5 Things You Probably Didn't Know About The Mayflower

On December 18, 1620, the British ship Mayflower docked at Plymouth Harbor, carrying 102 passengers who intended to settle in the new world. Here are five surprising facts you probably didn't know about the Mayflower's journey...


There Were Originally Two Ships Sailing For North America Two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, originally left for North America on August 5, 1620. But the Speedwell sprung a leak—three times—and had to return to England for repairs. Eventually, the Speedwell had to be abandoned, and a small group of passengers were chosen to go on the remaining ship. When the Mayflower left on September 16, only about a third of the 102 passengers were Puritan Separatists. The remaining passengers were what the Puritans called “Strangers”—hired hands, servants, and farmers recruited by London merchants and headed for the Colony of Virginia.

The New Colonists Had No Idea They Were The Pilgrims The new colonists were Puritans and would not have recognized themselves as “Pilgrims,” since the term wasn’t introduced until the early part of the 19th century. The first reference comes from a manuscript in which Governor Bradford spoke of the “saints” who left Holland as “pilgrimes.” The term only entered common usage, though, after a bicentennial celebration of Plymouth’s founding in 1820 when statesman Daniel Webster spoke of “Pilgrim Fathers.”


The Mayflower Never Reached Its Intended Destination There was calm, easy sailing until the second half of the trip when storms and high seas pushed the Mayflower 500 miles off course. The Puritans intended to land in northern Virginia, but after being nearly shipwrecked, they turned back north and landed in what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts. They spent the next month exploring the land surrounding Cape Cod before they decided where to construct their settlement.

A Rebellion by the “Strangers” Caused Problems Because the Mayflower did not land in Virginia, the “Strangers” argued the original Virginia Company contract they had signed was null and void. Since there was no valid contract and no official government, the strangers said they would not recognize the Pilgrim’s rules. To quell the rebellion, a set of temporary laws was drawn up. The agreement, later known as the Mayflower Compact, was a short document that stipulated that all the occupants would stay loyal to King James and that they would establish laws, acts, ordinances, and a constitution, that would benefit the colony. The Mayflower Compact was the first document to establish self-government in the New World and proved to be an early, successful attempt at democracy in America.

Settlers Discovered The Harshness of New England Winters The Puritans and Strangers were unprepared for the harsh New England winters. While they received some food from the natives, they had no shelter and were forced to stay aboard the ship. An outbreak of contagious disease—described as a mixture of scurvy, pneumonia, and tuberculosis—afflicted them through the winter. By the Spring, only 53 settlers and half the ship’s crew remained. In the spring, the settlers built huts, and were finally able to disembark from Mayflower on March 21, 1621.