The Mayflower was the ship that transported mostly English Puritans and Separatists, collectively known today as the Pilgrims, from Plymouth England to the New World. There were 102 passengers and the crew is estimated to be approximately 30 but the exact number is unknown.
The voyage has become an iconic story in some of the earliest annals of American history, with its story of death and of survival in the harsh New World winter environment.
The culmination of the voyage in the signing of the Mayflower Compact is an event which established a rudimentary form of democracy, with each member contributing to the welfare of the community.
This was a ship that traditionally was heavily armed while on trading routes around Europe due to the possibility of encountering pirates and privateers of all types. And with its armament, the ship and crew could easily be conscripted by the English monarch at any time in case of conflict with other nations.
The Mayflower embarked about 65 passengers in London at its homeport in the Rotherhithe district on the Thames about the middle of July in 1620. She then proceeded down the Thames into the English Channel and then on to the south coast to anchor at Southampton Water.
There the Mayflower waited for seven days for a rendezvous on July 22 with the Speedwell, coming with Leiden church members from Delfshaven, Holland.
About Aug. 5, the two ships set sail. The unseaworthy Speedwell sprang a leak shortly after and the ships put into Dartmouth for repairs. After the repairs, a new start was made. They were more than 200 miles beyond Land’s End at the southwestern tip of England when Speedwell sprang another leak.
Since it was now early September, they had no choice but to abandon the Speedwell and make a determination on her passengers. This was a dire event, as the ship had wasted vital funds and was considered very important to the future success of their settlement in America.
In addition to the 102 passengers, the officers and crew consisted of about 25-30 persons, bringing the total persons on board the Mayflower to approximately 130.
In early September, western gales begin to make the North Atlantic a dangerous place for sailing. The Mayflower’s provisions, already quite low when departing Southampton, became much less by delays of more than of a month.
The passengers, having been aboard ship for all this time, were quite worn out by then and in no condition for a very taxing lengthy Atlantic journey cooped up in cramped spaces in a small ship. But on September 6, 1620, the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth with what Bradford called “a prosperous wind.”
Aboard the Mayflower were many stores that supplied the pilgrims with the essentials needed for their journey and future lives. It is assumed that among these stores, they would have carried tools and weapons, including cannon, shot, and gunpowder; as well as some live animals, including dogs, sheep, goats, and poultry. Horses and cattle would come later.
The Mayflower would also carry two boats: a long boat and a “shallop”, a twenty-one foot boat powered by oars or sails. She also carried twelve artillery pieces, as the Pilgrims feared they might need to defend themselves against enemy European forces, as well as the Natives.
The passage was a miserable one, with huge waves constantly crashing against the ship’s topside deck until a key structural support timber fractured. The passengers, who had already suffered agonizing delays, shortages of food and of other supplies, now were called upon to provide assistance to the ship’s carpenter in repairing the fractured main support beam.
This was repaired with the use of a metal mechanical device called a jackscrew, which had been loaded on board to help in the construction of settler homes and now was used to secure the beam to keep it from cracking further, making the ship seaworthy enough.
There were two deaths, but this was only a precursor of what happened after their arrival in Cape Cod, where almost half the company would die in the first winter.
On Nov. 19, 1620, they sighted land, which is present-day Cape Cod. After several days of trying to sail south to their planned destination of the Colony of Virginia where they had already obtained permission from the Company of Merchant Adventurers to settle, strong winter seas forced them to return to the harbor at Cape Cod hook, well north of the intended area where they anchored on Nov. 11.
To establish legal order and to quell increasing strife within the ranks, the settlers wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact after the ship dropped anchor at the tip of Cape Cod on Nov. 21, in what is now Provincetown Harbor.
On Monday, Nov. 27, an exploring expedition was launched under the direction of Captain Christopher Jones to search for a suitable settlement site. As master of the Mayflower, Jones was not required to assist in the search, but he apparently thought it in his best interest to assist the search expedition.
There were 34 persons in the open shallop, 24 passengers and 10 sailors. They were obviously not prepared for the bitter winter weather they encountered on their reconnoiter, the Mayflower passengers not being accustomed to winter weather much colder than back home.
Due to the bad weather encountered on the expedition, they were forced to spend the night ashore ill-clad in below-freezing temperatures with wet shoes and stockings that became frozen. Bradford wrote “(s)ome of our people that are dead took the original of their death here.”
During the winter, the passengers remained on board the Mayflower, suffering an outbreak of a contagious disease described as a mixture of scurvy, pneumonia and tuberculosis. When it ended, there were only 53 passengers, just over half, still alive.
Likewise, half of the crew died as well. In the spring, they built huts ashore and in March 1621, the surviving passengers disembarked from the Mayflower.
Some families traveled together, while some men came alone, leaving families in England and Leiden. Two wives on board were pregnant, Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth to a son, Oceanus ,while at sea and Susanna White gave birth to a son, Peregrine, in late November while the ship was anchored in Cape Cod Harbor.
Peregrine is historically recognized as the first European child born in the New England area. One child died during the voyage and there was one stillbirth during the construction of the colony.
Many of the passengers were Separatists, fleeing persistent religious persecution, but some were hired hands, servants, or farmers recruited by London merchants, all originally destined for the Colony of Virginia. Four of this latter group of passengers were small children given into the care of Mayflower pilgrims as indentured servants.