A ship called the Mayflower drifted on the cold waters off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The ship’s passengers—102 men, women, and children—had spent three months crowded onboard. Now they looked eagerly ashore to their new home. That day, December 21, 1620, they founded the second English colony in North America. They called the settlement Plymouth, after the place in England from which they’d set sail three months before.
The Mayflower passengers became known as Pilgrims. The name comes from the word pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is an important trip, often taken for religious reasons.
WHY DID THE PILGRIMS COME?
About half the passengers on the Mayflower were known as Separatists. They belonged to a larger English religious group called the Puritans. The Separatists wanted to separate from the Church of England. They didn’t want anyone telling them how to worship. They wished to study the Bible and pray in their own way.
Separatists faced fines and jail in England for their beliefs. Many Separatists fled, seeking religious freedom in Holland. But after ten years in Holland, a group of Separatists decided they’d find more freedom in America. They departed in September 1620.
The Separatists called the rest of the Mayflower passengers “Strangers.” These included workers recruited by English businessmen. The businessmen hoped to make money from the new colony.
WHERE DID THE PILGRIMS SETTLE?
The Mayflower‘s original destination was Virginia, where England’s first colony was founded in 1607. But rains, winds, and huge waves carried the ship far off course to the north. After searching the coastline for about a month, they settled at a promising spot near Cape Cod.
WHAT WAS THE MAYFLOWER COMPACT?
The 41 men on the ship crowded into a cabin on the Mayflower. They decided to write a plan for governing the new colony. The men would vote on all proposed laws. Everyone pledged to obey the laws agreed upon, even those laws they had personally voted against. They did this for the welfare of the new settlement. All the Pilgrims signed the plan, called the Mayflower Compact.
SURVIVING THE FIRST YEAR
At first, the Pilgrims faced terrible hardships. The long voyage left people sick and weak. They endured a cold, damp winter. Little fresh food was available. About half the Pilgrims died that first winter. Sometimes there were only six or seven healthy people to care for the sick and dying.
The Wampanoag people, led by a chief named Massasoit, helped the Pilgrims survive. In the spring, the Native Americans taught the Europeans how to fish and grow corn. The Wampanoags also signed a peace treaty with the small colony. The treaty lasted until after Massasoit’s death in 1661.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST THANKSGIVING?
In the fall of 1621, the remaining Pilgrims celebrated their survival and first harvest. They invited the Wampanoags for a three-day celebration of fun and feasting. They served such foods as corn, bread, pumpkin, fish, turkey, and deer meat. This later became known as the first Thanksgiving.
WHY DO WE REMEMBER THE PILGRIMS?
The English colony founded at Massachusetts Bay in 1630 eventually became larger than Plymouth. In 1691 the village of Plymouth became part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Numerous reminders of the Pilgrims remain today. Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday celebrated each November, recalls the feast the Pilgrims and Native Americans held. It is a day to be grateful for family, friends, and food for our table. The Pilgrims’ quest for religious freedom also had a lasting influence. Today, freedom of religion is a basic right of American life.
The Mayflower Compact contained the basic idea of American democracy. Today, the people control the government through free and open elections. As Plymouth governor William Bradford wrote: “Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced.”