The History of the Mayflower Ship

The Mayflower is one of the most important ships in American history.

This cargo ship brought the pilgrims to Massachusetts in the 17th century. These pilgrims were some of the first settlers to America after they established the Plymouth colony. This journey made the Mayflower an icon of European colonization. The following are some facts about the Mayflower:

Who Was the Captain of the Mayflower?

The captain of the Mayflower was a businessman named Christopher Jones. Jones was born in Harwich, England around 1570 and was the son of a mariner and ship owner, also named Christopher Jones.

Around 1608, Jones purchased the Mayflower and became its Master, what we would call a captain today, but he was only a quarter owner of the ship. The other owners were Robert Childe, Thomas Short and Christopher Nichols.

The Mayflower was a European cargo ship in the years before its voyage to the New World with the pilgrims. 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, according to the book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War:

“The Mayflower was a typical merchant vessel of her day; square-rigged and beak bowed, with high, castlelike superstructures fore and aft that protected her cargo and crew in the worst weather, but made beating against the wind a painfully inefficient endeavor. Rated at 180 tons (meaning that her hold was capable of accommodating 180 casks or turns of wine), she was approximately three times the size of the Speedwell and about one hundred feet in length.”

"The Mayflower and Speedwell in Dartmouth Harbor", oil painting, by Leslie Wilcox, circa 1971

“The Mayflower and Speedwell in Dartmouth Harbor”, oil painting, by Leslie Wilcox, circa 1971

The Pilgrims and the Mayflower:

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

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.

A few weeks later, the pilgrims all boarded the Mayflower and it set sail alone from Plymouth, England on September 6, 1620.

How Many People Were on the Mayflower?:

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 Mayflower At Sea", oil painting, by Gilbert Margeson

“The Mayflower At Sea”, oil painting, by Gilbert Margeson

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 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.

"Mayflower on her Arrival in Plymouth Harbor," oil painting, William Formsby Halsall, circa 1882

“Mayflower on her Arrival in Plymouth Harbor,” oil painting, William Formsby Halsall, circa 1882

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.

After 66 days at sea, the pilgrims relieved to see land nonetheless, according to Of Plymouth Plantation:

“…after long beating at sea they fell with that land which is called Cape Cod: they were not a little joyful! After some deliberation amongst themselves and with the master of the ship, they resolved to sail southward to find someplace about Hudson’s river for their habitation. But after they had sailed that course about half a day, they fell amongst dangerous shoals and roaring breakers, and resolved to bear up again for the Cape, and thought themselves happy to get out of those dangers before night overtook them. 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.”

With winter approaching and a short supply of food and beer, they decided to go no further and  dropped anchor off the coast of Cape Cod in Provincetown harbor.

While the ship was anchored in the harbor, the passengers drew up a social contract known as the Mayflower Compact that established a set of rules and laws for the colony.

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.

Where is the Mayflower Now?

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.

Sources: Who Were the Pilgrims?:
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War; Nathaniel Philbrick; 2006
The Mayflower History: The Mayflower:

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the owner and operator of this website and all the articles are written and researched by her. Rebecca is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

10 thoughts on “The History of the Mayflower Ship

  1. tim martin

    i would like to get more background information on owners of the Mayflower. i believe i’m related to Robert Childe. i e3njoyed Mayflower info

    1. Lynn R. Childs

      Tim I too am a descendant of the Robert Childe family.
      I am always looking for family history stories, names, etc.
      Lynn R. Childs

  2. Judith Donai

    I am decended from John Clarke, 1st mate of the Mayflower. I have not been able to find out much about him, except for my studies of my ancestry. Would you be able to recommend any other sources of information? Also, would I be able to join the Mayflower Society since my ancestor was just part of the crew?

    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      Hi Judith, as far as I know anyone who came over on the Mayflower, whether they were a part of the crew or one of the pilgrims, is eligible to join the Mayflower Society. I’m not sure where you can find more info specifically about John Clarke except for the Mayflower Society itself and perhaps the New England Historic Genealogical Society. There’s also a ton of great books on the pilgrims and the Mayflower, such as as Nathaniel Philbrick’s book Mayflower and Bradford and Winslow’s firsthand accounts but I don’t know how much info they reveal about Clarke specifically.

      1. Linda Konitzer

        I am also a descendant of John Clarke but was told by the Mayflower Society that I wasn’t able to join because John Clarke didn’t stay in plymouth. He left and went down to Virginia with the ship. Also there is confusion as to who exactly the John Clarke was that was pilot of the Mayflower. If you get different answers Judith please let me know. Linda Konitzer

  3. Rebecca Payne

    I really liked this page about the Mayflower. It’s really good, and I really loved it. I just love it when the Pilgrims are sailing on the Mayflower. It is a great artical about the Mayflower.

  4. Amanda McIntire

    Glad I found the article as I am a descendant of William Bradford. Always enjoy any info on my ancestors.


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