At the turn of the 16th century, England was firmly entrenched in the Protestant religion. One religious sect, the Puritans, did not feel that the Church was worshipping the way that Christ wanted, and worked within the Church to simplify their worship. For some, this was not enough. Groups known as Separatists broke away from the established Church and sought to worship independently. One group of religious dissidents from Nottinghamshire fled to Leyden, Holland in 1606 to escape persecution from the English Crown.
Although they were welcome in Holland and able to worship freely, the Separatists were foreigners and feared that their children would lose their English identity. They began to search for another place to live and worship and decided to sail to the New World. At this time, the English colonies in America were simply known as “Virginia”, and the Separatists (the term “Pilgrim” was applied to the settlers at a later date) applied for a patent to settle in the northern area of Virginia, near the mouth of the Hudson River. The Leyden Congregation obtained a patent from the London Company and a London merchant, Thomas Weston, arranged financial backing through a group of speculators, or investors. On July 22, 1620, the first emigrants left Holland aboard the Speedwell.
Voyage to America
After stopping along the English coast, other merchants and colonists joined the original emigrants and a larger vessel, The Mayflower, joined the voyage. On August 5, 1620, both ships left England and set sail for the New World. Unfortunately, the Speedwell was not sturdy enough for the ocean voyage and, after two attempts at repairs, the Speedwell was left at Plymoth. The Mayflower set sail with 102 emigrants aboard on September 6, 1620. Of the 102 emigrants, only 65 were Separatists from the Leyden Congregation.
Settlement at Plymoth
On November 9, the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod, well north of their intended destination. However, due to the encroaching winter and long ocean voyage, the emigrants opted to remain in New England. On November 11, each male on the voyage signed the historic Mayflower Compact to ensure cooperation in his new settlement. Three landing parties were sent out to establish a base for the colony and, on December 11, landed at the famed Plymoth Rock. Construction of the new colony (or plantation as it was called) began at the end of December 1620. Although only two Pilgrims died on the ocean crossing, half of the company perished during the first winter of 1621. The colonists were forced to live on board The Mayflower while the plantation was being built and, at one time, there were only seven people well enough to tend the sick.
In the spring of 1621, the colonists began their planting and made friendly contact with the Wampanoag Indians, among them the legendary Squanto, who acted as the Pilgrim’s guide and interpreter. The colony grew and flourished and that fall, the Pilgrims celebrated what has entered American folklore as “the First Thanksgiving”.
The Pilgrims at Plymoth enjoyed a relatively peaceful co-existence with the Native Indians and, in general, was a prosperous and peaceful colony until it was incorporated into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.
The Pilgrims’ Role in History
The Pilgrims have been credited as being the founding fathers of America. While it is true that the Jamestown colony was founded several years before Plymoth, it was almost a failure. Plymoth was the first successful colony founded in the New World and paved the way for subsequent colonies to follow its example.
At Plymoth, the Pilgrims founded a forward-thinking colony that was, in essence, ahead of its time and often differed from the other colonies founded in New England. Religious tolerance was the rule, not the exception. Elected officials were re-elected yearly to avoid “officialdom” (William Bradford was elected 30 times in 35 years as Governor). Free, public education, the modern method of administering estates among all children, and the right of men to vote (regardless of church membership) was established at Plymoth Plantation.