176: The Mayflower Sets Sail for America

"The Embarkation of the Pilgrims" (1857) by the American painter Robert Walter Weir at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City
“The Embarkation of the Pilgrims” (1857) by the American painter Robert Walter Weir at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

On this date in 1620, the Mayflower, carrying 102 passengers set sail from Southampton, England toward North America.

Here are some things you may not have known about the voyage.

First, the pilgrims weren’t fleeing religious persecution. They originally moved from England to the Netherlands and were allowed to practice their religion freely. They decided to leave the Netherlands because they were worried about losing their English identity and language. The group considered several locations for a colony in the New World, including Guiana, Virginia and near the site of present-day New York City.

The group originally set out on two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. The Speedwell was found to be unseaworthy and remained behind in Southampton. The Mayflower, which was near the end of it’s useful working life, was difficult to sail against the prevailing westerly winds of the North Atlantic, causing the voyage to take more than two months. The expedition sighted land on November 9 at Cape Cod in present-day Massachusetts. While they were at sea one passenger and one crew member died. One child was born at sea, another was born while the ship was anchored off Cape Cod.

The first winter was, in fact, as awful as the legend tells. The settlers were charged with building shelters during a brutal New England winter. Between November and March, more than half the colonists and crew members had died. The Plymouth colony survived and became part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691. The term “pilgrim” for the colonists didn’t come into common use until at least 1798.

Our question, the Plymouth Colony was the second successful English settlement in what is now the United States. What was the first?


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