The Mayflower, 1620, Plymouth, Mass.

Trailing the Mayflower - The Iconic Ship of a Pilgrim Voyage to the New World


One of the most famous voyages of people who traveled from England to Virginia was on the Mayflower. This ship became the symbol of the search for a new life and pilgrimage to the New World in the 17th century.

The origins of the Mayflower are uncertain, however it is known that the ship was bought around 1607 by Christopher Jones and his business partners. The first well-documented voyage of the ship happened in 1609. The destination was Trondheim in Norway. It was hired by Andrew Pawling to take cargo from London to Norway. The crew was also instructed to buy tar, fish, and lumber and bring it back to England. Unfortunately, during the storm the crew lost most of the goods. After this situation, the Mayflower traveled for the same purposes to France, Spain, and Germany.

The Mayflower was a classical merchant ship built in the 17th century. It was square-rigged, beak-bowed, and could travel with 180 tons of cargo. It measured about 100 feet (30.5 m) in length and 25 feet (7.5 m) at its widest point. The Mayflower wasn't created to sail on the ocean and it didn't sail well against the wind. But when Jones and his crew returned from Bordeaux, France, in May 1620, they were hired for a special voyage…

A Voyage into the Unknown

The Mayflower started its legendary voyage from Plymouth to the New World in September 1620. Apart from a crew of around 30 people, there were 102 passengers on the ship. The pilgrims paid Jones to take them to northern Virginia. At the time, Jones was a 50-year-old man from Essex, England. He was a sea veteran who valued money and freedom. He appreciated his lifestyle as a sailor, and did not treat the travel to Virginia as anything more than another job.

Model of a typical merchantman of the period, showing the cramped conditions that had to be endured.

Model of a typical merchantman of the period, showing the cramped conditions that had to be endured. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The men, women, children, and animals on the Mayflower faced the same difficulties as others who made the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean during the times of the colonization of North America. Jones had never been in the New World before, but some of his co-workers, like Robert Coppin or John Clarke (the master mates), were there before. The passengers were not ready for the cold and other weather conditions and they suffered from tuberculosis, pneumonia, and scurvy. Only 53 of them survived the journey.

The Mayflower arrived in the New World a few weeks after it left England. The crew reported on November 9, 1620, that they sighted land in the area which is currently known as Cape Cod. The ship went back to England in April 1621. It left a group of people behind who created a few iconic symbols for the future United States of America.

The Mayflower arrived in the "Cape Cod fishhook", 11 November 1620 (satellite photo, 1997)

The Mayflower arrived in the "Cape Cod fishhook", 11 November 1620 (satellite photo, 1997) ( Public Domain )

A New Home in Virginia

The pilgrims created Plymouth Colony, supported with the agreement signed in 1620. It was the main legal instrument to confirm the arrival and creation of new settlements in New England.  The text of the Mayflower Compact was published on November 11, 1620, but it received its name in 1793. The document, written by the new inhabitants of New Virginia, became the basis for the future Declaration of Independence and constitution of the USA. The document stated:

''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.''

Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1899.

Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1899. ( Public Domain )

The people who arrived in northern Virginia also built a Church of England, which was the only legal church in England during the 17th century. In 1621, the colonists of Plymouth celebrated the holiday Thanksgiving, which was a harvest feast after a good growing season.

The Heritage of a Legendary Pilgrimage

Jones died in 1622 due to a mysterious disease which he had contracted in the New World. When death found him he was in France with his ship. The Mayflower awaited a new fate for the next two years. However, it was considered an old ship and not useful, so it was destroyed or rebuilt into a new ship.

Nevertheless, the legend of the Mayflower was already very strong, so the English built a new ship with the same name. It brought 35 passengers from London to the colony in Plymouth in 1629 and it transported passengers between the two continents until about 1642. Pilgrim journeys to America started in 1608, but the Mayflower's passengers made the biggest impact on the new society, and opened a new chapter in history.

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall (1882).

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall (1882). ( Public Domain )

In 2020, the United States of America, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower's famous voyage. The countries have planned a program called ''Mayflower 400'', which will offer a series of events available in specific places in the world and online.

The goal of the project is to share heritage, education, culture, art, science, etc., between nations and continents. The main part of the celebration is connected with reuniting Mayflower pilgrim descendants. The Mayflower Reunion is a result of the work of the members of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, who researched and were able to identify people who are related to 23 families that arrived on board the Mayflower.

Featured image: The Mayflower, 1620, Plymouth, Mass. Source: Public Domain

By Natalia Klimczak


This article has a number of problems that maybe they don’t teach in grade school anymore:
1. There were only two deaths on the journey– a crewman (who had been at odds with the Pilgrims and was “struck down by God”) and William Bradford’s wife, who “fell” off the boat at anchorage where Provincetown is now, so she actually survived the journey. The deaths came about because of the harsh winter and lack of supplies; as Caroline noted above, the Mayflower could not carry all their needs – the Speedwell was supposed to bring more. The French seizure/blockade of English ships during the siege of LaRochelle also put strains on the supply of the colony (see Comment 5).
2. The Pilgrims did not start a “Church of England”. They were Separatists and wanted to worship separately from the Church of England.
3. My understanding is that Christopher Jones died in the New World, either in 1621 or on a later voyage, not in France.
4. About 20 years ago, maybe more, there were news articles (e.g., Newsweek) that someone had supposedly discovered the remains of the Mayflower incorporated into a barn in Kent or elsewhere in southern England.
5. An additional reference that might be useful is “Making Haste from Babylon” (sorry, don’t recall author except that he was English) which came out about the same time as Philbrick’s book, which I have not read yet.

I find it hard to believe the Mayflower was only 25feet wide. I had a garage that was on a piece of fenced property that was 35feet wide and 100feet deep and your telling me the Mayflower was ten feet narrower and held all those people, food and belongings? I don't think so!

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