Happy fall everyone! You might have noticed a sudden, slight chill in the air at night or the changing of the leaves on the trees. Maybe where you live, the leaves are changing from bright green to blazing red, orange, and yellow. In America, the stores around your town may be stocking up on spooky Halloween costumes, smiling pumpkins, and plump turkeys. Fall is in the air and people are getting excited to celebrate holidays with family and friends.
But do you know what else happened during this Fall season many years ago? The sailing of the Mayflower – the historic ship that brought the pilgrims from England to America! The year was 1620 and some people in Europe were finding it difficult to celebrate the religion of their choice. A group of religious people, called pilgrims, decided they wanted to sail to a new land to have the freedom to practice their own religion. So, they hired two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, to sail them from Southampton, England, to the new land of America. They hoped to land in Virginia where a small settlement – or town – was being built.
To get there, they would need ships, supplies, and a crew of sailors. The pilgrims spent months making arrangements: they bought farm animals, food, seeds, tools, weapons, and drinks to take with them across the sea. They hired a captain and a crew of almost 30 men – sailors and cooks, plus a surgeon, carpenter, gunner, barrel maker, and men to handle the cargo and repair the ship. 102 pilgrims, including 18 women – 3 of whom were pregnant – and 11 girls, agreed to sail with the men. Excitement was high. Everyone was anxious to set sail but sad to say goodbye to loved ones who would be staying behind.
The Mayflower and Speedwell Disembark
Finally, the big day arrived. On August 5, 1620, the Mayflower and the Speedwell left Southampton, England, sailing out of the harbor towards the open sea. The ships were packed to bursting with hardly an inch of space between all the passengers, crew, animals, and supplies. In various places on the ship, people couldn’t stand upright due to the low ceilings. People had to sleep in shifts; there was not enough room for everyone to sleep at once. But still, spirits were high and excitement filled the air.
The days slipped by as everyone settled into routines aboard the ship: eating, sleeping, playing cards, chatting, and tending to children. Suddenly, 7 days into the voyage, the Speedwell started to leak. There was no way they could sail across the ocean with this leak- they would surely sink. There was no choice – they had to sail back towards land and make repairs. The Speedwell and the Mayflower docked in Dartmouth, England, and repairs were made for two weeks. Finally, on August 21, 1620, the two ships set sail again. By this time, everyone was truly anxious to sail. Once more they sailed out of the harbor for the open sea. They were 300 miles out to sea when the Speedwell once again started to leak. Spirits were crushed. They had wasted so much time and effort trying to make this voyage. They turned back to land yet again, docking in Plymouth, England. A decision was made to leave the Speedwell behind. Supplies were transferred from the Speedwell to the Mayflower, and some passengers decided to leave the ships, disheartened by the delays and bad luck.
The Mayflower Disembarks Again
Finally, on September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set sail for the third and final time. The ship was even more packed now, carrying additional supplies and the remaining Speedwell passengers. 102 people were crowded into a space the size of 58’ x 24’. If you want to know how big – or small – this is, ask your parents to show you with a tape measure or march it out while counting. It is incredibly small-maybe even smaller than your living room! All the pilgrims were now tired and anxious. They had been living on board for a month and a half in very tight quarters and had yet to cross the ocean.
The Mayflower sailed out into the September seas and, at first, the voyage was smooth and uneventful. Some people enjoyed sailing – the rock of the ship, the creak of the wooden beams, and the jangle of the metal rigging. Others, however, became seasick from the constant rolling. They felt truly miserable and couldn’t wait for the journey to be over! Can you imagine being seasick, plus smelling the odor of penned animals, fish, and unwashed clothes for days on end? Not very pleasant!
Trouble on the High Seas
About halfway through the trip, the weather worsened and huge storms raged across the ocean, turning the once-calm sea into a swirling, crashing mass of waves and spray. Animals squawked and people moaned. The ship rolled from side to side. Suddenly, they heard a crack and the main beam started to break in the howling wind. They needed to repair the beam in order to sail, otherwise, they would be like a toy boat in the water, bobbing along with no way to steer toward Virginia. By sheer luck, one of the passengers had a large metal jackscrew, which the carpenter used to repair the beam. During these storms one woman even gave birth!
By now, everyone just wanted the trip to be over – the seasickness, rough seas, and cramped conditions were becoming unbearable. Finally, on November 9, after 66 days of sailing, they sighted land. They had reached Cape Cod, Massachusetts, north of Virginia. How happy they were, yelling and pointing and hugging each other. They decided to sail further south to Virginia. Suddenly, the weather worsened and they nearly shipwrecked in the rough seas, so they turned back to Cape Cod, landing in Provincetown Harbor, Massachusetts.
The mood was joyous, yet a little anxious. What would they find on land? Would they find food? Or warring tribes? Or dangerous animals? A group of men went ashore in small boats, scouting the area for the best spot to build a settlement. The weather was getting colder each day. The leaves were off the trees and crunched underfoot as the men tromped through the forests. They could see their breaths in the cool morning air. Soon the snow would come. The woman and children stayed on board the Mayflower making meals, washing clothes, and tending to the animals. The men decided that the best place to live would be farther north along the coast, to a place now called Plymouth, Massachusetts. They sailed the Mayflower to the new shoreline and started building small wooden homes on December 25 – Christmas Day!
The First Settlement
For the next four months, the men worked tirelessly to build homes and storage sheds. Temperatures were freezing and snow covered the land. Their supplies were running low, there were no berries or plants to harvest, and finding animals to hunt was unpredictable. The weather was much colder than they were used to in England. People started to get sick. The cramped, dirty conditions on the ship were not healthy. While the men were able to get outside in the fresh air doing construction, hunting, and sipping fresh water, the woman and children were inside the crowded ship tending to the sick, thus catching sickness themselves, including scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. In total, half of the Mayflower passengers did not survive their first winter in America. Only 5 women remained of the original 18. They tended to the remaining 50 men and children.
In the spring and summer of 1621, the pilgrims worked non-stop building shelters, hunting, and foraging for food. They planted crops, raised animals, and repaired tools. Also, during this time, they were greeted by Chief Massasoit and his Wampanoag warriors. The pilgrims talked with the tribe and everyone exchanged gifts of clothing, food, and weapons in acts of friendship. The Indians agreed they would not attack the pilgrims and would protect them against other warring tribes. The pilgrims agreed they would do the same. The Wampanoag also told the pilgrims how to plant, hunt, and survive in this new land.
The First Thanksgiving
Sometime in the Fall of 1621, maybe early October, the pilgrims held a celebration of thanks. They relaxed by hunting, eating, and celebrating. Chief Massasoit and 90 of his Wampanoag warriors joined the pilgrims, bringing 5 deer to the celebration. For three days, the pilgrims and Native Americans feasted on wild turkey, deer, and fish, as well as other seafood, berries, and nuts.
This was a wonderful feast; however, the pilgrims did not celebrate like this every year. They were too busy growing crops, building homes, and raising families during those rough early years in a wild new land. The holiday of Thanksgiving was actually started by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to honor the pilgrims and their historic voyages.
Before the pilgrims left the Mayflower on March 31, 1621, they drafted and signed a document called The Mayflower Compact. It was a set of rules and principles to govern the pilgrims in this new, wild land and to set responsibilities for each person. The Mayflower Compact and its principles later helped shape the United States Declaration of Independence.
What do you think of the Mayflower voyage and its brave pilgrims? Would you sail on a small, crowded boat across the sea, leaving behind family and friends? If you could sail anywhere in the world, where would you go? Do you think you could survive in the wilderness of new land in the middle of winter? What would you do to survive?
I think this history shows us that the pilgrims were incredibly brave people who made a difficult decision to sail into the unknown, suffering much hardship along the way. But they had faith, helped one another, and worked tirelessly to build a new community. Today, Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the pilgrims settled, is one of the prettiest coastlines in America and is steeped in Wampanoag and pilgrim history. The pilgrim’s voyage has never been forgotten. But we must also remember to honor Chief Massasoit and his Wampanoag tribe for helping the pilgrims, who likely would not have survived that first winter without their assistance. We owe them an incredible debt of gratitude.
Be sure to also check out our episode about the First Thanksgiving!