Virginia—these were, for the most part, families—men, women, and children who were willing to endure almost anything if it meant they could worship as they pleased. The motivating force behind the voyage had come from a congregation of approximately four hundred English Puritans living in Leiden, Holland. Like all Puritans, these English exiles believed that the Church of England must be purged of its many excesses and abuses. But these were Puritans with a vengeance. Instead of working for change within the established church, they had resolved to draw away from the Church of England—an illegal act in Jacobean England. Known as Separatists, they represented the radical fringe of the Puritan movement. In 1608, they had decided to do as several groups of English Separatists had done before them: emigrate to the more religiously tolerant country of Holland.

They had eventually settled in Leiden, a university town that could not have been more different from the rolling, sheep-dotted fields of their native England. Leiden was a redbrick labyrinth of building-packed streets and carefully engineered canals, a city overrun with refugees from all across Europe. Under the leadership of their charismatic minister, John Robinson, their congregation had more than tripled in size. But once again, it had become time for them to leave.

As foreigners in Holland, many of them had been forced to work menial, backbreaking jobs in the cloth industry, and their health had suffered. Despite the country’s reputation for religious tolerance, a new and troubling era had come to Holland as a debate among the leading theologians of the day sparked civil unrest and, on occasion, violence. Just the year before, a member of their congregation had almost been killed by a rock-hurling crowd. Even worse, a Dutch treaty with Spain was about to expire, and it was feared Leiden might soon be subjected to the same kind of siege that had resulted in the deaths of half the city’s residents during the previous century.

But their chief worry involved their children. Gradually and inevitably, they were becoming Dutch. The congregation had rejected the Church of England, but the vast majority of its members were still proudly, even defiantly, English. By sailing to the New World, they hoped to re-create the English village life they so dearly missed while remaining beyond the meddlesome reach of King James and his bishops.

It was a stunningly audacious proposition. With the exception of Jamestown, all other attempts to establish a permanent English settlement on the North American continent had so far failed. And Jamestown, founded in 1607, could hardly be counted a success. During the first year, 70 of 108 settlers had died. The following winter came the “starving time,” when 440 of 500 settlers were buried in just six months. As it turned out, the most lethal days in Jamestown were yet to come. Between 1619 and 1622, the Virginia Company would send close to 3,600 settlers to the colony; over that three-year period, 3,000 would die.

In addition to starvation and disease, there was the threat of Indian attack. At the university library in Leiden were sensational accounts left by earlier explorers and settlers, telling how the Indians “delight to torment men in the most bloody manner that may be; flaying some alive with the shells of fishes, cutting off the members and joints of others by piecemeal and broiling on the coals.” How could parents willingly subject their children to the risk of such a fate?

In the end, all arguments for and against emigrating to America ended with the conviction that God wanted them to go. The world, they believed, was on the verge of the millennium—the thousand-year rule of the saints predicted in the book of Revelation. In 1618, a comet appeared in the skies over Europe, signaling, many thought, the final, apocalyptic battle of good against evil. And, in fact, what became known as the Thirty Years’ War would rage across the Continent as Protestant and Catholic forces reduced much of Europe to a burning, corpse-strewn battleground. So far, England had avoided this conflict, and as all God-fearing English Puritans knew, their country had been earmarked by the Lord to lead his forces in triumph. Instead of Europe, perhaps America, a continent previously dominated by the Catholic powers of Spain and France, was where God intended to bring the reformed Protestant Church to perfection. All Englishmen had heard of the atrocities the Spaniards’ hateful hunt for gold had inflicted on the Indians of America. England, it had been predicted by Richard Hakluyt, the chronicler of British exploration, would do it differently. It was the Leideners’ patriotic and spiritual duty to plant a godly English plantation in the New World. “We verily believe and trust the Lord is with us,” they wrote, “and that He will graciously prosper our endeavors according to the simplicity of our hearts therein.”

Their time in Leiden, they now realized, had been a mere rehearsal for the real adventure. “We are well weaned from the delicate milk of our mother country,” they wrote, “and inured to the difficulties of a strange and hard land, which yet in a great part we have by patience overcome.” Most important, however, they were “knit together as a body in a most strict and sacred bond.”

They were weavers, wool carders, tailors, shoemakers, and printers, with almost no relevant experience when it came to carving a settlement out of the American wilderness. And yet, because of the extraordinary spiritual connection they had developed as exiles in Leiden and even before, they were prepared for whatever lay ahead. “[I]t is not with us as with other men,” they confidently insisted, “whom small things can discourage, or small discontentments cause to wish themselves home again.” Or, as one of their number, a thirty-year-old corduroy worker named William Bradford, later wrote, “they knew they were pilgrims.”

Taking Bradford’s lead, we refer to them today as the Pilgrims, a name that is as good as any to describe a people who were almost always on the move—even after they had supposedly found a home in America. If not for Bradford’s steady, often forceful leadership, it is doubtful whether there ever would have been a colony. Without his Of Plymouth Plantation, certainly the greatest book written in seventeenth-century America, there would be almost no information about the voyage with which it all began. For William Bradford, however, the true voyage had begun close to twenty years before.

Bradford was born in the tiny farming town of Austerfield, Yorkshire, deep in northern England, where the closest thing to a wilderness was the famed Sherwood Forest to the south. The Great North Road from London to Edinburgh (actually more of a ribbon of mud than a proper road) passed nearby, but few from Austerfield had ever ventured far from home.

Although he came from a family of prosperous, land-rooted farmers, Bradford had experienced more than his share of dislocation and loss. By the time he turned twelve, he had lost not only his father, his mother, and a sister, but also the grandfather who had raised him. Soon after moving in with his two uncles, he was struck by a mysterious ailment that prevented him from working in the fields. Bradford later claimed that his “long sickness” had saved him from “the vanities of youth, and made him the fitter for what he was afterwards to undergo.” Most important, his illness gave him the opportunity to read.

Lonely and intelligent, he looked to the Bible for consolation and guidance. For a boy in need of instruction, the Geneva Bible, translated in the previous century by a small team of English ministers and equipped with helpful notes and appendices, was just the thing. There was also John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a compelling, tremendously popular account of the Protestants martyred by Queen Elizabeth’s Catholic predecessor on the throne, “Bloody Mary.” Foxe’s insistence that England was, like Israel before it, God’s chosen nation had a deep and lasting influence on Bradford, and as Foxe made horrifyingly clear, to be a godly Englishman sometimes required a person to make the ultimate sacrifice.

At issue at the turn of the seventeenth century—and long before—was the proper way for a Christian to gain access to the will of God. Catholics and more conservative Protestants believed that the traditions of the church contained valid, time-honored additions to what was found in the Bible. Given man’s fallen condition, no individual could presume to question the ancient, ceremonial truths of the established church.

But for the Puritans, man’s fallen nature was precisely the point. All one had to do was witness a typical Sunday service in England—in which parishioners stared dumbly at a minister mumbling incomprehensible phrases from the Book of Common Prayer—to recognize how far most people were from a true engagement with the word of God.

A Puritan believed it was necessary to venture back to the absolute beginning of Christianity, before the church had been corrupted by centuries of laxity and abuse, to locate divine truth. In lieu of time travel, there was the Bible, with the New Testament providing the only reliable account of Christ’s time on earth while the Old Testament contained a rich storehouse of still vital truths. If something was not in the scriptures, it was a man-made distortion of what God intended. At once radical and deeply conservative, the Puritans had chosen to spurn thousands of years of accumulated tradition in favor of a text that gave them a direct and personal connection to God.

A Puritan had no use for the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, since it tampered with the original meaning of the Bible and inhibited the spontaneity that they felt was essential to attaining a true and honest glimpse of the divine. Hymns were also judged to be a corruption of God’s word—instead, a Puritan read directly from the Bible and sang scrupulously translated psalms whose meaning took precedence over the demands of rhyme and meter. As staunch “primitivists,” Puritans refused to kneel while taking communion, since there was no evidence that the apostles had done so during the Last Supper. There was also no biblical precedent for making the sign of the cross when uttering Christ’s name. Even more important, there was no precedent for the system of bishops that ran the Church of England. The only biblically sanctioned organizational unit was the individual congregation.

The Puritans believed that a congregation began with a covenant (a term they took from the Bible) between a group of believers and God. As a self-created and independent entity, the congregation elected a university-trained minister and, if the occasion should arise, voted him out. The Puritans also used the concept of a covenant to describe the individual’s relationship with God. Ever since the Fall, when Adam had broken his covenant of works with God, man had been deserving of perpetual damnation. God had since made a covenant with Christ; upon the fulfillment of that covenant, God had offered a covenant of grace to just a small minority of people, known as the Saints.

The Puritans believed that the identity of the Saints had long since been determined by God. This meant that there was nothing a person could do to win salvation. But instead of being a reason to forsake all hope, what was known as predestination became a powerful goad to action. No one could be entirely sure as to who was one of the elect, and yet, if a person was saved, he or she naturally lived a godly life. As a result, the Puritans were constantly comparing their own actions to those of others, since their conduct might indicate whether or not they were saved. Underlying this compulsive quest for reassurance was a person’s conscience, which one divine described as “the voice of God in man.”

A Puritan was taught to recognize the stages by which he or she might experience a sureness of redemption. It began with a powerful response to the “preaching of the word,” in which God revealed the heights to which a person must aspire if he or she was to achieve grace. This was followed by a profound sense of inadequacy and despair that eventually served as a prelude to, if a person was destined to be redeemed, “saving grace.” From this rigorous program of divine discipline a Puritan developed the confidence that he or she was, in fact, one of the elect. For William Bradford, who had lost almost everyone he had ever loved, this emotionally charged quest for divinity would lead not only to the assurance of his own redemption but to the family he had never known.

Bradford was just twelve years old when he became uneasy with the way God was worshipped in Austerfield. Like just about every village in England, Austerfield possessed a small stone church built soon after the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century. But the Austerfield church, known as St. Helena’s, was—and is—unusual. Over the door is a primitive stone carving from a much earlier era depicting an open-mouthed snake. One can only wonder whether this weird, almost runic figure first suggested to the young Bradford that the Puritans were right: the Church of England had been poisoned by “that old serpent Satan.” He must seek out a congregation of like-minded believers and worship God as the Bible instructed.

In Scrooby, an even tinier town than Austerfield a few miles down the road in northern Nottinghamshire, he eventually found what he was looking for. In an old manor house, just a few decades from being demolished, lived the town’s postmaster, William Brewster. It was here that a group of Separatists gathered every Sunday to worship in secret under the direction of two ministers, one of whom was the young John Robinson.

Taking their cue from Paul’s admonition “come out among them, and be separate,” the Separatists were Puritans who had determined that the Church of England was not a true church of Christ. If they were to remain true to their faith, they must form a church of what were known as visible Saints: members of the elect who upheld each other in the proper worship of God. If members of the congregation strayed from the true path, they were admonished; if they failed to correct themselves, they were excommunicated. Purged of the ungodly, a Separatist congregation shared in an intense fellowship of righteousness that touched every facet of every communicant’s life.


St. Helena’s Church in Austerfield, Yorkshire


The Separatists believed in spiritual discipline, but they also believed in spontaneity. After the minister concluded his sermon, members of the congregation were encouraged to “prophesy.” Instead of looking into the future, prophesying involved an inspired kind of improvisation: an extemporaneous attempt by the more knowledgeable members of the congregation to speak—sometimes briefly, sometimes at great length—about religious doctrine. By the end of the service, which lasted for several hours, the entire congregation had participated in a passionate search for divine truth.

Adding to the intensity of the spiritual bond shared by the Separatists in Scrooby was the fact that they were engaged in an illegal activity. During the previous century, several Separatists had been jailed and even executed for their beliefs, and since the coronation of King James in 1603, the pressure to conform to the Church of England had been mounting. From James’s perspective, all Puritans were troublemakers who threatened the spiritual integrity of his realm, and at a gathering of religious leaders at his palace in Hampton Court, he angrily declared, “I shall harry them out of the land!” In the years since the Hampton Court Conference, increasing numbers of men and women had been prosecuted for their unorthodox religious beliefs. As Separatists, the congregation at Scrooby was in violation of both ecclesiastical and civil law, and all of them undoubtedly knew that it was only a matter of time before the authorities found them out.

Some time in 1607, the bishop of York became aware of the meetings at Brewster’s manor house. Some members of the congregation were thrown in prison; others discovered that their houses were being watched. It was time to leave Scrooby. But if King James had vowed to “harry” the Puritans out of England, he was unwilling to provide them with a legal means of leaving the country. A person needed official permission to voyage to the Continent, something the authorities refused to grant religious nonconformists such as the Separatists from Scrooby. If they were to sail for Holland, they must do it secretly.

For a group of farmers and artisans most of whom had rarely, if ever, ventured beyond the Nottinghamshire-Yorkshire region, it was a most daunting prospect. But for seventeen-year-old Bradford, who would lose the people upon whom he had come to depend if he did not follow them to Holland, there was little choice in the matter. Despite the vehement protests of his friends and relatives, who must have pointed out that he was due to receive a comfortable inheritance at twenty-one, he decided to sail with John Robinson and William Brewster to a new land.

Their escape from England did not go well. The first captain they hired turned out to be a traitor and a thief who surrendered them to the authorities in the Lincolnshire town of Boston. After their leaders had spent several months in jail, they tried again. This time they secured the services of a trustworthy Dutch captain, who planned to meet them on the southern bank of the Humber River, just above the town of Grimsby. But they’d loaded no women and children and only a portion of the men onto the ship when the local militia appeared. Fearing capture, the captain determined to sail for Amsterdam, leaving the women and children weeping in despair as their husbands looked on from the deck of the departing ship. It was several months before they were all reunited in Holland.

Once in Amsterdam, the Separatists from Scrooby found themselves thrust into conflict and contention. As dissidents who had come to define themselves in opposition to an established authority, Separatists were often unprepared for the reality of being able to worship as they wanted in Holland. Relieved of all doctrinal restraint, the ministers of several English Separatist congregations began to advocate positions that put them at odds with their own flocks. The minister of an English congregation from Gainsborough (only a few miles from Scrooby) had decided to reject infant baptism; another minister attempted to quell a messy series of personal scandals by claiming that he and his elders, or church officers, could dictate policy to their congregation. As fellow English Separatists, it was impossible for the newcomers from Scrooby to avoid becoming embroiled in these quarrels if they remained in Amsterdam. Showing the firmness, sensitivity, and judgment that came to characterize his ministry in the years ahead, John Robinson led the majority of the congregation to the neighboring city of Leiden, where they were free to establish themselves on their own terms.




Leiden, Holland, in the early seventeenth century

In Leiden, Robinson secured a house not far from the Pieterskerk, one of the city’s largest churches. In the garden behind Robinson’s home, they created a miniature village of close to a dozen houses. Even though approximately half the congregation lived in houses elsewhere in the city, what was known as De Groene Poort, meaning the green lane or alley, came to represent the ideal of Christian fellowship they would aspire to for the rest of their lives.

William Bradford soon emerged as one of the leading members of the congregation. When he turned twenty-one in 1611, he sold the property he had inherited in Austerfield and used the proceeds to purchase a small house. A fustian, or corduroy worker, Bradford became a citizen of Leiden in 1612 in recognition of his high standing in the community. In 1613, he married Dorothy May, and four years later they had a son, John. But Bradford’s life in Leiden was not without its setbacks. At one point, some poor business decisions resulted in the loss of a significant portion of his inheritance. In typical Puritan fashion, he interpreted this as a “correction bestowed by God…for certain decays of internal piety.”

From the beginning, the Pilgrims exhibited all the strengths and weaknesses of a group held together by “a most strict and sacred bond.” When circumstances turned against them, they demonstrated remarkable courage and resilience; indeed, adversity seemed to intensify their clannish commitment to one another. Once established in Leiden, they acquired a renewed sense of purpose—despite, or because of, the hardships of exile.

Leiden was a thriving city of forty thousand, but it was also a commercial center that required its inhabitants to work at a pace that must have come as a shock to farmers from Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. A life of husbandry involved periods of intense labor, but its seasonal rhythms left long stretches of relative inactivity. In Leiden, on the other hand, men, women, and even children were expected to work from dawn to dusk, six days a week, with a bell sounding in the tower of the yarn market to announce when work was to begin and end. As the years of ceaseless labor began to mount and their children began to lose touch with their English ancestry, the Pilgrims decided it was time to start over again.

The members of Robinson’s congregation knew each other wonderfully well, but when it came to the outside world they could sometimes run into trouble. They were too focused on their own inner lives to appreciate the subtleties of character that might have alerted them to the true motives of those who did not share in their beliefs. Time and time again during their preparations to sail for America, the Pilgrims demonstrated an extraordinary talent for getting duped.

It began badly when William Brewster ran afoul of the English government. In Leiden, he had established a printing press, which he ran with the help of the twenty-three-year-old Edward Winslow. In 1618 Brewster and Winslow published a religious tract critical of the English king and his bishops. James ordered Brewster’s arrest, and when the king’s agents in Holland came to seize the Pilgrim elder, Brewster was forced into hiding just as preparations to depart for America entered the most critical phase.

Brewster was the only Pilgrim with political and diplomatic experience. As a young man, he had served as an assistant to Queen Elizabeth’s secretary of state, William Davison. Brewster’s budding diplomatic career had been cut short when the queen had used Davison as her scapegoat for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. With his mentor in prison, Brewster had been forced to return home to Scrooby, where he had taken over his father’s position as postmaster.

In addition to having once been familiar with the highest levels of political power, Brewster possessed an unusually empathetic nature. “He was tenderhearted and compassionate of such as were in misery,” Bradford wrote, “but especially of such as had been of good estate and rank and were fallen unto want and poverty.” More than anyone else, with the possible exception of Pastor Robinson, Elder Brewster was the person upon whom the congregation depended for guidance and support. But as they wrestled with the myriad details of planning a voyage to America, Brewster was, at least for now, lost to them.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, it had become apparent that the colonization of North America was essential to England’s future prosperity. France, Holland, and especially Spain had already taken advantage of the seemingly limitless resources of the New World. But the British government lacked the financial wherewithal to fund a broad-based colonization effort of its own. Seeing it as an opportunity to add to their already considerable personal wealth, two groups of noblemen—one based in London, the other to the west in Plymouth—were eager to underwrite British settlements in America, and in 1606, James created the Virginia Company. But after the Plymouth group’s attempts to found a colony in modern Maine failed miserably and Jamestown proved to be something less than a financial success, the two branches of the Virginia Company realized that they, too, lacked the resources required to colonize America. They then resolved to franchise future settlements by issuing subsidiary, or “particular,” patents to those interested in beginning a plantation. These conditional patents gave the settlers the right to attempt to found a colony in five to seven years’ time, after which they could apply for a new patent that gave them permanent title to the land.

With Brewster in hiding, the Pilgrims looked to their deacon John Carver, probably in his midthirties, and Robert Cushman, forty-one, to carry on negotiations with the appropriate officials in London. By June 1619, Carver and Cushman had succeeded in securing a patent from the Virginia Company. But the Pilgrims’ plans were still far from complete. They had a patent but had not, as of yet, figured out how they were going to finance the endeavor. But William Bradford’s faith in the undertaking was so strong that he sold his house in the spring of 1619.

Soon after, disturbing news came from London. Robert Cushman reported that a group very similar to their own had recently met with disaster on a voyage to America. Led by a Mr. Blackwell, 180 English Separatists from Emden, Holland, had sailed that winter for Virginia. By the time the ship reached America, 130 of the emigrants, including Blackwell, were dead. “[T]hey were packed together like herrings,” Cushman wrote. “They had amongst them the flux, and also want of fresh water, so as it is here rather wondered at that so many are alive, than so many are dead.” Still, the news was deeply troubling to those in Leiden, and many of them began to have second thoughts about sailing to America. Even Cushman had to admit that he, a grocer and wool-comber originally from Canterbury, felt overwhelmed by the challenges and responsibilities of organizing the voyage. “It doth often trouble me,” he wrote, “to think that in this business we are all to learn and none to teach.”

About this time some representatives from Holland, having heard of the Pilgrims’ intention to relocate to America, “made them fair offers” concerning a possible settlement. But the Pilgrims declined. It would have been impossible to reassert their English identity in a Dutch colony. What they do not seem to have taken into account was the possible danger of spurning this particular overture. The Dutch, still several years from founding a colony at Manhattan, appear to have begun to work covertly to block the Pilgrims’ subsequent attempts to settle in this strategic location.

Instead of looking to Holland, the Pilgrims threw in their lot with a smooth-talking merchant from London named Thomas Weston. Weston represented a group of investors known as the Merchant Adventurers—about seventy London merchants who viewed the colonization of America as both an investment opportunity and a way “to plant religion.” Most of them appear to have shared Puritan spiritual leanings, although some were clearly wary of the radicalism of the Pilgrims’ Separatist beliefs. Even though the Pilgrims had secured a patent the year before, the Merchant Adventurers obtained a patent of their own for a settlement in the northern portion of Virginia at the mouth of the Hudson River.

In the beginning, Weston seemed a godsend—a man sympathetic to their religious goals who also claimed to have the means to make their cherished dreams a reality. Weston proposed that they enter into a joint stock company. The Adventurers would put up most of the capital with the expectation that, once they were settled in America, the Pilgrims would quickly begin to generate considerable profits, primarily through codfishing and the fur trade. The Pilgrims would each be given a share in the company valued at ten pounds. For the next seven years they would work four days a week for the company and two days a week for themselves, with the Sabbath reserved for worship. At the end of the seven years, the capital and profits would be divided among all of them, with the Pilgrims owning their houses and home lots free and clear.

As the spring of 1620 approached, many had decided to wait until those in the “first brunt” had cleared the way for them; still others, such as Bradford, had already sold their homes and had long since been ready to depart. A census of the congregation revealed that only about 125 people (a third of their total number) would be departing for the New World, with the rest to follow soon after. Pastor Robinson, it was decided, would stay for now in Leiden with the majority of his flock, with Elder Brewster attending to the religious needs of those in America.

As the Pilgrims prepared to depart in the spring of 1620, Weston’s true nature began to reveal itself. He now claimed that circumstances had changed, making it necessary to adjust the original agreement. He had hoped to secure a fishing monopoly for the settlement, but it was now clear that this was not possible. Many of his fellow Adventurers, he maintained, were inclined to back out. If the merchants in London were to come forward with the necessary funds, the Pilgrims must agree to dedicate all their time to working for the company. Instead of having two days a week for themselves, they must spend every minute laboring for the Adventurers. Robinson and the Pilgrims in Leiden vehemently objected, claiming that the new terms were “fitter for thieves and bondslaves than honest men.” Making matters all the worse was that Robert Cushman had agreed to Weston’s new terms without consulting the rest of them back in Leiden.

In June they discovered that, incredibly, Weston had not yet arranged any transportation to America. If they had any hope of reaching the mouth of the Hudson River before winter, they must depart as soon as possible. While Weston hunted up a ship in London, the Pilgrims decided to purchase a small sailing vessel of their own in Holland. Not only would it be used to transport some of them across the Atlantic, it would be useful for both fishing and exploring the coast once they were in America. And if the worst should happen, it would provide a means for the survivors to return to England.

Adding to the Pilgrims’ growing sense of alarm was the fact that the Adventurers had insisted on adding some non-Separatists from London to the mix. Some had strong ties to the group in Leiden, but others were completely unknown to them. How they would get along with these “Strangers” was of deep concern, especially since one of them, a man named Christopher Martin, was already proving to be a most difficult personality. The Adventurers designated Martin as a purchasing agent, and he, along with Cushman and Carver, began to secure supplies and provisions: beer, wine, hardtack, salted beef and pork, dried peas, fishing supplies, muskets, armor, clothing, tools, trade goods for the Indians, and the screw jack that would come in handy even before they reached America.


Departure of the Pilgrims from Delfshaven by Adam Willaerts, 1620

Martin, a haughty and willful man, refused to coordinate his efforts with Carver and Cushman. While the Pilgrim agents collected provisions in London and Canterbury, Martin proceeded to do as he pleased in Southampton, a major port in the south of England. Soon, no one really knew where matters stood when it came to provisions. “[W]e are readier to dispute than to set forward a voyage,” Cushman lamented on June 10.

Despite the chaotic and acrimonious nature of the preparations in England, the Pilgrims in Leiden forged ahead, purchasing a sixty-ton vessel named the Speedwell. Less than fifty feet in length, she was considered large enough for a voyage across the Atlantic; earlier expeditions had successfully completed the crossing in vessels that were less than half the Speedwell’s tonnage. The Pilgrims hired a master and crew who agreed to stay on for at least a year in America and who undoubtedly oversaw the fitting out of the vessel with two new and larger masts. The refitting of the Speedwell may have seemed like an insignificant matter at the time. As it turned out, however, this misnamed vessel and her master, known to us only as “Mr. Reynolds,” would have a disastrous impact on the voyage ahead.

By the end of July, the Pilgrims, accompanied by a large number of family and friends, had made their way to Delfshaven, the small Dutch port where the Speedwell was waiting. The plan was to sail for Southampton, where they would rendezvous with whatever ship Weston had secured in London. “[T]hey went aboard and their friends with them,” Bradford wrote, “where truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting, to see what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them, what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each heart.”

For Bradford and his wife, Dorothy, the parting in Delfshaven was particularly painful. They had decided to leave their three-year-old son, John, behind in Holland, perhaps with Dorothy’s parents in Amsterdam. It was certainly safer for the child, but the emotional cost, especially for the boy’s mother, would become increasingly difficult to bear. Whether he realized it or not, Bradford was inflicting his own childhood experience on his son: for a time, at least, John would be, for all intents and purposes, an orphan.

When the tide turned in their favor, it was time to depart. Pastor Robinson fell down to his knees on the Speedwell ’s deck, as did everyone present, and “with watery cheeks commended them with most fervent prayers to the Lord and His blessing.” It was a remarkable display of “such love as indeed is seldom found on earth.” Years later, the residents of Delfshaven were still talking about the departure of the Pilgrims in July 1620.

By the time the Leideners departed from Delfshaven, Weston had hired an old and reliable ship named the Mayflower, which after taking aboard passengers in London sailed to Southampton to rendezvous with the Speedwell. Southampton was an ancient English port encircled by a medieval stone wall, and near the West Gate of Southampton, the Leiden contingent got their first glimpse of the ship that was to sail with them to America.

The Mayflower was a typical merchant vessel of her day: squarerigged and beak bowed, with high, castlelike superstructures fore and aft that protected her cargo and crew in the worst weather, but made beating against the wind a painfully inefficient endeavor. Rated at 180 tons (meaning that her hold was capable of accommodating 180 casks or tuns of wine), she was approximately three times the size of the Speedwell and about one hundred feet in length.

The Mayflower ’s commanding officer, known as the master, was Christopher Jones. About fifty years old, he was also a part owner of the ship. Records indicate that Jones had been master of the Mayflower for the last eleven years, sailing back and forth across the Channel with English woolens to France and returning to London with French wine. Wine ships such as the Mayflower were known as “sweet ships,” since the inevitable spillage of the acidic wine helped to temper the stench of the bilge. In addition to wine and wool, Jones had transported hats, hemp, Spanish salt, hops, and vinegar to Norway and may even have taken the Mayflower on a whaling voyage to Greenland. He and his wife, Josian, had had five children, and although he had no way of knowing it at the time, Josian was pregnant with another son, who would be born at their home in Rotherhithe, just down the Thames from London, the following March.

Serving as Jones’s mate and pilot was Robert Coppin, who, unlike Jones, had been to America before. Also serving as pilot was John Clark, forty-five, who’d delivered some cattle to Jamestown the previous year. Giles Heale was the ship’s surgeon. In the days ahead, as sickness spread through the passengers and crew, he would become one of the most sought-after officers of the Mayflower. Another important position was that of the cooper, who was in charge of maintaining all barreled supplies and provisions. In Southampton, Jones secured the twenty-one-year-old cooper John Alden, who because of his youth and skills was already being encouraged by the Pilgrims to remain in America at the completion of the crossing. In addition, there were somewhere between twenty and thirty sailors, whose names have not survived.

In Southampton, the Leideners met up with the family and friends who had first boarded the Mayflower in London and would be continuing on with them to America. Most shared their religious beliefs and several of them were actual members of the Leiden congregation. The most notable of the group was Elder William Brewster, who had been hiding out in Holland and perhaps even England for the last year. The return of Brewster, the highest-ranking layperson of the congregation and their designated spiritual leader in the New World, must have been as emotionally charged as their departure from Leiden.

Also joining them in Southampton were Robert Cushman and John Carver, who was traveling with his wife, Katherine, and five servants. Although not a member of the congregation, Captain Miles Standish was well known to the Leideners. Standish, who was accompanied by his wife, Rose, and may or may not have come over on the Speedwell, had served as an English mercenary in Holland and would be handling the colony’s military matters in America.

It was in Southampton that they met the so-called Strangers—passengers recruited by the Adventurers to take the places of those who had chosen to remain in Holland. Besides the domineering Christopher Martin, who had been designated the “governor” of the Mayflower by the Adventurers and was traveling with his wife and two servants, there were four additional families. Stephen Hopkins was making his second trip to America. Eleven years earlier in 1609 he had sailed on the Sea Venture for Virginia, only to become shipwrecked in Bermudaan incident that became the basis for Shakespeare’s The Tempest. While on Bermuda, Hopkins had been part of an attempted mutiny and been sentenced to hang, but pleading tearfully for his life, he was, at the last minute, given a reprieve. Hopkins spent two years in Jamestown before returning to England and was now accompanied by his pregnant wife, Elizabeth; his son, Giles; and daughters Constance and Damaris, along with two servants, Edward Doty and Edward Leister.

In addition to the Mullinses, Eatons, and Billingtons (whom Bradford later called “one of the profanest families amongst them” ), there were four children from Shipton, Shropshire. Ellen, Jasper, Richard, and Mary More were the products of an adulterous relationship between their mother, Catherine More, and her longtime lover, Jacob Blakeway. When Catherine’s husband, Samuel More, an aristocrat who spent most of his time in London, belatedly realized that his children were not his own (their resemblance to Blakeway, he insisted in court, was unmistakable), he divorced his wife and took custody of the children. More determined that it would be best for the children to begin a new life in America. They were sent to London and placed under the care of Weston, Cushman, and Carver, who assigned Ellen, eight, to Edward and Elizabeth Winslow; Jasper, seven, to the Carvers; and both Richard, five, and Mary, four, to William and Mary Brewster, who were accompanied by their evocatively named sons Love and Wrestling.

In the meantime, matters were coming to a head between the Leideners and Thomas Weston. Cushman had signed the revised agreement with the merchants in London, but the Leideners refused to honor it. Weston stalked off in a huff, insisting that “they must then look to stand on their own legs.” As Cushman knew better than anyone, this was not in their best interests. They didn’t have enough provisions to feed them all for a year, and yet they still owed many of their suppliers money. Without Weston to provide them with the necessary funds, they were forced to sell off some of their precious foodstuffs, including more than two tons of butter, before they could sail from Southampton.

Adding to the turmoil and confusion was the behavior of Christopher Martin. The Mayflower ’s governor was, according to Cushman, a monster. “[H]e insulteth over our poor people, with such scorn and contempt,” Cushman wrote, “as if they were not good enough to wipe his shoes…. If I speak to him, he flies in my face as mutinous, and saith no complaints shall be heard or received but by himself.” In a letter hastily written to a friend in London, Cushman saw only doom and disaster ahead. “Friend, if ever we make a plantation God works a miracle, especially considering how scant we shall be of victuals, and most of all un-united amongst ourselves and devoid of good tutors and regiment. Violence will break all. Where is the meek and humble spirit of Moses?”

When it finally came time to leave Southampton, Cushman made sure he was with his friends aboard the Speedwell. He was now free of Martin but soon found that the Speedwell was anything but speedy. “[S]he is as open and leaky as a sieve,” he wrote. As they watched the water spout through the gaps in the planking, he and his compatriots from Leiden were reminded of the earthen dikes in Holland, claiming that “the water came in as at a mole hole.” Several days after clearing the Isle of Wight off England’s southern coast, it was decided they must put in for repairs, and both vessels sailed for Dartmouth, a port only seventy-five miles to the west of Southampton.

It was now August 17. The repairs were quickly completed, but this time the wind refused to cooperate. They were stuck in Dartmouth, a rock-rimmed harbor surrounded by high, sheltering hills, waiting for a fair breeze. People were beginning to panic—and with good reason. “Our victuals will be half eaten up, I think, before we go from the coast of England,” Cushman wrote. Many of the passengers decided it was time to abandon the voyage. Even though they’d lose everything they had so far invested, which for some of them amounted to everything they possessed, they wanted out. But Martin refused to let them off the Mayflower. “[H]e will not hear them, nor suffer them to go ashore,” Cushman wrote from Dartmouth, “lest they should run away.”

The months of unremitting tension had caught up with Cushman. For the last two weeks he had felt a searing pain in his chest—“a bundle of lead as it were, crushing my heart.” He was sure this would be his last good-bye: “[A]lthough I do the actions of a living man yet I am but as dead…. I pray you prepare for evil tidings of us every day…. I see not in reason how we shall escape even the passing of hunger-starved persons; but God can do much, and His will be done.”

They departed from Dartmouth and were more than two hundred miles beyond the southwestern tip of England at Land’s End when the Speedwell sprang another leak. It was now early September, and they had no choice but to give up on the Speedwell. It was a devastating turn of events. Not only had the vessel cost them a considerable amount of money, but she had been considered vital to the future success of the settlement.

They put in at Plymouth, about fifty miles to the west of Dartmouth. If they were to continue, they must crowd as many passengers as would fit into the Mayflower and sail on alone. To no one’s surprise, Cushman elected to give up his place to someone else. And despite his fear of imminent death, he lived another five years.

It was later learned that the Speedwell ’s master, Mr. Reynolds, had been secretly working against them. In Holland, the vessel had been fitted with new and larger masts—a fatal mistake that was probably done with Reynolds’s approval, if not at his suggestion. As any mariner knew, a mast crowded with sail not only moved a ship through the water, it acted as a lever that applied torque to the hull. When a ship’s masts were too tall, the excess strain opened up the seams between the planks, causing the hull to leak. By overmasting the Speedwell, Reynolds had provided himself with an easy way to deceive this fanatical group of landlubbers. He might shrug his shoulders and scratch his head when the vessel began to take on water, but all he had to do was reduce sail and the Speedwell would cease to leak. Soon after the Mayflower set out across the Atlantic, the Speedwell was sold, refitted, and, according to Bradford, “made many voyages…to the great profit of her owners.”

Bradford later assumed that Reynolds’s “cunning and deceit” had been motivated by a fear of starving to death in America. But the Pilgrims appear to have been the unknowing victims of a far more complex and sinister plot. Several decades later, Bradford’s stepson Nathaniel Morton received information from Manhattan that indicated that the Dutch had worked to prevent the Pilgrims from settling in the Hudson River region “by [creating] delays, while they were in England.” Morton claimed it was the Mayflower’s master, Christopher Jones, who was responsible for the deception, but there is no evidence that Jones was anything but a loyal and steadfast friend to the Pilgrims. It was Reynolds, not Jones, who had kept them from sailing.

In early September, westerly gales begin to howl across the North Atlantic. The provisions, already low when they first set out from Southampton, had been eroded even further by more than a month of delays. The passengers, cooped up aboard ship for all this time, were in no shape for an extended passage. Jones was within his rights to declare that it was too late to depart on a voyage across the Atlantic.

But on September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set out from Plymouth with what Bradford called “a prosperous wind.”

Robert Cushman had not been the only Leidener to abandon the voyage. His friend William Ring had also opted to remain in England, as had Thomas Blossom. By the time the Mayflower left Plymouth, the group from Leiden had been reduced by more than a quarter. The original plan had been to relocate the entire congregation to the New World. Now there were just 50 or so of them—less than a sixth of their total number, and only about half of the Mayflower ’s 102 passengers.

John Robinson had no way of knowing their numbers would be so dramatically depleted by the time they left England for the last time, but the Pilgrims’ minister had anticipated many of the difficulties that lay ahead. His selfless yet strong-willed insistence on probity would be dearly missed by the Pilgrims in the months ahead. At least for now, they had the wisdom of his words.

In a letter written on the eve of their departure from Holland, he urged his followers to do everything they could to avoid conflict with their new compatriots. Even if men such as Christopher Martin pushed them to the edge of their forbearance, they must quell any impulse to judge and condemn others. Robinson exhorted them to “[s]tore up…patience against that evil day, without which we take offense at the Lord Himself in His holy and just works.” For the future welfare of the settlement, it was essential that all the colonists—Leideners and Strangers alike—learn to live together as best they could.

This nonjudgmental attitude did not come naturally to the Leideners. As Separatists, they considered themselves godly exceptions to the vast, unredeemed majority of humankind. A sense of exclusivity was fundamental to how they perceived themselves in the world. And yet there is evidence that Robinson’s sense of his congregation as an autonomous enclave of righteousness had become considerably less rigid during his twelve years in Holland. By the time the Pilgrims departed for America, he had begun to allow members of his congregation to attend services outside their own church. Robinson’s fierce quest for spiritual purity had been tempered by the realization that little was to be gained by arrogance and anger. “[F]or schism and division,” Edward Winslow later wrote of Robinson, “there was nothing in the world more hateful to him.” This softening of what had once been an inflexible Separatism was essential to the later success of Plymouth Plantation.

In this regard, the loss of the Speedwell had been a good thing. Prior to their departure from Plymouth, the Leideners had naturally gravitated to their own vessel. But now, like it or not, they were all in the same boat.

When he later wrote about the voyage of the Mayflower, Bradford devoted only a few paragraphs to describing a passage that lasted more than two months. The physical and psychological punishment endured by the passengers in the dark and dripping ’tween decks was compounded by the terrifying lack of information they possessed concerning their ultimate destination. All they knew for certain was that if they did somehow succeed in crossing this three-thousand-mile stretch of ocean, no one—except perhaps for some hostile Indians—would be there to greet them.

Soon after departing from Plymouth, the passengers began to suffer the effects of seasickness. As often happens at sea, the sailors took great delight in mocking the sufferings of their charges. There was one sailor in particular, “a proud and very profane young man,” Bradford remembered, who “would always be contemning the poor people in their sickness and cursing them daily with grievous execrations.” The sailor even had the audacity to say that “he hoped to help to cast half of them overboard before they came to their journey’s end.” As it turned out, however, this strong and arrogant sailor was the first to die. “But it pleased God,” Bradford wrote, “before they came half seas over, to smite this young man with a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner, and so was himself the first that was thrown overboard.” Bradford claimed “it was an astonishment to all his fellows for they noted it to be the just hand of God upon him.”

A succession of westerly gales required Master Jones to work his ship, as best he could, against the wind and waves. Several times during the passage, the conditions grew so severe that even though it meant he must lose many hard-won miles, Jones was forced to “lie ahull”—to furl the sails and without a stitch of canvas set, secure the helm to leeward and surrender his 180-ton ship to the elements.

In 1957, the crew members of the Mayflower II —a replica of the original vessel, built in Brixton, England—became the first mariners of the modern era to experience what it was like to ride out a gale in a Jacobean-era ship. Over the course of the first few weeks of the passage, they had discovered that the Mayflower II ’s boxy hull shape took some getting used to. At times, the motion in the high aft poop cabin became so violent that Captain Alan Villiers—one of the most experienced blue-water sailors in the world—feared that he might be flung out of his bunk. What this ship would do in survival conditions was a matter of deep concern to Villiers and his men.

Toward the end of the voyage, a storm set in, forcing Villiers to do as Master Jones had done 337 years before. As the motion of the ship in the giant waves became intolerable, he decided he had no option but to lie ahull. The sails were furled, and everything on deck was tied down. Then, with considerable trepidation, Villiers ordered that the helm be secured to leeward. “This was the crucial test,” Villiers wrote. “Would she lie that way, more or less quietly, with the windage of the high poop keeping her shoulder to the sea? Or would she just wallow hopelessly in the great troughs, threatening to roll her masts out? We didn’t know. No one had tried the maneuver in a ship like that for maybe two centuries.”

As soon as the ship’s bow swung into the wind, a remarkable change came over the Mayflower II. Even though she was under bare poles in a howling gale, her slablike topsides functioned as a kind of wooden storm sail, magically steadying the ship’s motion. Almost perfectly balanced, the Mayflower II sat like a contented duck amid the uproar of the storm. After being pounded unmercifully by the waves, the ship was finally at peace. “I reflected that the Pilgrim Fathers, who tossed through many such a wild night in Atlantic storms, at least knew tranquility in great gales,” Villiers wrote.

In the fall of 1620, the Mayflower ’s ability to steady herself in a gale produced a most deceptive tranquillity for a young indentured servant named John Howland. As the Mayflower lay ahull, Howland apparently grew restless down below. He saw no reason why he could not venture out of the fetid depths of the ’tween decks for just a moment. After more than a month as a passenger ship, the Mayflower was no longer a sweet ship, and Howland wanted some air. So he climbed a ladder to one of the hatches and stepped onto the deck.

Howland was from the inland town of Fenstanton, Huntingdon-shire, and he quickly discovered that the deck of a tempest-tossed ship was no place for a landsman. Even if the ship had found her own still point, the gale continued to rage with astonishing violence around her. The shriek of the wind through the rope rigging was terrifying, as was the sight of all those towering, spume-flecked waves. The Mayflower lurched suddenly to leeward. Howland staggered to the ship’s rail and tumbled into the sea.

That should have been the end of him. But dangling over the side and trailing behind the ship was the topsail halyard, the rope used to raise and lower the upper sail. Howland was in his midtwenties and strong, and when his hand found the halyard, he gripped the rope with such feral desperation that even though he was pulled down more than ten feet below the ocean’s surface, he never let go. Several sailors took up the halyard and hauled Howland back in, finally snagging him with a boat hook and dragging him up onto the deck.

When Bradford wrote about this incident more than a decade later, John Howland was not only alive and well, but he and his wife, Elizabeth, were on their way to raising ten children, who would, in turn, produce an astounding eighty-eight grandchildren. A Puritan believed that everything happened for a reason. Whether it was the salvation of John Howland or the sudden death of the young sailor, it occurred because God had made it so. If something good happened to the Saints, it was inevitably interpreted as a sign of divine sanction. But if something bad happened, it didn’t necessarily mean that God disapproved; it might mean that he was testing them for a higher purpose. And as they all knew, the true test was yet to come.

Unknown to Jones and any other mariner of the day was the presence of the Gulf Stream—a virtual river of warm water flowing up from the Caribbean along the North American coast, across the Atlantic, and past the British Isles. Bucking the Gulf Stream and westerly gales, the Mayflowerhad managed an average speed of just two miles an hour since leaving England back in September.

Jones had a cross-staff, a calibrated three-foot-long stick equipped with a sliding vane, that enabled him to calculate his latitude, or north–south position, within a few miles, but he had no reliable way of determining his longitude, or east–west position. This meant that after all the bad weather they’d encountered, he had only the vaguest idea of how far he was from land.

He knew the Mayflower was well north of her ultimate destination, the mouth of the Hudson River. But at this late stage in the voyage, with disease beginning to appear among the passengers and crew, he needed to find his way to the coast as quickly as possible. So he made a run for it, sailing west along a latitude that would lead him to the sandy peninsula known to most mariners of the time as Cape Cod. It was named Cape James in Captain John Smith’s map of New England, but Jones didn’t care what it was called. Reaching out to them like an upturned arm, the Cape was as good a target as any.

The Mayflower pushed on until they were within smelling distance of the continent. Seagulls began to appear in the sky, and the color of the water changed from deep blue to pale green. And then, at daybreak on Thursday, November 9, 1620, after sixty-five days at sea, they saw land.

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