Pilgrims’ Progress

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

The Pilgrims celebrated a harvest festival with their Native American neighbors in 1621—what we often call the first Thanksgiving. (The Foundation Press, Inc.)
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The Pilgrim Press attracted the wrath of authorities in 1618, when an unauthorized pamphlet called the Perth Assembly surfaced in England, attacking King James I and his bishops for interfering with the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The monarch ordered his ambassador in Holland to bring Brewster to justice for his "atrocious and seditious libel," but Dutch authorities refused to arrest him. For the Separatists, it was time to move again—not only to avoid arrest. They were also worried about war brewing between Holland and Spain, which might bring them under Catholic rule if Spain prevailed. And they recoiled at permissive values in the Netherlands, which, Bradford would later recall, encouraged a "great licentiousness of youth in that country." The "manifold temptations of the place," he feared, were drawing youths of the congregation "into extravagant and dangerous courses, getting the reins off their necks and departing from their parents."

About this time, 1619, Brewster disappears briefly from the historical record. He was about 53. Some accounts suggest that he may have returned to England, of all places, there to live underground and to organize his last grand escape, on a ship called the Mayflower. There is speculation that he lived under an assumed name in the London district of Aldgate, by then a center for religious nonconformists. When the Mayflower finally set sail for the New World in 1620, Brewster was aboard, having escaped the notice of authorities.

But like their attempts to flee England in 1607 and 1608, the Leiden congregation's departure for America 12 years later was fraught with difficulties. In fact, it almost didn't happen. In July, the Pilgrims left Leiden, sailing from Holland in the Speedwell, a stubby overrigged vessel. They landed quietly in Southampton on the south coast of England. There they gathered supplies and proceeded to Plymouth before sailing for America in the 60-ton Speedwell and the 180-ton Mayflower, a converted wine-trade ship, chosen for its steadiness and cargo capacity. But after "they had not gone far," according to Bradford, the smaller Speedwell, though recently refitted for the long ocean voyage, sprang several leaks and limped into port at Dartmouth, England, accompanied by the Mayflower. More repairs were made, and both set out again toward the end of August. Three hundred miles at sea, the Speedwell began leaking again. Both ships put into Plymouth—where some 20 of the 120 would-be Colonists, discouraged by this star-crossed prologue to their adventure, returned to Leiden or decided to go to London. A handful transferred to the Mayflower, which finally hoisted sail for America with about half of its 102 passengers from the Leiden church on September 6.

On their arduous, two-month voyage, the 90-foot ship was battered by storms. One man, swept overboard, held onto a halyard until he was rescued. Another succumbed to "a grievous disease, of which he died in a desperate manner," according to William Bradford. Finally, though, on November 9, 1620, the Mayflower sighted the scrubby heights of what is known today as Cape Cod. After traveling along the coast that their maps identified as New England for two days, they dropped anchor at the site of today's Provincetown Harbor of Massachusetts. Anchored offshore there on November 11, a group of 41 passengers—only the men—signed a document they called the Mayflower Compact, which formed a colony composed of a "Civil Body Politic" with just and equal laws for the good of the community. This agreement of consent between citizens and leaders became the basis for Plymouth Colony's government. John Quincy Adams viewed the agreement as the genesis of democracy in America.

Among the passengers who would step ashore to found the colony at Plymouth were some of America's first heroes—such as the trio immortalized by Longfellow in "The Courtship of Miles Standish": John Alden, Priscilla Mullins and Standish, a 36-year-old soldier—as well as the colony's first European villain, John Billington, who was hanged for murder in New England in 1630. Two happy dogs, a mastiff bitch and a spaniel belonging to John Goodman, also bounded ashore.

It was the beginning of another uncertain chapter of the Pilgrim story. With winter upon them, they had to build homes and find sources of food, while negotiating the shifting political alliances of Native American neighbors. With them, the Pilgrims celebrated a harvest festival in 1621—what we often call the first Thanksgiving.

Perhaps the Pilgrims survived the long journey from England to Holland to America because of their doggedness and their conviction that they had been chosen by God. By the time William Brewster died in 1644, at age 77, at his 111-acre farm at the Nook, in Duxbury, the Bible-driven society he had helped create at Plymouth Colony could be tough on members of the community who misbehaved. The whip was used to discourage premarital sex and adultery. Other sexual offenses could be punished by hanging or banishment. But these early Americans brought with them many good qualities too—honesty, integrity, industry, rectitude, loyalty, generosity, flinty self-reliance and a distrust of flashiness—attributes that survive down through the generations.

Many of the Mayflower descendants would be forgotten by history, but more than a few would rise to prominence in American culture and politics—among them Ulysses S. Grant, James A. Garfield, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Orson Welles, Marilyn Monroe, Hugh Hefner and George W. Bush.

Simon Worrall, who lives in Herefordshire, England, wrote about cricket in the October issue of Smithsonian.


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