Image of the Mayflower
On September 16, 1620 (September 6 according to the Old Style calendar), 102 passengers plus crew members set sail from Plymouth, England on a dangerous 66 day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World aboard the Mayflower, a ship approximately 100 feet long and 25 feet wide. The passengers had previously left in July with a second ship called the Speedwell, but that ship had to turn around because it was unseaworthy. All the passengers had to fit in one ship rather than two, in quarters designed to store cargo, not families.
History does not remember the Speedwell, but it certainly remembers the Mayflower. Although there were times it was unclear if the Mayflower would make it to the New World during the worst of the storm season, it was determined that repairs made along the way were adequate enough to continue the journey. As William Bradford, the early governor of the Plymouth Colony stated in his book Of Plymouth Plantation, those on board “committed themselves to the the will of God and resolved to proceed.” One member of the crew died on the trip across the Atlantic while a baby boy named Oceanus was born.
The perilous journey across the Atlantic didn’t just batter the Mayflower but it also sent it off course. The passengers had contracted with the English government to settle on land near the mouth of the Hudson River in what was then considered Virginia but what is now present-day New York. However, they landed further to the north in what would become Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This created a problem. Many of the passengers believed they had no right to be there.
The core group of Mayflower passengers consisted of Separatists or those who sought religious freedom and a split from the Church of England, the only legal church in England at the time. This group had lived in Holland but felt the culture there was not beneficial for raising children. They were joined by other English families, who although religious, were not necessary motivated to undertake the voyage to split from the Church of England.
In order to bridge any disagreements between different factions and to create legitimacy for the establishment of a new colony, a solution to ending up in the wrong place had to be found. This came in the form of an agreement that would later be known as the Mayflower Compact. Its significance was not appreciated at the time but the first governing document of the New World was a social contract of self-government between equals. It wasn’t forced upon the signatories by a monarch or other unequal.
The text of the Mayflower Compact is below:
In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.
Having undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.
A rendering of the Mayflower Compact being written on November 21, 1620 (November 11 according to the Old Style calendar). It was signed by 41 adult males before they left the Mayflower for land.
Of the original 102 Mayflower passengers, only 53 survived the first winter living on the ship (half the crew also died). These 53 would eventually be known as the Pilgrims. On April 5, 1621, the Mayflower returned to England leaving the Pilgrims in the New World. It is widely believed the Mayflower was eventually sold for scrap shortly after its return to England.
Eventually, with the help of the native Wampanoags Indians, the Pilgrims established the second English colony in the New World (Jamestown, Virginia was the first). By the fall of 1621 they celebrated what is considered the first Thanksgiving. The Mayflower Compact remained in effect until the Plymouth Colony was absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.
Most importantly, self-government was established as the governing philosophy of the early colonies that later became the United States of America. It is estimated that 10% of Americans today can trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower.