TEN days to Thanksgiving and counting. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday between now and Thanksgiving I will be posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory. So far I’ve focused mainly on some of the ways we have mythologized the Pilgrim story over the years. This week I want to contextualize the First Thanksgiving as accurately as I can, beginning with the storied voyage of the Mayflower.


This nearly exact replica of the original Mayflower is permanently docked in Plymouth Harbor, not far from where the original vessel first dropped anchor in December 1621.

This nearly exact replica of the original Mayflower is permanently docked in Plymouth Harbor, not far from where the original vessel first dropped anchor in December 1621.

Although the legendary “voyage of the Mayflower” is now enshrined in national lore, we actually don’t know much about it. William Bradford summarized the voyage in a couple of pages in his History of Plymouth Plantation, and almost everything we know about it comes from that brief account. We do know that the voyage of the Mayflower began as the voyage of the Mayflower and the Speedwell. Whereas the 180-ton Mayflower had been chartered by the London merchants who were financing the Pilgrims’ undertaking, the 60-ton Speedwell actually belonged to the Pilgrims, who had purchased it with an eye to using it for a fishing boat once they had relocated to America.

On August 5, 1620 the Speedwell and Mayflower weighed anchor and headed west from Southampton, England. They carried perhaps as many as 150 passengers, a combination of “saints” (mostly Puritan Separatists from northern England who had relocated years earlier to Leiden, Holland) and “strangers” (individuals recruited by the London financiers who were bankrolling the journey). In one of history’s great anticlimaxes, the Speedwell began to leak “as a sieve” almost before clearing the harbor, and within a few days both vessels were forced to put in at Dartmouth, a mere seventy-five miles along the coast.

After some minor mending they again put out to sea, but after sailing two hundred miles or so beyond the westernmost tip of England, the Speedwell sprouted leaks so severe that her master swore that they must return to port or go to the bottom. This time they put in at Plymouth, some fifty miles west of Dartmouth, where they wasted several more days scrutinizing the hull for leaks. Finding none, her master, a Captain Reynolds, concluded that the culprit was “the general weakness of the ship” and that continuing with the vessel was out of the question.

Although they didn’t know it at the time, there is reason to suspect that the Pilgrims were being dealt with falsely by pretended friends. According to William Bradford, members of the crew later confessed that Speedwell had been sabotaged—by order of its own captain, no less. In refitting the ship before leaving Holland, they had supplied her intentionally with masts that were too large. Whenever these were “too much pressed with sail” the stress on the hull was more than it could withstand and the ship would leak; reduce sail, and the leaking would immediately cease.

Bradford attributed this “cunning and deceit” to the captain’s desire to get out of his commitment. Seeing that the ship was poorly provisioned and fearing that the “victuals” would run out before his contract did, the captain had “forgot all duty” and ordered every inch of sail unfurled, with the result that he soon had the excuse for turning back that he wanted. Years later, Bradford’s nephew would hear rumors of a different motive, namely that the Dutch, who wished to undermine English efforts to settle near the Hudson River, had “fraudulently hired” the captain to effect “delays while they were in England.

Whatever Captain Reynolds’s motive, this much is sure: his duplicity, if duplicity it was, had enormous consequences. By wasting a month of fair weather and delaying the Pilgrims’ final departure until the end of summer, he had multiplied the dangers they would face, both during the voyage and after their arrival. He had also greatly reduced the size of the exodus, for his sabotage of the Speedwell forced between a fourth and a third of the intended passengers to turn back. Actually, “forced” is not the right word. Bradford reported that “those that went back were for the most part such as were willing so to do.” According to Pilgrim deacon Robert Cushman—who would be among those waving goodbye from the dock—a number of the passengers had already begged to abandon the voyage when the ships had been at Dartmouth.

It was not just the dangers of the voyage ahead. With every day of delay they were eating up provisions intended to sustain them after they arrived. The postponement was reducing their already slim chances of erecting shelters before the onset of winter, and it was also affording them ample time to realize just how divided and disheartened they really were. “If ever we make a plantation,” Cushman wrote to a friend, “God works a miracle.”

And so “they made another sad parting,” as Bradford pithily put it, and on September 6th the Mayflower sailed away alone, after first taking on board as many of the Speedwell’s passengers and as much of her stores as they could cram in. Although Bradford was stingy with details, we can be sure that the journey was miserable. By modern standards the ship was tiny, an estimated 113 feet long from the rear of the poop deck to the bowsprit. (For context, that’s less than the distance from home plate to second base). It was only sixty-four feet long at the keel (barely home plate to the pitcher’s mound), and no more than twenty-five feet across at her widest point. In the best case scenario, the crew of twenty or so may have given up a portion of their space, but then that was minimal to begin with. This means that for the next sixty-five days the vast majority of the 102 passengers—including eighteen married couples and thirty-five children and teenagers—would have made their “quarters” in the “tweendecks” area just above the hold.

Mayflower II at Sea

Mayflower II at Sea

At first the weather was fair, but after “a season” they encountered adverse winds, followed by a series of storms so severe that they tossed the Mayflower like driftwood and cracked one of her main beams. Often “the winds were so high and the seas so fierce” that the crew was forced to strike the sails and let the storm carry the vessel where it would; a good barometer of the horrific conditions is the fact that the Mayflower averaged but two miles per hour over the entire voyage.

In such violent tempests a “landlubber” took his life in his hands in venturing above deck. Indeed, a servant named John Howland was swept overboard when he came topside, although he was miraculously saved when “it pleased God” for him to catch hold of a topsail rope that had worked loose and was trailing in the water. The moral was clear—stay below if you would stay alive—with the result that the passengers spent the preponderance of the voyage in the close confines below deck.

For the better part of two months, in other words, the 102 passengers ate, slept, worshipped, and played in an area scarcely larger than a good-sized school bus. (Elizabeth Hopkins even gave birth there, presenting her husband with a son he appropriately named Oceanus.) What the conditions were like we can only begin to imagine. No privacy. No privies. No baths. Minimal ventilation. Plenty of foul odors—from each other and from the chickens, pigs, and goats on board. And seasickness, lots of it, with all of its consequences. No wonder the Pilgrim writers preferred to skip over the voyage.

Nor should we marvel that they “fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven” when they finally sighted land near daybreak on the 9th of November. Not only had God delivered them from the angry North Atlantic, but He had also spared them from the deadly diseases that so commonly ravaged such voyages. Only two individuals had perished during the crossing, a servant named William Button and “a proud and very profane” sailor who had taunted the passengers when they had first become seasick.

But this, too, was an anticlimactic moment. The land on the horizon was not their intended destination near the mouth of the Hudson River, but rather the coast of Cape Cod, some 220 miles to the north. And so, after a brief deliberation, they tacked about and headed south until treacherous shoals along the eastern shore of the Cape blocked their path. At this point they reversed course yet again and sailed back around the northern tip of the Cape into Cape Cod Bay. From there they commenced six agonizing weeks of frigid exploration, as various landing parties combed up and down the shore of present-day Massachusetts in search of a viable location for settlement.

To compound their discouragement, the land they had reached was nothing like they had anticipated. Massachusetts is actually more than six hundred miles south of London, on the same line of latitude as Madrid, Spain. Furthermore, the European explorers and fisherman who had visited the area—and there were many before the Pilgrims—had typically visited during the summertime. These facts had led to the belief, as one English explorer proclaimed as late as 1622, that New England’s climate was similar to that “of Italy and France, the gardens of Europe.” Thus the travelers had been dreaming of a lush landscape and a temperate climate, only to encounter “a hideous and desolate wilderness” at the onset of a “sharp and violent winter.”

Making matters more dismal, “scarce any” of them “were free from vehement coughs,” thanks to the “cold and wet lodging” on the Mayflower, and in an ominous foreshadowing of things to come, four more of the party would die before they had settled on a location. One of these was William Bradford’s wife, Dorothy, although the cause in her case was no “vehement cough.” Dorothy Bradford drowned in the harbor while her husband was exploring the coastline, and the fact that she fell overboard from a ship anchored in shallow water has caused speculation ever since that she might have committed suicide. What Bradford felt at the news about his “dearest consort” can only be imagined. Writing ten years after the tragedy, he could not bring himself even to mention it.


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