Why the Mayflower Matters 400 Years Later

Painting of Pilgrims departing for the New World by Bernard Gribble

If 2020 weren’t so problem-fraught, we’d be hearing much more about the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival to the New World in 1620.

The Pilgrims weren’t the first Europeans to build a colony here – St. Augustine, Fla., was founded by Spaniards in 1565. They weren’t the first Englishmen to settle here, either – Jamestown began 13 years earlier at the behest of the Virginia Co. of London.

And no, the Puritans didn’t invent Thanksgiving as an annual “holy day” (holiday). In fact, they rejected the whole idea of one day being more holy than another, except the Sabbath. Puritans thanked God all year long for their survival and did organize a three-day fall harvest celebration in 1621 with the Native Americans who enabled them to survive their first winter. That event likely influenced President Abe Lincoln’s decision to declare a federal Thanksgiving holiday some 200 years later, after Mary Josepha Hale lobbied it for 36 years.

So what is a pilgrim and why were they important to our history?

By definition, a pilgrim is one who journeys a long distance as an act of religious devotion. Roughly half of the 102 Mayflower passengers were Puritan pilgrims in search of a place to practice their Bible-based Christian faith free from persecution from the Church of England or Roman Catholic Church. They risked their lives on a miserable 66-day ocean voyage for one reason: to practice their faith freely.

About 36 crewmen and 102 passengers crammed aboard the Mayflower after its sister ship, Speedwell, was deemed unseaworthy. The Mayflower was a merchant ship built to carry crates and barrels of goods along the European coast, not human beings across nearly 3,000 miles of open sea. Due to a series of problems, it got off to a very late start when it departed Plymouth, England on Sept. 6, 1620. The bulky ship traveled at 2 MPH and took 66 days to reach the coast of Cape Cod on Nov. 11 – missing its target of Hudson Bay, then part of Virginia, by hundreds of miles.

Mayflower’s passengers included 50 men, 19 women (three pregnant), 14 teens and 19 children. One baby was born mid-voyage (named “Oceanus”) and two women gave birth while the ship was docked on the coastline. Because they arrived in winter, the passengers lived on the cold, uncomfortable ship for five months after docking; they’d already spent two months on it before departing from England. About half of them died in the first winter of cold and malnutrition.

The Puritans called themselves “saints,” a term used in scripture for Christian believers. The other passengers aboard were craftsmen, merchants, indentured servants and orphaned children; Puritans called them “Strangers.”

Like the Jamestown men, Mayflower passengers had signed a contract with the Virginia Co. agreeing to settle on its land in exchange for financing the journey. But when Mayflower became trapped by bad weather at Cape Cod, the English settlers found themselves in a “no man’s land” without any legal jurisdiction over them. Even before landing, some Strangers said they were no longer bound by the contract and could mutiny.

Puritan leaders feared imminent chaos and acted fast to stop it. While still at sea, they penned a 200-word agreement that Saints and Strangers alike signed and respected. In that moment, people with differing points of view about faith and life found a way to co-exist peacefully for the mutual survival of all. Later dubbed “The Mayflower Compact,” this document is what makes the Mayflower so important to history.

It was “the first experiment in consensual government in Western history between individuals with one another, and not with a monarch,” writes author Rebecca Fraser in “The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage and the Founding of America: Plymouth Colony.”

“In the end, the Mayflower Compact represents a remarkable act of coolheaded and pragmatic resolve. They were nearing the end of a long and frightening voyage. They were bound for a place about which they knew essentially nothing. It was almost winter. They were without sufficient supplies of food. Some of them were sick and two had already died. Still others were clamoring for a rebellion that would have meant the almost instantaneous collapse of their settlement and, most likely, their deaths. The Leideners might have looked to their military officer, Miles Standish, and ordered him to subdue the rebels. Instead, they put pen to paper and created a document that stands with the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution as a seminal American text.” – Nathaniel Philbrick, “Mayflower”

The Mayflower Compact set a template for self-governance guided by reason, cooperation and law, not force. The Magna Carta, signed 400 years earlier, had established the concept of Rule of Law – the idea that enduring law, not a transient human, was England’s final authority – but laws had always been written by the king. In contrast, the Saints and Strangers pledged loyalty to laws they would write together. Given the world’s history up until then, this was stunning. The brief text was modeled after concepts Bible-based Puritans had used to lived with one another the past 12 years in Leiden, Holland. Now they were expanded to include Strangers.

The idea that “mutual respect among people of differing beliefs benefits all” was hard-won by our ancestors and remains difficult to preserve today. ❚

Some Resources: Check out virtual tours etc. at Plimoth.org, the website of Plimoth Patuxet, a living history museum in Plymouth, Mass. Books: “Of Plymouth Plantation” in Modern English, by pilgrim William Bradford; “Mayflower,” by Nathaniel Philbrick; “The Mayflower…” by Rebecca Fraser; “The Mayflower and Her Passengers,” by Caleb H. Johnson; and “William Bradford, Plymouth’s Faithful Pilgrim,” by Gary D. Schmidt.