What Was Life Like Aboard the Mayflower?

What Was Life Like Aboard the Mayflower?

Sailing for more than two months across 3,000 miles of open ocean, the 102 passengers of the Mayflower—including three pregnant women and more than a dozen children—were squeezed below decks in crowded, cold and damp conditions, suffering crippling bouts of seasickness, and surviving on meager rations of hardtack biscuits, dried meat and beer.

“The boat would have been rolling like a pig,” says Conrad Humphreys, a professional sailor and skipper for a recreated sea journey of Captain William Bligh. “The smell and stench of illness and sickness down below, and the freezing cold on deck in the elements, it would have been pretty miserable.”

The Mayflower, like other 17th-century merchant ships, was a cargo vessel designed to haul lumber, fish and casks of French wine—not passengers. The 41 Pilgrims and 61 “strangers” (non-Separatists brought along as skilled craftsmen and indentured servants) who boarded the Mayflower in 1620 made for unusual cargo, and their destination was no less foreign. The ship’s square rigging and high, castle-like compartments were suited for short hops along the European coastline, but the Mayflower’s bulky design was a handicap for sailing against the strong Westerly winds of the North Atlantic.

“The journey would have been painfully slow with many days of being blown backward rather than forward,” says Humphreys.

READ MORE: Why Did the Pilgrims Come to America?

Incredibly, though, all but one of the Mayflower’s passengers survived the grueling, 66-day ordeal, and the Pilgrims even welcomed the arrival of a newborn baby halfway through the journey, a boy aptly named Oceanus. The Pilgrims’ joy and relief on catching sight of Cape Cod on the morning of November 9, 1620 was recorded by their leader William Bradford in Of Plymouth Plantation.

“Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof," wrote Bradford.

READ MORE: What's the Difference Between Pilgrims and Puritans?

From Two Ships to One

The Pilgrim’s arduous journey to the New World technically began on July 22, 1620, when a large group of colonists boarded a ship called the Speedwell in the Dutch port city of Delfshaven. From there, they sailed to Southampton, UK, where they met the rest of the passengers as well as a second ship, the Mayflower. The two ships disembarked from Southampton on August 6 with hopes of speedy crossing to northern Virginia.

But just hours into the journey, the Speedwell began to leak badly, and the two ships were forced to pull in at Dartmouth. The Speedwell was finally ready to sail again on August 24, but this time only made it 300 miles before springing another leak. The frustrated and exhausted Pilgrims docked at Plymouth and made the difficult decision to ditch the Speedwell. Some of the Pilgrims also called it quits in Plymouth, but the rest of the passengers and cargo from the Speedwell were transferred to the already overcrowded Mayflower.

The traditional account of the Mayflower journey begins on September 6, 1620, the day it sailed from Plymouth, but it’s worth noting that by that point the Pilgrims had already been living aboard ships for nearly a month and a half.

READ MORE: Colonists at the First Thanksgiving Were Mostly Men Because the Women Had Perished

Life on the Gun Deck

The Mayflower was about 100 feet long from stem to stern and just 24 feet wide. In addition to its 102 passengers, the Mayflower carried a crew of 37 men—sailors, cooks, carpenters, surgeons and officers. The crew was housed in small cabins above the main deck, while the Pilgrims were consigned to the “gun deck” or “between decks,” a suffocating, windowless space between the main deck and the cargo hold below.

“These lower decks were very cramped, cold and wet, with low ceilings no more than five feet tall,” says Humphreys. “And all around you, people are getting seasick. It’s really not a very nice place to be.”

The passengers shared the gun deck with a 30-foot sailboat called a “shallop” that was stored below decks until their arrival in the New World. Between the masts, storage rooms and the shallop, the total available living space for 102 people measured only 58 feet by 24 feet. The passengers practically slept on top of each other, with families erecting small wooden dividers and hanging curtains for a semblance of privacy.

“The crew would occasionally let some of the passengers up on deck to get some fresh air, but on the whole, the Pilgrims were treated like cargo,” says Humphreys. “The crew were worried about people being swept overboard. The journey was difficult enough for seasoned sailors, nevermind novices like the Pilgrims.”

READ MORE: How the Mayflower Compact Laid the Foundation for American Democracy

Biscuits and Beer

Mealtime on the Mayflower brought little to celebrate. The cooks would have run out of fresh food just days into the journey and instead relied on salted pork, dried fish and other preserved meats. Since regular bread would spoil too quickly, they served hardtack biscuits, jaw-breaking bricks made from flour, water and salt.

“The beverage of choice for many of these old voyages was beer,” says Humphreys, explaining that casks of fresh water tended to go “off” during long storage. “Even young children were given beer to drink.”

Subsisting on small rations of salted meats and beer, the Pilgrims would have been malnourished, dehydrated, weak and susceptible to scurvy. When Humphreys recreated Bligh’s 60-day crossing of the South Pacific, he and his crew ate only 18th-century rations—about 400 calories per person per day—and each man lost 25 percent of their body weight.

Stormy Weather and the 'Great Iron Screw'

Bradford’s short description in Of Plymouth Plantation of life aboard the Mayflower is the only surviving account of the crossing, but it includes enough harrowing details to understand how close the journey came to disaster.

After a month of relatively calm seas and smooth sailing, the Mayflower encountered the first of an unrelenting series of North Atlantic storms that buffeted and battered the ship for weeks. The crew was forced on several occasions to lower the sails and let the Mayflower bob helplessly in the towering waves.

“They were encountered many times with cross winds and met with many fierce storms with which the ship was shroudly shaken, and her upper works made very leaky,” wrote Bradford, “and one of the beams in the midships was bowed and cracked, which put them in some fear that the ship could not be able to perform the voyage.”

Whether Bradford was talking about a cracked mast or another type of wooden beam is unclear, but the damage was serious enough for the Pilgrims to call a meeting with the captain to discuss turning back. But then something remarkable happened.

“…There was a great iron screw the passengers brought out of Holland, which would raise the beam into his place,” wrote Bradford, describing an object that was either the screw of a printing press or a large jack to raise the roof of a house. Either way, it worked, and the Pilgrims “committed themselves to the will of God and resolved to proceed.”

An Unexpected Swim

During one of those brutal storms, when the Mayflower was forced to draw its sails and “hull for divers days,” one of the passengers apparently became desperate for a breath of fresh air. Bradford wrote that a “lusty young man” named John Howland wandered onto the main deck and “with a seele [or pitch] of the ship [was] thrown into the sea.”

By some miracle, Howland was able to grab hold of the halyards hanging overboard and hold on for dear life, “though he was sundry fathoms under water,” wrote Bradford. Working quickly, the crew pulled Howland close enough to the ship to snag him with a hook and haul the foolhardy young man back onto the deck. Bradford proudly reported that after a short sickness, Howland not only recovered, but “lived many years after, and became a profitable member both in church and commonwealth.”

The Death of William Butten, the First of Many

Bradford makes only passing mention of the one death on the Mayflower. A young boy named William Butten, an indentured servant to one of the Pilgrims, fell ill during the journey and died just a few days shy of reaching the New World.

Given the dangers of the journey and the rough conditions aboard the Mayflower, it was a miracle that only one person out of 102 perished on the 66-day voyage. Sadly, the Pilgrims’ fortunes changed for the worse once they landed at Cape Cod in early November. The passengers and crew continued to live on the Mayflower for months as permanent dwellings were constructed on the shore.

With each passing week, more and more Pilgrims and their “stranger” companions succumbed to bitter cold and disease. By spring 1621, roughly half of the Mayflower’s original passengers had died in their new home. Among them was little Oceanus. In one piece of good news, another baby named Peregrine, the first Pilgrim baby born in the Plymouth Colony, not only survived the brutal winter, but lived on for more than 80 years.


Life for the Pilgrims Before the Mayflower

In 17th Century England it was a crime to be Separatists. Soon-to-be Pilgrims could lose life, house, or suffer imprisonment before the Mayflower.

Pilgrim History basically begins with the persecution of the Separatists by King James I. Life for the Pilgrims meant threats of losing livelihood, home, or imprisonment while staying in England. In 1607, one group of Separatists located in Scrooby, England led by William Brewster set sail for Amsterdam, Holland to escape religious persecution.

Pilgrim History in England Meant Hardship and Departure

King Henry VIII established the Church of England and made it mandatory for every subject to belong to the Church some 90 years before the Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower for the New World. In that interim period, the Puritan Movement thought the Church of England to be too similar to the Catholic Church and wanted further separation. Some of the Puritans separated even further and were known as the Separatists, or Saints, the future Pilgrims.

One Separatist Church was located in Scrooby, England at the House of William Brewster. Forty of them met there. However, when King James I made life too unbearable for the Separatists, they left for Amsterdam, Holland in 1607, having tried to leave several times before. They sold their homes and walked fifty miles to meet the ship.

Life for the Pilgrims Better in Holland

Living in Amsterdam was not ideal because the Separatists could not speak Dutch and had no trades. However, once a hundred or so finally met there, they moved to the city of Leiden. In Leiden, they could learn trades such as, carpentry, weaving, baking, tailoring, and others, learn Dutch and practice their Faith freely. In 1611, William Bradford inherited his father’s land in England, which he sold. With the money, Bradford bought “Green Close”, a large house that was used for services.

The children were assimilating very well, which concerned the adults because Dutch citizenship was not their goal. Besides, the Dutch had an uneasy truce with the Spanish and war looked inevitable. This also distressed the Separatist hierarchy because some of the young men were already serving in the Dutch army and if war broke out and the Spanish won, it would be likely that their Roman Catholicism would not allow Separatist Puritanism. They had to leave. But where could they go?

The Pilgrims Choose to Start a Life in the New World

Of course, the Separatists could not return to England. And, South America was out of the question because of the climate being too different and the Spanish influence present. So, King James I was petitioned by them to settle in North America. There was already a colony established in Jamestown, Virginia anyway and surely King James would gladly see them go. Besides, King James could benefit from all the goods that the Separatists would send back to England, such as, lumber, furs, foodstuffs, tobacco, among others.

So, the Separatists were also loaned money through “The Merchant Adventurers” , a group of London businessmen looking to make a profit off of New World trade. They would supply the merchant ship the Mayflower for the voyage west. Also, fifty Separatists bought the ship the Speedwell with money procured from the sale of their houses. They set off from Holland to England on July 22, 1620. The Separatists at this time were first referred to as the Pilgrims.

The Merchant Adventurers insisted that the Separatists bring sixty seven “Strangers” with them if they wanted to use the Mayflower. These were skilled tradespeople who could be useful in the New World. The Speedwell and the Mayflower set sail, but the Speedwell leaked and had to return. So, on September 6, 1620, the Mayflower alone with one hundred two people aboard set off to the New World.


What Was Life Like Aboard the Mayflower? - HISTORY

T his year, during this time of thanksgiving, I’d like to reflect on what it would have been like to be a Puritan in 1620. That was the year that English separatists were finally able to leave England to establish a new colony in Virginia. And while planting a new colony and avoiding the religious persecution brought down by King James are some of the reasons commonly taught in textbooks for the Puritan’s departure, the opening words of the Mayflower Compact reveal even more about their purpose:

“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…”

A study of their purpose reveals that the Puritans wished to glorify God and advance His kingdom above all else. And so, on September 6, 1620, 102 people (half of them were part of the Puritan group, the other half were not) boarded a boat about 110 feet long and 25 feet wide – the Mayflower – and set sail for Virginia. Very little is known about the voyage itself. William Bradford, the leader of the separatists kept a small account of the journey. It is interesting to read one of his written passages, about the fate of a crew member who treated the Puritans poorly:

Only one other death occurred during the journey – a young Puritan servant named William Butten, who died just three days before the ship landed. Finally, 66 days after leaving England, on November 11, 1620, the Mayflower dropped anchor off the tip of Cape Cod – 600 miles north of where they were supposed to land. Because of bad weather, the ship was not able to get down to Virginia – their desired landing point – and so the passengers and crew spent their first winter aboard the ship.

Cold and disease took its toll. By the spring, only 53 of the 102 original passengers survived (two had been born during the journey, so exactly half of those who had left England remained). I often wonder what kind of courage it took for them to stay the course and not leave their new home, in the face of danger and death. The passengers left the ship itself in April of 1621, and the Mayflower returned to England shortly thereafter. None of the passengers returned with it.

Would I be able to maintain the same faith and strength of purpose as these men, women and children? In the face of possible loss of family members – sorrow upon sorrow – would I hold fast to the purpose of furthering God’s kingdom and glorifying His Name?

I close with the words of John Robinson, a pastor to the Separatists who stayed behind in England, but who left them with the words from this passage in Ezra 8:21:


Today, and Mayflower 400

Paula Peters holding a Wampum Belt

About 4,000-5,000 Wampanoag live in New England today, and only six visible tribal communities remain from the original 69 in the Wampanoag Nation.

Recently, relations in the Caribbean islands have been found. These people are descendants of Native Wampanoag People who were sent into slavery after King Phillip’s war.

The Wampanoag still continue their way of life through oral traditions, ceremonies, the Wampanoag language, song and dance, social gatherings, hunting and fishing.

Their community is vibrant, and their culture honours their ancestors. In 2020, their very existence is marked by the words “we are still here”. The significance of this phrase comes from the sometimes-casual assumption by the wider world that the Wampanoag no longer exist, that they were wiped out. The opposite is true – the descendants of the proud People who watched European ships arrive on their shores from the east are still here today, living on the land their ancestors celebrated.

They are central to the Mayflower 400 anniversary, a true four-nation commemoration between the Wampanoag Nation, the USA, the UK and the Netherlands.

The words “we are still here” echo through this anniversary, as does centuries of Wampanoag history and the voices of those determined to keep the stories of their ancestors alive through a series of commemorative projects, exhibitions and events.

The creation of a new Wampum Belt is a cornerstone of this anniversary. This hugely symbolic belt will tour England for the anniversary and help tell the Wampanoag story on English land, alongside other projects such as This Land – a community-led international theatre production featuring English citizens and members of the Wampanoag tribe.

Mayflower 400 commemorates the shared history of our nations, a unique anniversary that represents an historic understanding.

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Voyage of the Mayflower

The Mayflower was hired in London, and sailed from London to Southampton in July 1620 to begin loading food and supplies for the voyage--much of which was purchased at Southampton. The Pilgrims were mostly still living in the city of Leiden, in the Netherlands. They hired a ship called the Speedwell to take them from Delfshaven, the Netherlands, to Southampton, England, to meet up with the Mayflower. The two ships planned to sail together to Northern Virginia. The Speedwell departed Delfthaven on July 22, and arrived at Southampton, where they found the Mayflower waiting for them. The Speedwell had been leaking on her voyage from the Netherlands to England, though, so they spent the next week patching her up.

On August 5, the two ships finally set sail for America. But the Speedwell began leaking again, so they pulled into the town of Dartmouth for repairs, arriving there about August 12. The Speedwell was patched up again, and the two ships again set sail for America about August 21. After the two ships had sailed about 300 miles out to sea, the Speedwell again began to leak. Frustrated with the enormous amount of time lost, and their inability to fix the Speedwell so that it could be sea-worthy, they returned to Plymouth, England, and made the decision to leave the Speedwell behind. The Mayflower would go to America alone. The cargo on the Speedwell was transferred over to the Mayflower some of the passengers were so tired and disappointed with all the problems that they quit and went home. Others crammed themselves onto the already very crowded Mayflower.

Finally, on September 6, the Mayflower departed from Plymouth, England, and headed for America. By the time the Pilgrims had left England, they had already been living onboard the ships for nearly a month and a half. The voyage itself across the Atlantic Ocean took 66 days, from their departure on September 6, until Cape Cod was sighted on 9 November 1620. The first half of the voyage went fairly smoothly, the only major problem was sea-sickness. But by October, they began encountering a number of Atlantic storms that made the voyage treacherous. Several times, the wind was so strong they had to just drift where the weather took them, it was not safe to use the ship's sails. The Pilgrims intended to land in Northern Virginia, which at the time included the region as far north as the Hudson River in the modern State of New York. The Hudson River, in fact, was their originally intended destination. They had received good reports on this region while in the Netherlands. All things considered, the Mayflower was almost right on target, missing the Hudson River by just a few degrees.

As the Mayflower approached land, the crew spotted Cape Cod just as the sun rose on November 9. The Pilgrims decided to head south, to the mouth of the Hudson River in New York, where they intended to make their plantation. However, as the Mayflower headed south, it encountered some very rough seas, and nearly shipwrecked. The Pilgrims then decided, rather than risk another attempt to go south, they would just stay and explore Cape Cod. They turned back north, rounded the tip, and anchored in what is now Provincetown Harbor. The Pilgrims would spend the next month and a half exploring Cape Cod, trying to decide where they would build their plantation. On December 25, 1620, they had finally decided upon Plymouth, and began construction of their first buildings.


I Wish I Lived In a Library

Wow. What terrible conditions. Kind of made me feel a little queasy just reading it. But it certainly gives the imagination something to work on. And no, I suspect I wouldn't have survived. The seasickness alone. LOL

The seasickness was a real problem, but my experience has been that you eventually get over it. First hand experience!

Fascinating post. I think a lot of times we sometimes have these romantic notions of ship travel and the high seas, and the reality was anything but romantic at times (or most of the time!). I feel for the children especially on a voyage like that, but the adults too- bugs in the food, the cramped conditions, rats, the privation. it must have been so tough. A hard way to bring a family through, especially if they didn't all survive.

Nice post, thanks for sharing this. She lived til 82 in conditions like that, no modern medicine- amazing. And I also think it's amazing when you think of the voyage, how the winds mattered- having the wind at their back, so to speak, halved the voyage. Wow.

Thanks for you interest! All of this will go into my book - I think you hit the nail on the head with the "romantic notions" - certainly dispelled by Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower. This book is an award winner, but probably didn't reach people who prefer historical fiction.


MayflowerHistory.com

The Mayflower would have been crewed by about thirty men. Of those, only a handful can be identified with historical records.

Ship's Master, Christopher Jones
The ship's master (the term "captain" was only used for military ships at this time) was Christopher Jones. He was born about 1570, the son of Christopher and Sybil Jones of Harwich, Essex, England. He lived in Harwich until about the age of 40, when he then moved to Rotherhithe, Surrey, England, a short distance from London on the river Thames. His first ship of record was called the Josian, named after his wife. He sold that ship about 1608, and purchased the Mayflower with three others. He had nine children, but most of them died in infancy. He was about fifty years old when he was hired to transport the Pilgrims to America onboard his ship.

Ship's Pilot and Master's Mate, John Clarke
John Clarke had been a ship's pilot on a voyage to Jamestown, Virginia in 1611, in the fleet that brought Sir Thomas Dale to govern the colony. He lived and worked ferrying cargo in the bay for about 40 days, until a Spanish ship came into the harbor. He was taken prisoner, tied up, and sailed first to Havana, Cuba, and later to Malaga, Spain, where he would be repeatedly interrogated by Spanish authorities. After five years imprisonment, he was released to the English in 1616. He took a load of cattle to Jamestown again in 1618, and was then hired for the Mayflower's voyage.

Master's Mate, Robert Coppin.
Not much is known about Robert Coppin, other than he claimed to have been to New England on a previous voyage and claimed to have some experience whaling. He may have come from the vicinity of Harwich, and a man of that same name invested a small sum to purchase a share in the Virginia Company of London in 1609.

Cooper (Barrel-maker), John Alden.
Twenty-one year old John Alden was hired in Southampton, England, where the Mayflower took on provisions, but he may also have originally been from Harwich, as there was an Alden family living there that was related, by marriage, to Master Christopher Jones. Alden's job was to build, repair and maintain the ship's barrels. This was a very important job, since everyone's food and drink were stored within those barrels. The Pilgrims' joint-stock company had agreed to allow him to decide whether he would stay in their Colony, or return to England. John Alden ultimately decided to stay.

Ship's Surgeon, Giles Heale.
Giles Heale was born about 1595, and had just completed his apprenticeship in London as a Barber-Surgeon on 3 August 1619 with Edward Blanie. Just prior to the Mayflower's voyage, on 2 May 1620, Giles Heale filed his marriage intention to Mary Jarrett of St. Giles in the Fields. The voyage of the Mayflower was quite probably Giles Heale's first "real" job. Given that half the crew and half the passengers would ultimately die, he may have been quite unprepared for what ultimately played out. In February, during the height of the first winter at Plymouth, Mayflower passenger Isaac Allerton gifted him a book, Annotations Upon the Psalms by Henry Ainsworth. Giles Heale regifted the book to his wife Mary on 28 February 1621/2. The book still survives and is at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. Giles Heale also witnessed the February 1620/1 will of William Mullins. He returned to London after the voyage and took up residence at St. Anne Blackfriars, where a daughter Mary was baptized on 23 April 1623, and buried four days later. They had a son William baptized 11 March 1624/5 at St. John of Wapping, London, but he is buried 21 October 1625 in neighboring St. Mary Whitechapel. They had no more children. Heale was admitted to the lecture bills of the Barber Surgeons in 1631, and was taxed at Drury Lane in 1641 and 1646. In 1644, he and his wife were involved in a Chancery lawsuit over a debt owed them by William Chamberlain of London, esquire. He was buried 8 April 1653 at St. Giles in the Field, London, producing a will four days earlier that only mentioned his wife Mary.

Master Gunner.
The master gunner was responsible for the maintenance and readiness of the ship's guns, powder, and canon. Though his name was not recorded, it is known that the Master Gunner went out on the expedition of 6 December 1620 exploring Cape Cod, where it was reported he was "sick unto death (but hope of trucking made him to go)." He died the first winter.

Ship's Carpenter.
The ship's carpenter was responsible for stopping leaks, caulking, splicing masts, and fixing anything ship-related that broke or needed mending. He was responsible for maintaining his tools and supplies, including nails, cinches, hatchets, saws, and rudder iron. When the main beam of the Mayflower cracked during the middle of the voyage, the Master Carpenter made the repairs with a giant screw that the passengers happened to have with them. He also assisted in constructing the shallop that the Pilgrims had dismantled and stored betwixt the decks.

The Boatswain.
The boatswain was responsible for the ship's rigging, rope, tackle, and sails, as well as the ship's anchors and the ship's longboat. William Bradford remembered that the Mayflower's boatswain was "a proud young man, who would often curse and scoff at the passengers, but when he grew weak they had compassion on him and helped him." Despite that help, the boatswain died the first winter.

The four Quartermasters.
The quartermasters were in charge of maintaining the cargo hold and setting and maintaining the shift and watch hours. The quartermasters were also responsible for fishing and maintaining the lines, hooks and harpoons. Though the names of the Mayflower's quartermasters are unknown, it is known that three of the four of them died the first winter at Plymouth.

The Ship's Cook.
The cook was responsible for preparing the meals for the crew, and maintaining the food supplies and the ship's cook room (typically located in the forecastle of the ship). The Mayflower's cook also died the first winter at Plymouth.


Mayflower

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Mayflower, in American colonial history, the ship that carried the Pilgrims from England to Plymouth, Massachusetts, where they established the first permanent New England colony in 1620. Although no detailed description of the original vessel exists, marine archaeologists estimate that the square-rigged sailing ship weighed about 180 tons and measured 90 feet (27 metres) long. In addition, some sources suggest that the Mayflower was constructed in Harwich, England, shortly before English merchant Christopher Jones purchased the vessel in 1608.

Where was the Mayflower built?

Sources suggest that the Mayflower was constructed in Harwich, England, shortly before English merchant Christopher Jones purchased the ship in 1608.

Where did the Mayflower set sail from for its voyage to Plymouth?

The Mayflower set sail from Southampton, England, for North America on August 15, 1620. The ship carried Pilgrims from England to Plymouth, in modern-day Massachusetts, where they established the first permanent European settlement in 1620.

How big was the Mayflower?

Although there is no detailed description of the Mayflower, marine archaeologists estimate that the square-rigged sailing ship weighed about 180 tons and measured 90 feet (27 meters) long.

Does the original Mayflower still exist?

The fate of the Mayflower remains unknown. However, some historians argue that it was scrapped for its timber, then used to construct a barn in Jordans, England. In 1957 a replica of the original ship was built in England and sailed to Massachusetts in 53 days.

Some of the Pilgrims were brought from Holland on the Speedwell, a smaller vessel that accompanied the Mayflower on its initial departure from Southampton, England, on August 15, 1620. When the Speedwell proved unseaworthy and was twice forced to return to port, the Mayflower set out alone from Plymouth, England, on September 16, after taking on some of the smaller ship’s passengers and supplies. Among the Mayflower’s most-distinguished voyagers were William Bradford and Captain Myles Standish.


Who were the original 102 passengers on board the Mayflower?

The voyage of the Mayflower to the New World was a long, gruelling and often painful one. Her passengers huddled within the leaking, cramped, storm-lashed ship, enduring seasickness and uncertainty for 10 long weeks before they landed at modern-day Massachusetts. But, while the reality of the journey may have been far from glamorous, the story of the passengers and the colony they founded has become one of the most fabled origin stories of the United States. So much so, many pride themselves on being descendants of the roughly 132 people who set sail from Plymouth, Devon.

In a time when all of us can easily start charting the histories of our families using Ancestry, it’s particularly tantalising to know that around 35 million people around the world can trace their lineage back to the Mayflower passengers. But just who were these intrepid voyagers whose lives would steer the course of the continent they risked their lives to reach?

A good proportion of the passengers were radical Puritan separatists, who – disenchanted with the Protestant Reformation and the Church of England – wanted to establish a new community where they could live without fear of persecution. One of these Puritans was William Brewster, a former postmaster from Nottinghamshire whose own home became a refuge and place of worship for fellow Puritans. Brewster, who had been educated at Cambridge and worked for a time alongside one of Elizabeth I’s diplomats, eventually led some of his followers to a new life in Holland, which was known for its more accepting religious climate.

Once there, Brewster published incendiary books that agitated against the Church of England, making him a marked man in the eyes of the English ruling elite. Somehow managing to evade being arrested and punished, Brewster would become the elder religious leader of the Mayflower Pilgrims, described by a fellow Puritan as ‘tender-hearted and compassionate’.

He travelled on the ship alongside his wife Mary Brewster and sons Love and Wrestling Brewster. His daughter Patience Brewster would join the family in the New World a few years later – one of her direct descendants was the iconic crooner and film star Bing Crosby. Another daughter, Fear, arrived with Patience, and one of her descendants was the 12th US President, Zachary Taylor. Other well-known people who can trace their lineage back to the Brewsters include Hollywood star Richard Gere and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane.

A particularly prominent Puritan on board the Mayflower was William Bradford, who hailed from Yorkshire and had been a member of Brewster’s renegade congregation in Nottinghamshire. Like Brewster, Bradford also lived in Holland for a time, before the pivotal voyage to America took place. Bradford was a key member of exploration parties who set off to explore possible locations for a settlement while others stayed behind on the anchored Mayflower. It was while he was away on one of these reconnaissance trips that his wife Dorothy fell overboard and drowned.

Bradford would go on to become a Governor of Plymouth Colony and write the most famous account of the Pilgrims’ early years (which would earn him the accolade the 'father of American history'). He would also remarry, to another Pilgrim named Alice. Through one of their sons, William and Alice are the distant ancestors of movie stars Clint Eastwood and Christopher Reeve, and of photography entrepreneur George Eastman, founder of the Kodak company. One of the most noteworthy Mayflower passengers wasn’t a Puritan at all. He was Myles Standish, a soldier – possibly from Lancashire – who was hired by the Pilgrims to be their military coordinator in the New World. This proved to be a sound investment, as Standish proved a tough and resourceful explorer, forming a close working partnership with William Bradford and keeping morale up during the first harsh winter which saw many of the Pilgrims die – including Standish’s own wife Rose.

Known for his fiery personality, Standish played a decisive role in securing the colony and both negotiating with, and battling against, indigenous tribes. Another reason his name has stayed with us over the centuries is his starring role in a 19th Century poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This highly romanticised chronicle of the Mayflower adventure focuses on a supposed love triangle involving Standish and two other passengers, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, whose descendants would be among the most important in US history.

Alden, whose place of birth in England is unclear, had been hired to be a crewman on the Mayflower. Priscilla Mullins, of Surrey, travelled on the Mayflower with her father – a prominent businessman – and other members of her family, all of whom perished soon after they settled in the New World. Although Longfellow’s poem is generally dismissed as complete fiction, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins were indeed wed – Longfellow himself was one of their descendants through their daughter Elizabeth.

Meanwhile, through another daughter named Ruth, John and Priscilla’s lineage would include John Adams, Founding Father and second US President, and John Quincy Adams, the sixth US President. The sheer number of people alive today whose genetic roots can be traced back to the Mayflower’s passengers means that interest in the ship remains as high as it’s ever been, with the Mayflower Society an active organisation committed to researching the descendants of the Pilgrims. If this has helped inspire a curiosity about your own family tree, why not use Ancestry’s resources to find out more? After all, while the Archives on Ancestry don’t stretch as far back as the Mayflower, there’s no telling what revelations lie in wait when you start piecing together the secrets of your family’s past.


Life aboard the Mayflower. Modern-day interpreters give visitors a taste of the Pilgrims' voyage

Step back in time, if you will. To a raw winter morning some 367 years ago - Feb. 21, 1620, to be precise. Imagine you are about to meet some of the brave passengers on the Mayflower. You climb the gangplank. There now, you're aboard.

Step lively! The decks are slippery, and people are working on all sides. While the men ashore cut the forests and the crew remove the cannon to land, there's water to haul and washing to hang.

On one side of the deck, a group of women apply themselves to their tasks.

You approach one of them, who's working diligently at her wash, and ask, rather diffidently, what the voyage here was like.

Pilgrim woman: It was a long journey, 66 days at sea, and only those three cooking fires the whole time. What did we eat? Cheese, of course. And dried fruits - prunes, raisins, currants. Pickled beet roots and pickled onion root. And those horrid ship's biscuits. Small beer to drink, and cider.

'Twas hard on Saints and Strangers alike, 50 menfolk and 20 women. But 'twas hardest on the 30 childres, heaven knows. Sweet little Humility Cooper, brave Resolved White, the two Brewster lads, Love and Wrestling, and tiny Samuel Eaton, just two months old when his mother brought him on board.

Since then, of course, we've grown by two - Oceanus Hopkins born at sea, and Peregrine White born while we were at anchor at the Cape of Cod. Do you remember, Goodwife Billington, when each babe arrived?

Goodwife Billington: In truth, Mistress, we were so happy to hear the wee babes and their cries. There was much moisturing of eyelids to see mothers and babes doing well. It's by God's good grace, it is, that two childres have been born to the New World.

Pilgrim woman: But then, you've got two young lads of your own, have you not, Nell Billington?

Goodwife Billington: Indeed, I do. Young John was born when the plague was leaving Londontown, and King James was coming forth to power. I'm not a lettered woman, but I've got a good memory - and a quick wit, say some! - and I can remember that well. It was in 1603. So I imagine John is about 16 years of age.

Francis is younger, and in truth nothing important happened when he was born. I can't tell you his age.

Of course, to hear the other passengers speak of them - that the Billington lads are always in a pot of trouble of their own brewing - well, I ask ye, were ye not hotheaded in your own youth? They're restless, is all, for it has been a long journey.

Pilgrim woman: Goodwife Billington speaks the truth, does she not? Of course, she's a Stranger, loyal to the Church of England.

Goodwife Billington: And why not? I don't mind the King being head of the Church, for he's got his authority from God!

Pilgrim woman: But then, what think ye, Nell, of we Saints - Separators, as ye call us?

Goodwife Billington: You don't offend me much. It is a bit of treason, I must say, to separate from the King's Church. But we must work together if we're to survive in this uncivilized land.

Pilgrim woman: Uncivilized, in truth. Still, it is good to be on land again, after nine weeks at sea. Ellen Moore, there - child, what thought you of the crossing?

Ellen Moore: I was very scared and very seasick, Mistress. The first fortnight the seas were calm, but once the voyage got going, it was so dark and stormy, and the ship pitched and rolled like a babe's cradle, it did.

Pilgrim woman: Could you do nothing to pass the time, Ellen?

Ellen Moore: In truth, I don't know how to read and write, Mistress, and it was too dark 'tween decks to play many games with the other childres. But we did a bit of cat's cradle, and sang psalms, and prayed a lot. Most of the younger ones clung to their mothers' skirts, they did. But we - oh, yes, we told riddles!

Pilgrim woman: Could you give us a riddle, Nell Billington?

Goodwife Billington: You be a bit bold, but I suppose I could. Try this, then: What is higher than a house and lesser than a mouse?

Pilgrim woman: In truth, we can't say.

Goodwife Billington: A star, of course.

Pilgrim woman: You're right, Nell. Right as rain. And good to have aboard, you and your riddles, these dark weeks past. But I wonder, was it hard for you, leaving kin behind?

Goodwife Billington: I've only got one cousin, the rest be all dead now. And being common folk and being feared of highwaymen, my cousin could not come to see us off, even if he'd known the word of our leaving.

I shall miss England very much, Mistress. But my husband says we shall better our lives here. And he should know, being the head of the house. In truth, I be the weaker vessel.

Pilgrim woman: And you, young Ellen, what brought you to this land?

Ellen Moore: I'm an orphan, Mistress, a servant girl to the Winslow family. My Master and Mistress Winslow wanted to come to the New World for religious reasons, so I had no choice but to come. I wish I was back in England, but now that I'm here, I shall live and die here.

Pilgrim woman: Have you seen any signs of Indians about, Ellen?

Ellen Moore: We did sight some at the Cape of Cod, Mistress, when they came after the menfolk with arrows, and so we did not stay there.

Pilgrim woman: And what think you, Nell, of this New World and our future?

Goodwife Billington: Sometimes upon the journey, I was so fearful that I prayed the lot harder. But when we saw the Cape of Cod, I fell upon my knees, and thanked the Lord in heaven for delivering us. If we are to survive as a colony, we must stay together. We've all got English background, have we not? I think we shall prosper if we can learn to trust each other.


Watch the video: The Story of the Mayflower and the First Thanksgiving for Children: History for Kids - FreeSchool