Life for the Pilgrims Before the Mayflower

Pilgrim Life

In 17th Century England it was a crime to be Separatists. Soon-to-be Pilgrims could lose life, house, or suffer imprisonment before the Mayflower.

Pilgrim History basically begins with the persecution of the Separatists by King James I. Life for the Pilgrims meant threats of losing livelihood, home, or imprisonment while staying in England. In 1607, one group of Separatists located in Scrooby, England led by William Brewster set sail for Amsterdam, Holland to escape religious persecution.

Pilgrim History in England Meant Hardship and Departure

King Henry VIII established the Church of England and made it mandatory for every subject to belong to the Church some 90 years before the Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower for the New World. In that interim period, the Puritan Movement thought the Church of England to be too similar to the Catholic Church and wanted further separation. Some of the Puritans separated even further and were known as the Separatists, or Saints, the future Pilgrims.

One Separatist Church was located in Scrooby, England at the House of William Brewster. Forty of them met there. However, when King James I made life too unbearable for the Separatists, they left for Amsterdam, Holland in 1607, having tried to leave several times before. They sold their homes and walked fifty miles to meet the ship.

Life for the Pilgrims Better in Holland

Living in Amsterdam was not ideal because the Separatists could not speak Dutch and had no trades. However, once a hundred or so finally met there, they moved to the city of Leiden. In Leiden, they could learn trades such as, carpentry, weaving, baking, tailoring, and others, learn Dutch and practice their Faith freely. In 1611, William Bradford inherited his father’s land in England, which he sold. With the money, Bradford bought “Green Close”, a large house that was used for services.

The children were assimilating very well, which concerned the adults because Dutch citizenship was not their goal. Besides, the Dutch had an uneasy truce with the Spanish and war looked inevitable. This also distressed the Separatist hierarchy because some of the young men were already serving in the Dutch army and if war broke out and the Spanish won, it would be likely that their Roman Catholicism would not allow Separatist Puritanism. They had to leave. But where could they go?

The Pilgrims Choose to Start a Life in the New World

Of course, the Separatists could not return to England. And, South America was out of the question because of the climate being too different and the Spanish influence present. So, King James I was petitioned by them to settle in North America. There was already a colony established in Jamestown, Virginia anyway and surely King James would gladly see them go. Besides, King James could benefit from all the goods that the Separatists would send back to England, such as, lumber, furs, foodstuffs, tobacco, among others.

So, the Separatists were also loaned money through “The Merchant Adventurers” , a group of London businessmen looking to make a profit off of New World trade. They would supply the merchant ship the Mayflower for the voyage west. Also, fifty Separatists bought the ship the Speedwell with money procured from the sale of their houses. They set off from Holland to England on July 22, 1620. The Separatists at this time were first referred to as the Pilgrims.

The Merchant Adventurers insisted that the Separatists bring sixty seven “Strangers” with them if they wanted to use the Mayflower. These were skilled tradespeople who could be useful in the New World. The Speedwell and the Mayflower set sail, but the Speedwell leaked and had to return. So, on September 6, 1620, the Mayflower alone with one hundred two people aboard set off to the New World.


  1. Whitehurst, Susan. The Pilgrims Before the Mayflower. NY: PowerKids Press, 2002.