Pilgrims Arrive in North America

The arrival of the Pilgrims in North America established a second sphere of influence of English American colonists and offered another haven for English citizens fleeing religious or political oppression at home.

Summary of Event

In 1534, as the Protestant Reformation swept across Europe, King Henry VIII separated the Christian Church in England from the Roman Catholic Church. Under his daughter, Elizabeth I Elizabeth I (queen of England) , the national Church of England Church of England was created by combining some Roman Catholic traditions and doctrines with the beliefs and practices of the new Protestant churches on the continent. Elizabeth’s goal was an independent church where all Englishmen would feel at home. However, some opposed the retention of Roman Catholic ritualism within the new Anglican Church and advocated “purifying” the church of that ritualism. The Puritans, Puritanism as they were soon called, included both nonseparatists, who wanted to remain in a purified Church of England, and separatists who saw no alternative but to create a new, pure church of their own. [kw]Pilgrims Arrive in North America (Dec. 26, 1620)
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[kw]North America, Pilgrims Arrive in (Dec. 26, 1620)
Colonization;Dec. 26, 1620: Pilgrims Arrive in North America[0870]
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American Colonies;Dec. 26, 1620: Pilgrims Arrive in North America[0870]
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The Mayflower.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

By the early seventeenth century, the Separatist Puritans were being persecuted by the Church of England and by the English government. In 1607, many of them, including the Scrooby Congregation Scrooby Congregation , sought refuge in the Netherlands. Within a few years, however, conditions in the Netherlands became unsatisfactory, and the Scrooby Congregation decided to seek a better home in the new land of America, where the Jamestown Colony had been established in Virginia in 1607. The Scrooby Congregation returned to England in 1620 and received permission to settle in the northern part of Virginia, where the boundary had only vaguely been surveyed. After arranging financial backing from London merchants, the group secured two vessels, the Speedwell and the Mayflower, to transport some of them to their new home. The leaders of the initial group were William Bradford Bradford, William and William Brewster Brewster, William .

The original departure date for the Pilgrims’ voyage to America was August 5, 1620. This journey was aborted six days later, however, when the Speedwell proved unfit for an Atlantic crossing. On September 6, the Mayflower sailed alone from Plymouth, in southwestern England. Aboard were 102 passengers. Since one person died and one person was born en route, they arrived in America with the same number. The passengers were divided into two categories. The thirty-five Puritans, led by Bradford and Brewster, were called Saints. The remaining sixty-seven, mostly young men sent by the London merchants to guarantee the economic success of the colony, were called Strangers. The leader of the Strangers was Miles Standish Standish, Miles .

After a rough voyage of sixty-four days in a leaky ship, the weary occupants of the Mayflower rejoiced to sight land on November 9. They had intended to land near the mouth of the Hudson River, then within the boundary of the London Company’s territory, in what later became New York City, but the violent storms of the Atlantic Ocean had blown the vessel much farther north. The land they saw on that day was Cape Cod, in what later became Massachusetts. After a brief attempt to sail south failed because of the dangerous coastline, the leaders decided to seek a landing site near Cape Cod. After five weeks of scouting and several landing parties, they choose an area near the western end of Cape Cod, which a 1614 map by Captain John Smith Smith, John of the Jamestown Colony had already called Plymouth. It was here that the Mayflower landed on December 16, 1620. (This was the date by the Julian calendar then in use; by the present-day Gregorian calendar, the date would be December 26.) A large rock near the landing site was later named Plymouth Rock.

Before disembarking from the Mayflower, realizing the need for unity and order, the leaders of the expedition drew up the Mayflower Compact Mayflower Compact . This historic document was then signed by all of the adult men, who thereby agreed to obey all laws passed by their elected leaders. Some historians classify this compact as the beginning of democracy in America. John Carver Carver, John was elected as the first governor of the colony.

Soon after landing, the Pilgrims were ravaged by disease and starvation. Their hardships were similar to those of the Jamestown colonists in 1607 but complicated by more severe weather. Although they built crude shelters, they had to spend most of the winter aboard the Mayflower. Christopher Jones, Jones, Christopher the captain of the Mayflower, refused to abandon the colonists during the harsh winter, even though he and his crew suffered the same afflictions as the Pilgrims. Jones died of chills and a fever a few months after returning to England. By early spring, only about fifty of the colonists were still alive. Warm weather brought new hope, however, and when the Mayflower sailed for England in April, not one of the survivors was on board.

In March of 1621, the colonists were shocked when a young Native American walked into their village and addressed them in English. He identified himself as Samoset Samoset , a sachem, or chief, of the Pemaquid Pemaquids tribe in what later became the state of Maine. Samoset had apparently learned some English from fishermen along the coast. Two weeks later, Samoset returned with Tisquantum, better known as Squanto Squanto . Squanto was a member of the Pawtuxet Pawtuxets tribe, which occupied much of present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The Pilgrims holding their first Sabbath service after landing in the New World.

(Gay Brothers)

In 1605, Squanto and two other Pawtuxet Indians had been kidnaped and taken to England by English adventurers. He was returned to his tribe in 1614 by Captain John Smith, during Smith’s mapmaking explorations. Nine years of residence in England enabled Squanto to become fluent in the English language, making him a valuable interpreter between the English colonists and the native tribes. Before Smith could make use of his services, however, Squanto was again captured, this time by Thomas Hunt, Hunt, Thomas a ship’s captain left behind by John Smith. He was sold as a slave in Spain but escaped to England and returned thence to America in 1619, only to find that his tribe had been wiped out by disease, probably smallpox brought by Europeans. The site of Squanto’s village became the location of the Plymouth Colony.

Samoset, Squanto, and Edward Winslow Winslow, Edward of Plymouth soon arranged a meeting between Governor John Carver Carver, John and Massasoit Massasoit , grand sachem of the Wampanoags Wampanoags who controlled southeastern Massachusetts. At this historic meeting, Carver and Massasoit signed a treaty of friendship that lasted until Massasoit’s death in 1661. Carver’s contribution to Plymouth was strong but short. His wisdom helped guide the colonists through their first winter, but he died soon after his meeting with Massasoit, only four months after landing at Plymouth Rock. William Bradford was then elected governor, serving in that position all but five of the years between 1621 and his death in 1657.

During the summer of 1621, with the aid of their native friends and Miles Standish, the Pilgrims planted, hunted, and fished. By fall, their harvest was so bountiful that Governor Bradford proclaimed a thanksgiving celebration. The Pilgrims invited their friends among the local Indian tribes to join them, and about ninety, led by Massasoit, arrived, bringing five deer for the feast.


From 1621 to 1630, the colony experienced slow but steady growth. Periodically, ships from England brought more settlers and more supplies. The debts to the London merchants, with their exorbitant interest rates, were paid off. By 1643, the colony included ten towns and about twenty-five hundred people. The Plymouth Colony Plymouth Colony continued growing until 1691, when it became part of the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony Massachusetts Bay Colony . In the course of that merger, the Separatist Puritans of Plymouth were absorbed by the more numerous nonseparatists, who had established the Puritan Congregational church while still officially recognizing the Anglican Church.

Along with other English North American colonies, the Plymouth Colony proved to be of great economic value to England. By providing such products as cotton, timber, and furs and creating a market for English manufactured goods, these colonists helped pave the way for England’s growth as a world leader. The subsequent British acquisition of Dutch New Netherland and of French Canada secured that position. At the same time, the establishment of a Puritan theocracy in Massachusetts meant that the religious freedom of the Pilgrims was earned at the expense of English colonists of other faiths. As Puritanism became the state religion of Massachusetts, English immigrants fled from the Puritans own brand of religious persecution to found colonies in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and elsewhere.

Further Reading

  • Ames, Azel. The Mayflower and Her Log, July 15, 1620-May 6, 1621. With new additions by Jeffrey A. Linscott. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, 1998. Originally published in 1901, the book contains the Mayflower’s log and information about the ship, its crew, and itspassengers. Linscott has added a preface and index.
  • Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647. Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970. A primary source by one of the major participants of the Plymouth Colony. Includes notes and an introduction by Morison, a noted historian, and valuable appendices.
  • Caffrey, Kate. The Mayflower. Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Stein & Day, 1974. Provides background for the Mayflower and its historic voyage. Many appendices, including passenger lists and the Mayflower Compact.
  • Deetz, James, and Patricia Scott Deetz. The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony. New York: W. H. Freeman, 2000. Describes how the Plymouth colonists lived, including how they maintained order, their relations with Native Americans, gender relations, and hearth and home.
  • Dillon, Francis. The Pilgrims. New York: Doubleday, 1975. Presents the economic, political, and religious background of the Puritan exodus from England. Explains the difficulties of a frontier settlement.
  • Fiore, Jordan D., ed. Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims of Plymouth. Plymouth, Mass.: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1985. A primary account of the early years at Plymouth, from accounts by Bradford and others. Illustrations and maps, including the 1614 map by John Smith.
  • Goodwin, John A. The Pilgrim Republic. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1879. Reprint. New York: Kraus Reprint, 1970. A historical review of the Plymouth Colony that compares it to other New England colonies. Goodwin provides an explanation of Puritan beliefs.
  • Stratton, Eugene Aubrey. Plymouth Colony: Its History and People, 1620-1691. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, 1986. A concise chronological and topical history, describing life in the colony. Contains more than three hundred biographical sketches of colonists.

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