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The Pilgrims celebrated a harvest festival with their Native American neighbors in 1621—what we often call the first Thanksgiving. (The Foundation Press, Inc.)

Pilgrims' Progress

We retrace the travels of the ragtag group that founded Plymouth Colony and gave us Thanksgiving

But immigrating to Amsterdam was not so easy: under a statute passed in the reign of Richard II, no one could leave England without a license, something Brewster, Bradford and many other Separatists knew they would never be granted. So they tried to slip out of the country unnoticed.

They had arranged for a ship to meet them at Scotia Creek, where its muddy brown waters spool toward the North Sea, but the captain betrayed them to the authorities, who clapped them in irons. They were taken back to Boston in small open boats. On the way, the local catchpole officers, as the police were known, "rifled and ransacked them, searching to their shirts for money, yea even the women further than became modesty," William Bradford recalled. According to Bradford, they were bundled into the town center where they were made into "a spectacle and wonder to the multitude which came flocking on all sides to behold them." By this time, they had been relieved of almost all their possessions: books, clothes and money.

After their arrest, the would-be escapees were brought before magistrates. Legend has it that they were held in the cells at Boston's Guildhall, a 14th-century building near the harbor. The cells are still here: claustrophobic, cage-like structures with heavy iron bars. American tourists, I am told, like to sit inside them and imagine their forebears imprisoned as martyrs. But historian Malcolm Dolby doubts the story. "The three cells in the Guildhall were too small—only six feet long and five feet wide. So you are not talking about anything other than one-person cells. If they were held under any sort of arrest, it must have been house arrest against a bond, or something of that nature," he explains. "There's a wonderful illustration of the constables of Boston pushing these people into the cells! But I don't think it happened."

Bradford, however, described that after "a month's imprisonment," most of the congregation were released on bail and allowed to return to their homes. Some families had nowhere to go. In anticipation of their flight to the Netherlands, they had given up their houses and sold their worldly goods and were now dependent on friends or neighbors for charity. Some rejoined village life.

If Brewster continued his rebellious ways, he faced prison, and possibly torture, as did his fellow Separatists. So in the spring of 1608, they organized a second attempt to flee the country, this time from Killingholme Creek, about 60 miles up the Lincolnshire coast from the site of the first, failed escape bid. The women and children traveled separately by boat from Scrooby down the River Trent to the upper estuary of the River Humber. Brewster and the rest of the male members of the congregation traveled overland.

They were to rendezvous at Killingholme Creek, where a Dutch ship, contracted out of Hull, would be waiting. Things went wrong again. Women and children arrived a day early. The sea had been rough, and when some of them got seasick, they took shelter in a nearby creek. As the tide went out, their boats were seized by the mud. By the time the Dutch ship arrived the next morning, the women and children were stranded high and dry, while the men, who had arrived on foot, walked anxiously up and down the shore waiting for them. The Dutch captain sent one of his boats ashore to collect some of the men, who made it safely back to the main vessel. The boat was dispatched to pick up another load of passengers when, William Bradford recalled, "a great company, both horse and foot, with bills and guns and other weapons," appeared on the shore, intent on arresting the would-be departees. In the confusion that followed, the Dutch captain weighed anchor and set sail with the first batch of Separatists. The trip from England to Amsterdam normally took a couple of days—but more bad luck was in store. The ship, caught in a hurricane-force storm, was blown almost to Norway. After 14 days, the emigrants finally landed in the Netherlands. Back at Killingholme Creek, most of the men who had been left behind had managed to escape. The women and children were arrested for questioning, but no constable wanted to throw them in prison. They had committed no crime beyond wanting to be with their husbands and fathers. Most had already given up their homes. The authorities, fearing a backlash of public opinion, quietly let the families go. Brewster and John Robinson, another leading member of the congregation, who would later become their minister, stayed behind to make sure the families were cared for until they could be reunited in Amsterdam.

Over the next few months, Brewster, Robinson and others escaped across the North Sea in small groups to avoid attracting notice. Settling in Amsterdam, they were befriended by another group of English Separatists called the Ancient Brethren. This 300-member Protestant congregation was led by Francis Johnson, a firebrand minister who had been a contemporary of Brewster's at Cambridge. He and other members of the Ancient Brethren had done time in London's torture cells.

Although Brewster and his congregation of some 100 began to worship with the Ancient Brethren, the pious newcomers were soon embroiled in theological disputes and left, Bradford said, before "flames of contention" engulfed them. After less than a year in Amsterdam, Brewster's discouraged flock picked up and moved again, this time to settle in the city of Leiden, near the magnificent church known as Pieterskerk (St. Peter's). This was during Holland's golden age, a period when painters like Rembrandt and Vermeer would celebrate the physical world in all its sensual beauty. Brewster, meanwhile, had by Bradford's account "suffered much hardship....But yet he ever bore his condition with much cheerfulness and contentation." Brewster's family settled in Stincksteeg, or Stink Alley, a narrow, back alley where slops were taken out. The congregation took whatever jobs they could find, according to William Bradford's later recollection of the period. He worked as a maker of fustian (corduroy). Brewster's 16-year-old son, Jonathan, became a ribbon maker. Others labored as brewer's assistants, tobacco-pipe makers, wool carders, watchmakers or cobblers. Brewster taught English. In Leiden, good-paying jobs were scarce, the language was difficult and the standard of living was low for the English immigrants. Housing was poor, infant mortality high.

After two years the group had pooled together money to buy a house spacious enough to accommodate their meetings and Robinson's family. Known as the Green Close, the house lay in the shadow of Pieterskerk. On a large lot behind the house, a dozen or so Separatist families occupied one-room cottages. On Sundays, the congregation gathered in a meeting room and worshiped together for two four-hour services, the men sitting on one side of the church, the women on the other. Attendance was compulsory, as were services in the Church of England.

Not far from the Pieterskerk, I find William Brewstersteeg, or William Brewster Alley, where the rebel reformer oversaw a printing company later generations would call the Pilgrim Press. Its main reason for being was to generate income, largely by printing religious treatises, but the Pilgrim Press also printed subversive pamphlets setting out Separatist beliefs. These were carried to England in the false bottoms of french wine barrels or, as the English ambassador to the Netherlands reported, "vented underhand in His Majesty's kingdoms." Assisting with the printing was Edward Winslow, described by a contemporary as a genius who went on to play a crucial role in Plymouth Colony. He was already an experienced printer in England when, at age 22, he joined Brewster to churn out inflammatory materials.

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