On November 9, 1620, the Mayflower, carrying 102 passengers with 50 Pilgrims aboard in search of religious freedom, approached Cape Cod, Massachusetts, having left England 65 days earlier on September 6, 1620.
The Pilgrims were Separatist Protestants who made a clean break with the Anglican Church of England during the reign of King James I. A small community in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire had begun to meet together beyond the jurisdiction of the Anglican Church. As Calvinists, they believed in strict adherence to the Word of Jesus Christ. Led by their pastor John Robinson, they first moved in 1609 to Leiden, Holland, but, after eleven years, wanted a place of their own, fearful their children were losing their identity. The Pilgrims through William Brewster with the aid of Sir Edwin Sandys then received a patent to establish a colony in Virginia, but they landed far to the north at Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
They were called Pilgrims by their journalist William Bradford, who had in mind the Letter to the Hebrews 11:13-16, when he wrote – “they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.” They wished to live a pious community life, as the Apostles in the New Testament of the Bible.
They believed that every church congregation should have the right to choose its own pastor and officers and discipline its own members. Only the congregation could decide matters for the local church, and thus they became known as Congregationalists. This was in distinction to Catholics, who vested authority in one Pope; the Anglicans or Episcopalians, who placed authority with the Episcopate (Bishops); and the Calvinist Presbyterians of Scotland, who placed authority with the Presbyters, the elders of the Church.
The 102 passengers were made up of 50 Saints (the Pilgrims), Strangers (non-Separatists), and the crew. In view of the independent spirit of some, it became evident to both saints and strangers that they needed to cooperate and sign an agreement to rule themselves, as they were going to settle in an area that was not within the purview of their patent. The Elder William Brewster, William Bradford, Edward Winslow, and the Pilgrims, along with the soldier Miles Standish and the Strangers agreed to sign a covenant before they landed to ensure representative self-government, by which all of them would be bound. Signed by the 41 adult males aboard, on November 11, 1620, just 9 years after the publication of the King James Bible, the Mayflower Compact was the first charter of freedom in America and reflects the Christian heritage of our Nation.
The Mayflower Compact
“In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord, King James, by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith.
Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid;
And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.
In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth.”
Anno Domini, 1620
In keeping with the Compact, the Pilgrims confirmed John Carver, the first elected governor in the English colonies. The Pilgrims landed at Provincetown, Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. Since the next day was Sunday, they stayed aboard ship and worshipped God under the guidance of Elder Brewster. They then made three expeditions over the next month searching for a site for a settlement. After crossing Cape Cod Bay, they found Plymouth Rock, and decided this was the ideal spot to build a settlement. Because of stormy weather, it was not until December 23 that they were able to land and begin setting up home.
Half of the colonists did not survive the first winter, including their first governor John Carver. William Bradford was elected governor in the spring of 1621.
The native American Indians in the region were the Wampanoag Nation, an Algonquin group that had settled in eastern Massachusetts. Massachusetts is an Indian word that means “by the great hills.” The Indian sachem or chief of the region was Massasoit of Pokanoket, a vigorous man whose tribe had also been devastated by the smallpox epidemic of 1616-1619, introduced by the Europeans in their fishing explorations of the area.
The Pilgrims made a treaty with Massasoit, an alliance between the godly William Bradford and Massasoit, an alliance that would last as long as both were alive. That spring the Indians Samoset and Squanto showed the Pilgrims how to cultivate the land and plant corn, beans, squash, and pumpkins, and where to hunt and fish. The Pilgrims appreciated that they would not have survived in the New World without the support of the native American Indians.
The image of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621 with the Pilgrims and Massasoit and the Wampanoag Indians is forever etched upon the American conscience. The celebration of Thanksgiving was established in the newly-formed Republic of the United States of America on November 1, 1777.
Plymouth barely subsisted through the early years as a farm community, but they lived a devout, simple, and peaceful life. To encourage individual enterprise, William Bradford and the colony made the decision in March of 1623 for each family to have their own piece of land and raise their own corn and crops, rather than the communal way practiced during the first two seasons. This greatly increased their food production, a precedent that would become the American Way! The Pilgrims would never again suffer near-starvation through the winter.
In 1630 they applied for a proper charter to the Council for New England, and adopted a formal Constitution in 1636, affording a governor and seven assistants, to be elected from church members. Their economic situation improved with the settling of the wealthy Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s, which put their grain and livestock in great demand. As the Town of Plymouth grew, Pilgrims in search of farmland created settlements in nearby Duxbury, Marshfield, and Scituate heading north, and Sandwich, Barnstable, Yarmouth, and Eastham heading eastwards around the Cape. The Plymouth Colony was joined to the Massachusetts Bay Colony to form the Royal Province of Massachusetts in 1691.
1 William Bradford. Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1650. Dover Publications, Mineola, New York.
2 Edward Winslow and William Bradford. Of Mourt’s Relation. London, 1622.
3 Authorized King James Version of the Holy Bible of 1611. Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts.
4 Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Old Colony of New Plymouth. AA Knopf, New York, 1956.
5 Willison J. Saints and Strangers. Time-Life Books, New York, 1964.
6 Philbrick N. Mayflower. Penguin, New York, 2006.
7 Middleton R. Colonial America, A History. Third Edition, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, England, pages 68-73, 2002.