Letters to the Editor

Mayflower settlers endured rough conditions

On this day (Sept. 6) in 1620, Capt. Christopher Jones, with a crew of 30 and 102 passengers, set sail “with a prosperous wind” from Plymouth, England, in the Mayflower and headed west across the Atlantic Ocean to settle what would become the first permanent English settlement in New England.

A stout, double-decked vessel of some 180 tons, the Mayflower was one of the largest ships afloat, being heavier than all three of the ships combined – Susan Constant (100 tons), God Speed (40 tons), and Discovery (10 tons) – that landed at Jamestown in 1607 to settle the first permanent English colony in North America.

The departing ship was packed to the gunwales. The 102 passengers, with all of their worldly goods, originally were to sail in two vessels – Mayflower and Speedwell (60 tons) – but it soon became apparent that the Speedwell was unseaworthy and had to be abandoned.

The passengers who disembarked at Cape Cod in early November were in woeful condition after what must have been an extremely difficult and fearful crossing. Most of the travelers were constantly seasick, sanitary conditions were primitive in the extreme, and the food supply was totally insufficient and unhealthy for the travelers who spent most of the time below deck huddled together for warmth and companionship.

Many of the first New England settlers who did manage to survive the oceanic trip were not able to survive the first harsh New England winter.

Happily, we now know a great deal about the harrowing trials and tribulations of the early years of the Pilgrim Colony.

Long-time governor of the Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, has left us a journal of those early times that has become a classic. Written between 1630 and 1651, Bradford has given us an engagingly written in magnificent Elizabethan prose, highly entertaining, and historically valuable chronicle of the early years of the Plymouth Colony.

The popularity of Bradford’s history perhaps explains in part why the founding of New Plymouth is often given undue prominence in American history textbooks. In fact, the Plymouth Colony was a rural backwater settlement. The Puritan founding of nearby Massachusetts Bay in 1630 was of much more significance than that of the tiny Pilgrim settlement. In 1691, Massachusetts Bay received a new royal charter that formally incorporated the Plymouth Colony within its boundaries.

Despite its relative historical insignificance, the history of New Plymouth continues to interest and inspire. The 35 “Saints” (separatists who came to escape religious persecution) and the 67 “Strangers” (those who were hired to protect the interests of the London company, which had helped finance the enterprise) are credited with celebrating the first Thanksgiving, with establishing a semi-democratic form of government (Mayflower Compact), and with being the first group, unlike the Jamestown settlers, to travel to the new world primarily for religious reasons.

Perhaps the “Saints” were religiously motivated, but most of the “Strangers” were in fact induced to migrate for economic reasons or were coerced into making the perilous journey.

Nevertheless, there is something appealing in studying people “from the cottages and not the castles of England,” people who managed to successfully escape the religious persecution and the economic deprivation endured in England, and travel across the stormy Atlantic to establish a new world colony where there would be religious freedom and bountiful economic opportunities.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is Professor Emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of numerous articles and books on American political history.

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