Who Were the Mayflower Pilgrims?

The pilgrims were passengers on board the Mayflower who settled Plymouth Colony in 1620.

The group were some of the first puritans to settle in North America during the Great Puritan Migration in the 17th century.

The success of Plymouth colony later paved the way for other Puritans to settle similar colonies in New England.

The following is an overview of the Mayflower pilgrims:

Where Were the Pilgrims From?

The Separatist church congregation that the Mayflower pilgrims were members of was originally centered around the town of Scrooby, England. Scrooby is a small village in Nottinghamshire that borders South Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

Scrooby Village, England, photo published in Albert Addison's book, The Romantic Story of the Mayflower Pilgrims, circa 1911

Scrooby Village, England, photo published in Albert Addison’s book, The Romantic Story of the Mayflower Pilgrims, circa 1911

The group was so spread out across the area though that they formed two different groups, according to Bradford:

“These people became 2. disctincte bodys or churches & in regarde of distance of place did congregate severally; for they were of sundrie townes & villages, some in Nottinghamshire, some of Lincolnshire, and some of Yorkshire, wher they border nearest togeather.”

A preacher named John Smith was the pastor of one of the groups and a preacher named Richard Clifton was the pastor of the other.

What Religion Were the Pilgrims?

The Mayflower pilgrims were members of a Puritan sect within the Church of England known as separatists. At the time there were two types of puritans within the Church of England: separatists and non-separatists.

Separatists felt that the Church of England was too corrupt to save and decided to separate from it. Non-separatists felt that the church could still be reformed and remained in the church to do so.

The separatists refused to attend services at the Church of England and instead held their own services where their pastor preached that everyone had a right to discuss and interpret the Bible, that parishioners should take an active part in services and how anyone could depart from the official Book of Common Prayer and speak directly to God.

In 1604, the Church introduced 141 cannons, which was a sort of test to flush out nonconformists. These canons declared that anyone who rejected the practices of the Church of England excommunicated themselves and it required all clergymen to accept and publicly acknowledge the royal supremacy and authority of the Prayer Book.

Realizing how dangerous it had become to worship their religion in public, the separatists began holding their services in private homes, such as at William Brewster’s home Scrooby manor.

Various members of the group were eventually detained and fined for their beliefs, such as William Brewster, who was summoned to his local ecclesiastical court in 1607 for being “disobedient in matters of Religion.”

Brewster was fined £20, which is the equivalent of $5,000 today, but he refused to appear in court or pay the fine.

When & Why Did the Pilgrims Leave England?

The pilgrims decided to leave England for Holland because they were being persecuted for their religion and felt they had no other choice but to leave, according to William Bradford in his book Of Plimoth Plantation:

“But after these things they could not long continue in any peaceable condition, but were hunted & persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken & clapt up in prison, others had their houses besett & watcht night and day, & hardly escaped their hands; and ye most were faine to flie & leave their howses & habitations, and the means of their livelihood. Yet these & many other sharper things which afterward befell them, were no other then they looked for, and therefore were ye better prepared to bear them by ye assistance of Gods grace & sprite. Yet seeing them selves thus molested, and that ther was no hope of their continuance ther, by a joynte consente they resloved to goe into ye low-countries, wher they heard was freedoms of religion for all men…”

The group first attempted to leave for Holland sometime near the end of 1607. Due to a statute passed in the reign of Richard II, no one could leave England without a license, which the group did not have.

They arranged for a Dutch ship to meet them at Scotia Creek at Boston, Lincolnshire, to sneak them out of the country, but the captain betrayed them and turned them into the authorities, according to Bradford:

“But when he had them & their goods abord, he betrayed them, having before hand complotted with ye serchers & other officers so to doe; who tooke them, and put them into open boats, & ther rifled & ransaked them, searching them to their shirts for money, yea even ye women furder then became modestie; and then carried them back into ye town, & made them a spectackle & wonder to ye multitude, which came flocking on all sids to behould them. Being thus first, by the chatchpoule officers, rifled, & stripte of their money, books, and much other goods, they were presented to ye magistrates, and messengers sente to informe ye lords of ye counsell of them; and so they were comited to ward.”

Bradford goes on to explain that after a month in prison, most of the group was released after their charges were dismissed, but seven members of the group, including William Brewster, remained in jail for a while longer.

The group made a second and final attempt to leave England the following spring in 1608. The group again hired a Dutch ship to take them to Holland.

The group traveled to the meeting place in Immingham, England into two separate boats, one with the women and children and one with the men.

The two boats arrived at the meeting place a day before the ship. The women and children were sea sick from the journey and entered a creek to rest in shallow water but their boat got stuck during low tide and had to wait for the tide to come back in.

When the ship arrived, the captain began boarding the boat full of men but the authorities arrived in pursuit of the fleeing pilgrims and the captain decided to depart without the remaining passengers or cargo, according to Bradford:

“But after ye first boat full gott abord, & she was ready to goe for more, the Mr. espied a greate company, both horse & foote, with bills, & gunes, & other weapons; for ye countrie was raised to take them. Ye Dutch-man seeing ye, swore his countries oath, ‘sacremente,’ and having ye wind faire, waiged his anchor, hoysed sayles, & away. But ye poore men which were gott abord, were in great distress for their wives and children, which they saw thus to be taken, and were left destitute of their helps; and them selves also, not having a cloath to shifte them with, more then they had on their baks, & some scare a peney aboute them, all they had being abord ye barke. It drew tears from their eyes, and any thing they had they would have given to have been a shore againe; but all in vaine, there was no remedy, they must thus sadly part.”

The women were arrested but were not charged and eventually made the journey to Holland too and were reunited with their husbands in Amsterdam.

Two separatists communities, one from London and the other from Gainsborough, already existed in Amsterdam when the pilgrims arrived but these groups were so torn with dissension that the pilgrims decided to move to Leiden in South Holland in 1609 in an effort to find peace.

Why Did the Pilgrims Come to the New World?

After living in Holland for about 11 or 12 years, the group began to grow weary of living in the Netherlands.

One of the reasons for this was the fact that a longstanding “twelve years’ truce” between the Dutch Republic and Catholic-run Spain was about to come to an end, which meant war was imminent and if Spain won and regained their rule over Holland, the pilgrims could lose their religious freedom.

To make matters worse, King James of England formed an alliance with the Dutch on the condition that he would have control over all English congregations in Holland.

As a result, Dutch authorities began to harass the pilgrims. The printing presses that the Separatists used to print pamphlets were smashed and some of the pilgrims had rocks thrown at them.

Another reason is that the only jobs available to the group in Holland was in the textile industry, which was hard, physical labor that made many of them “decreped in their early youth” (Bradford 24).

They also found it hard to recruit other separatists from England to join them in the Netherlands because of these hard working conditions, according to Bradford:

“And first, they saw & found by experience the hardness of ye place & cuntrie to be such, as few in comparison would come to them. For many yet came to them, and many more yet desired to be with them, could not endure yet great labor and hard fare, with other inconveniences which they underwent & were contended with…But it was thought that if a better and easier place of living could be had, it would draw many, & take away these discouragments.”

Yet another reason is that many members of the group were getting older and some had even passed away, which caused their numbers to dwindle.

They feared that within a few years the group might have to separate “by necessities pressing them, or sinke under their burdens, or both” (Bradford 25).

In addition, they feared their children were being corrupted by the ways of the Dutch, according to Bradford:

“But that which was more lamentable, and of all sorrowes most heavie to be borne, was that many of their children, by these occasions, and ye great licentiousness of youth in yet countrie, and ye manifold temptations of the place, were drawne away by evill examples into extravagante & dangerous courses, getting ye raines off their neks, & departing from their parents. Some became souldiers, others took upon them farr viages by sea, and other some worse courses, tending to dissolutness & the danger of their soules, to ye great greefe of their parents and dishonour of God. So that they saw their posteritie would be in danger to degenerate & be corrupted.”

Lastly, they also hoped to spread Christianity to “those remote parts of ye world” even if they were merely “stepping-stones unto others for ye performing of so great a work” (Bradford 24).

After deciding to leave, they settled on the New World as their destination due to its remoteness, according to Bradford:

“The place they had thoughts on was some of the those vast & unpeopled countries of America, which are frutfull & fitt for habitation, being devoyd of all civill inhabitants, wher there are only savage & brutish men, which range up and downe, little otherwise then ye wild beasts of the same.”

The areas of the New World they considered moving to were either Guiana or Virginia. Guiana was eventually ruled out because the climate was too hot and they feared the Spanish would eventually drive them out.

Instead, the group decided on the English colony of Virginia, even though they feared they might be “troubled and persecuted for the cause of religion, as if they lived in England, and it might be worse” (Bradford 28) but they also feared that if they lived too far away from civilization they might not survive.

The compromise was to live within the colony of Virginia but separate from the other colonists, according to Bradford:

“But at length ye conclusion was, to live as a distincte body by them selves, under ye generall government of Virginia; and by their friends to sue to his majestie that he would be pleased to grant them freedome of religion…”

The pilgrims made a deal with the Virginia company to pay for their voyage and in exchange they agreed to build the colony and harvest supplies to send back to England.

The group also secured a patent that allowed them to build a colony near the mouth of the Hudson River in North America, which was then considered Northern Virginia.

In May of 1620, the pilgrims hired two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, to take them to the mouth of the Hudson River.

On July 22, 1620, the pilgrims traveled from Delfthaven, Holland to Southampton, England on board the Speedwell to meet up with the Mayflower.

The Speedwell began leaking during its journey to England so the pilgrims spent a week in Southampton waiting while the necessary repairs were made.

On August 5, 1620, the two ships set sail for the New World but the Speedwell began leaking again and pulled into Dartmouth on August 12 for repairs.

On August 21, 1620, the two ships set sail again but the Speedwell began leaking yet again and both ships returned to Plymouth, England.

A few weeks later, when the repairs failed to fix the Speedwell, some of the pilgrims on the Speedwell boarded the Mayflower, while others gave up and went home, and the Mayflower set sail alone from Plymouth, England on September 16, 1620.

How Many Pilgrims Were on the Mayflower?

There were 46 pilgrims (Separatists) on board the Mayflower.

In addition to the pilgrims there were also 30 non-separatists, dozens of personal servants and 36 crewmen as well as two dogs and some farm animals.

Who Were the Mayflower Pilgrims?

The pilgrims on board the Mayflower were:

Isaac Allerton
Mary Allerton
Bartholomew Allerton
Remember Allerton
Mary Allerton
William Bradford
Dorothy Bradford
William Brewster
Mary Brewster
Love Brewster
Wrestling Brewster
John Carver
Catherine Carver
James Chilton
Mrs. James Chilton
Mary Chilton
Francis Cook
John Cook
John Crackstone
John Crackstone (son)
Moses Fletcher
Edward Fuller
Ann Fuller
Samuel Fuller (son)
Samuel Fuller
John Goodman
Digory Priest
Thomas Rogers
Joseph Rogers
Edward Tilley
Ann Tilley
John Tilley
Joan Tilley
Elizabeth Tilley
Thomas Tinker
Mrs. Thomas Tinker
Son of Thomas Tinker
John Turner
First son of John Turner
Second son of John Turner
William White
Susanna White
Resolved White
Thomas Williams
Edward Winslow
Elizabeth Winslow

In late November, Susanna White also gave birth to a baby, Peregrine White, on board the Mayflower while it was anchored in Cape Cod Harbor.

When Did the Pilgrims Arrive in New England?

The Mayflower passengers first sighted shore on November 9, 1620. The pilgrims quickly realized once they reached shore that they were in New England.

After discussing the matter, they turned the ship south and began to sail for the mouth of the Hudson River but ran into bad weather and had to turn back for Cape Cod, according to Bradford.

“After some deliberation had amongst them selves & with ye Mr. of ye ship, they tacked aboute and resolved to stande for ye southward (ye wind & weather being faire) to finde some place aboute Hudsons river for their habitation. But after they had sailed yet course aboute halfe ye day, they fell amongst deangerous shoulds and roring breakers, and they were so farr intangled ther with as they concieved them selves in great danger; & ye wind shrinking upon them withall, they resolved to bear up againe for the Cape…”

With winter fast approaching and dwindling supplies on board, the group decided to stay in New England.

On November 11, 1620, the group drew up a social contract, now known as the Mayflower compact, to establish basic law and order in the colony since they didn’t have a patent for that area.

Where Did the Pilgrims First Land?

On November 11, 1620, the Mayflower first landed at what is now modern-day Provincetown, Massachusetts.

"First sight of the Indians." Illustration published in A Pictorial History of the United States circa 1852

“First sight of the Indians.” Illustration published in A Pictorial History of the United States circa 1852

While anchored at Provincetown, some of the passengers went on several expeditions on land but got involved in a skirmish with the local natives, an event known as the First Encounter, and decided to pick up anchor and sail to nearby Plymouth harbor where they landed in mid-December.

Where Did the Pilgrims Settle?

After the group landed in Plymouth, they began to build “ye first house for common use to receive them and their goods” on Christmas day (Bradford 88.)

"The landing." Illustration published in A Pictorial History of the United States circa 1852

“The landing.” Illustration published in A Pictorial History of the United States circa 1852

This common house was about twenty square feet in size and was located on the south side of Leyden Street near the downward slope of the hill.

On January 9, 1621, the group began building two rows of houses, which were located on each side of modern-day Leyden Street.

Due to the fact there wasn’t enough adequate shelter for all 19 families yet, many of the pilgrims spent the winter on board the Mayflower.

The site of the original village stretched East to West between Burial Hill and Water street and North to South between North Street and Leyden Street.

The village was located at the site of an abandoned Wampanoag village called Patuxet where approximately 2,000 Wampanoags had lived before an epidemic decimated the village in 1618-19, prompting the surviving Wamponaog to abandon it.

Why Were the Mayflower Pilgrims Called Pilgrims?

A pilgrim is a person who travels to a sacred place for religious purposes, a journey that is known as a pilgrimage.

The name “pilgrims” wasn’t applied to the Mayflower pilgrims until the late 1700s, after excerpts of William Bradford’s manuscript, Of Plymouth Plantation, was printed in Nathaniel Morton’s book New England’s Memorial in 1669.

In one of the excerpts, Bradford compares the colonists to pilgrims when describing the last church service they held before they left Holland to meet up with the Mayflower in England:

“And the time being come that they must depart, they were accompanied with most of their brethren out of the city, unto a town sundry miles off called Delftshaven, where the ship lay ready to receive them. So they left that goodly and pleasant city which had been their resting place near twelve years; but they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.”

Bradford compared them to pilgrims because they were embarking on what they saw as a religious journey.

Even though Bradford was only referring to the members of their church congregation at the time, the term “pilgrim” was later applied to all of the Mayflower passengers, whether they were a separatist or not, and also to some of the Plymouth colonists who arrived later on, according to an article on the Plimoth Plantation website:

“’Pilgrim’ became (by the early 1800s at least) the popular term applied to all the Mayflower passengers – and even to other people arriving in Plymouth in those early years – so that the English people who settled Plymouth in the 1620s are generally called the Pilgrims.”

Prior to this, the Mayflower pilgrims were called the Forefathers or the Pilgrim Fathers and Pilgrim Mothers.

In fact, December 22 is a holiday called Forefather’s Day that is celebrated in Plymouth, Mass in honor of the pilgrim’s landing at Plymouth in December of 1620.

How Did the Pilgrims Dress?

Contrary to public opinion, the pilgrims didn’t really wear all black clothing and hats and shoes with buckles on them. These are 19th century depictions of them that are not historically accurate.

The pilgrims instead wore late Jacobean-era clothing like doublets, breeches, waistcoats and petticoats in a variety of colors. Check out this article titled What Did the Pilgrims Wear? for more information.

If you want to learn more about the Mayflower pilgrims, check out the following article about the best books about the Mayflower pilgrims.

Huish, Marcus Borne. The American Pilgrim’s Way in England: To Homes and Memorials of the Founders of Virginia, The New England States and Pennsylvania. London: The Fine Art Society, 1907. Print.
Worrall, Simon. “Pilgrims’ Progress.” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2006, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/pilgrims-progress-135067108/
“Mayflower Pilgrims Origins.” Experience Nottinghamshire, www.experiencenottinghamshire.com/mayflower-pilgrims/pilgrim-fathers-origins
McGrath, Charles. “In the Pilgrim’s Footsteps, Through England and the Netherlands.” The New York Times, 17 Nov. 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/travel/on-the-pilgrims-path-through-england-and-the-netherlands.html?mcubz=0
“6,000 Year-Old Indian Village Unearthed.” United Press International, 6 Nov. 1986, www.upi.com/Archives/1986/11/06/6000-year-old-Indian-village-unearthed/4517531637200/
Bradford, William. History of Plymouth Plantation. Edited by Charles Deane, Boston: Privately Printed, 1856
Mourt’s Relation or Journal of the Plantation at Plymouth. Boston: John Kimball Wiggin, 1865.
MacQuarrie, Brian. Boston Globe, 23 Nov. 2016, www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/11/22/clues-pilgrims-original-settlement-unearthed/PpLwWF9OiAZaCSG0Eft0GN/story.html
Moneymaker, Will. “Mayflower Passengers: Not All Were There For Religious Reasons.” Ancestral Findings, Ancestral Findings LLC, ancestralfindings.com/mayflower-passengers-not-religious-reasons/
“Pilgrim Fathers’ Memorial.” Visit Boston UK, www.visitbostonuk.com/venue/pilgrim-fathers-memorial/
“Pilgrim Memorial, Scotia Creek.” Mayflower 400, www.mayflower400uk.org/explore/boston/boston-attractions/the-pilgrim-memorial-scotia-creek/
“Why the Pilgrim Fathers Left England.” BBC.co.uk, British Broadcast Corporation, news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/47688.stm
“Pilgrim History.” General Society of Mayflower Descendants, www.themayflowersociety.org/the-pilgrims/pilgrim-history
“Who Were the Pilgrims?” Plimoth Plantation, www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/homework-help/who-were-pilgrims

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist 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.

1 thought on “Who Were the Mayflower Pilgrims?

  1. Russell Fleet Jr

    The pilgrims established a communist existence. It was a noble experiment, but failed miserably. Starvation became inevitable because people were working on behalf of the collective and abandoned personal ambition. They begged help from passing ships, but were rebuffed leaving the pilgrims to find an alternative system. Therefore, governor Bradford told the pilgrims to fend for themselves and grow food and hunt for their own personal survival and individual gain. The Plymouth colony thrived and even started trading with the passing vessels that came their way. This created commerce and the greatest economic system ever devised: CAPITALISM!

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