The Mayflower Sails!

Their biggest challenge was financing such a long voyage. Another considerable problem was that permission for the expedition had to be obtained from the king of England--the same king from whom they had sought to escape when they fled to the Netherlands! The Pilgrims wore King James down with their petitions, until he finally gave his permission. In the end, a group of London merchants financed the venture.

At last, the time came to leave! Those of the Pilgrim Church in Leiden who decided to make the move boarded the ship Speedwell and on July 22, 1620, left Delfshaven for England, there to be joined by additional members. The Pilgrims set out aboard two ships, the Speedwell and the Mayflower. However, serious leaks in the hull of the Speedwell forced the ships to turn back to England, where the Mayflower took on passengers and provisions from the Speedwell. Finally, on September 6, the 90-foot Mayflower put out to sea from Plymouth, England, by herself, with 24 families on board--a total of 102 passengers--and a crew of 25. What courage it took for those novice travelers to attempt an ocean voyage of 3,000 miles! The ship was badly over-crowded and had to contend with dangerous North Atlantic weather. Imagine the feelings of those aboard when after nine long weeks on the ocean, they sighted land!

Founding the Colony

Before the Pilgrims went ashore, they concluded a mutual compact, or covenant, concerning the future government of the new colony. By this compact, signed by 41 of the men in the group, the Pilgrims formed themselves into a "Civil Body Politic" and assumed the responsibility of making, and abiding by, rules to govern all their affairs. Although some historians have called this document the first American constitution, the Grote Winkler Prins Encyclopedie points out that the Pilgrims who framed it "had in mind establishing an authority of a religious nature." Its purpose was to commit all the members of the colony to staying together, both physically and religiously.

After surveying the coast and carrying out expeditions inland, in cold December the group settled in the place that they named New Plymouth, later called Plymouth Colony. They came across fields that had been cultivated by Indians. But the huge Indian population that had been observed there by explorers just a few years earlier had been ravaged by the explorers' diseases--including smallpox and measles. Otherwise, the Indians might have resisted the Pilgrims' efforts to establish a colony.

The Pilgrims started by building a communal house and several private homes. It was a difficult beginning, for they arrived in winter and did not have enough food left over from their ship's provisions. During that first winter, 52 died of disease, including 13 of the 24 husbands and as many as 14 of the 18 wives. Among the casualties was their first governor, John Carver. But the survivors resolved to remain in New Plymouth. The next governor, the enthusiastic William Bradford, kept a detailed record of the history of the young colony and has therefore been considered America's first historian.

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