Friday, August 12, 2011

The Mayflower

The Mayflower is one of the most important ships in American history. This cargo ship brought some of the first settlers to America and carried them to the safety of the Plymouth plantation. This journey made the Mayflower an icon of European colonization.

Before the Pilgrims

The Mayflower was a European cargo ship in the years before its voyage to the New World. In 1607, a businessman named Christopher Jones purchased the Mayflower. Jones' first voyage on the Mayflower was to Norway in 1609 where the ship transported fish, lumber and tar. The ship began leaking during a storm on the way back to England and the crew had to dump some of its cargo overboard to save it. Jones never ventured into the North Sea with the Mayflower again and instead went back and forth between France and Spain delivering wine, cognac and vinegar.

The Pilgrim's Voyage

In May of 1620, religious separatists known as pilgrims hired Jones and his ship to take them to Northern Virginia where they had been granted permission to build a colony.

The Mayflower and SpeedWell in Dartmouth Harbor by Wilcox
The Mayflower set sail from England along with another ship, the Speedwell, on August 15, 1620. The Speedwell leaked so badly that both ships had to return to England. The pilgrims on the Speedwell boarded the Mayflower and it set sail alone from Plymouth, England on September 16.

Although the Mayflower was a large ship measuring about 80 feet in length and 24 feet wide, the 102 passengers on board lead to cramped conditions. The Mayflower had three decks, an upper deck, a gun deck below it and the cargo hold at the bottom. The pilgrims lived on the gun deck, which was about 5 1/2 feet in height, and would sometimes venture upstairs to the upper deck during calm weather. The 30 crew members and the captain lived in cabins at the back of the upper deck. Only a few of the crew's names were recorded but they included a cooper named John Alden, ship surgeon Giles Heale and Pilots and Master's Mates John Clarke and Robert Coppin.

The ship's passengers included William Bradford, who later became governor of Plymouth plantation and wrote a detailed book about the journey to America on the Mayflower and Plymouth Plantation titled “Of Plymouth Plantation.”

"The Mayflower at Sea" by Margeson
The first half of the voyage was smooth with sunny skies and fair weather. The passengers were healthy and there were even three pregnant women on board. One of the women, Elizabeth Hopkins, gave birth on the Mayflower to a son that she named Oceanus.

About halfway into the journey, the Mayflower ran into bad weather. A series of storms caused the ship to leak and the main mast to crack. The pilgrims worried the ship would not be strong enough to make it America. The crew managed to fix the beam and fill some of the leaks.

The constant cold and dampness on board began to take a toll on the pilgrim's health. By the time the pilgrims reached America many of the Pilgrim's developed coughs and colds and one little boy died just a few days before reaching land.

An 1882 painting depicting the Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor
The colonists sighted shore on November 9th. Although the pilgrims had intended to land in northern Virginia, when they reached the shore they realized they were in New England. With winter approaching a short supply of food and water, they realized they could go no further and decided to drop anchor off the coast of Cape Cod in Provincetown harbor. After some skirmishes on land with the local Native American tribes, the pilgrims decided to pick up anchor and sail to nearby Plymouth harbor where they landed at Plymouth rock.

After the Pilgrims

The Mayflower crew spent the winter with the pilgrims in Massachusetts, living on the ship, and returned to England in April the next year. Christopher Jones passed away the next year and his widow, Josian, inherited the Mayflower. Josian never used the ship and it fell into disrepair just a few years later. The Mayflower was eventually broken up and sold off as scrap.


Pilgrim Hall Museum: Voyage of the Mayflower and the Speedwell

The Mayflower History: The Mayflower

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