The Landing of the Pilgrims

The discovery and settlement of New England was a slow process. It possibly began with the voyages of the Northmen, though the locality of Vinland can never be definitely known. The English claim to the territory was based on the voyages of the Cabots, in which the coast was visited from the far north to the thirty-eighth (or perhaps to the thirty-sixth) degree of north latitude. The New England coast was afterwards visited by Cortereal, by Verrazano, and by several later voyagers. Yet during the sixteenth century no part of it was explored, and no effort made at colonization. Gosnold, in 1602, made an unsuccessful attempt to plant a colony on Martha's Vineyard. Martin Pring made a trading-voyage to the coast in 1603. In 1605 George Weymouth entered the Kennebec or the Penobscot River. About the same time the French essayed to plant a colony on Cape Cod, but were driven off by the Indians. In 1606 the Plymouth and London Companies, for the purpose of planting colonies in America, were formed in London, the patent of the first-named covering the coast of New England, to which a colony was sent in 1607. It landed at the mouth of the Kennebec River, but the colonists became discouraged, and returned on the ships, with the exception of forty-five, who spent a long and severe winter on the coast and returned to England in the following spring. A party of French established themselves on Mount Desert Island in 1613, but were driven off after a few weeks' stay by Captain Argall, of Virginia.

The next effort to colonize this region was made by Captain John Smith, who had already given permanence to the Virginia colony by his shrewdness and energy. He explored the coast in 1614, and made a map of it, giving its present name to the country. But his earnest efforts to found a colony failed, through discouraging circumstances, and despite his persistent endeavors. Other voyages were made, and a trading-party remained on the coast during the winter of 1616-17, but all such efforts to establish trading-colonies ended in failure, and it was not until the arrival of the Puritan agriculturists in 1620 that a permanent colony was formed.

No detailed explanation as to who the Puritans were is here demanded. It will suffice to say that long before the establishment of the English Episcopal Church by Henry VIII. there had been in England a large body of religious reformers, and that after that period these continued to exist, under the titles of Non-Conformists, Separatists, Brownists, etc., despite the persecutions to which they were subjected. Among the congregations of Separatists are two with which we are particularly concerned. One was gathered at Gainsborough, in Lincolnshire, the other at the village of Scrooby, in Nottinghamshire. They were composed of simple agriculturists, yet they found the repression of religious liberty to which they were subjected so intolerable that they determined to emigrate to Holland, where they had heard that freedom of thought was permitted. After great difficulty, the Scrooby congregation succeeded in reaching Amsterdam, where they found the Gainsborough people, and a London congregation that had emigrated some twelve or fifteen years before. In 1616 they removed to Leyden. But the political agitation which arose in Holland made that country a disagreeable place of residence, and they finally determined to emigrate to America, where they might be free to worship God in their own way without hindrance.

They well knew the perils and difficulties they would have to encounter, and even magnified them, but were prepared to endure them all for the blessing of religious liberty. Some thought of joining the colony in Virginia; others, of going to Guiana, where Sir Walter Raleigh then was, on a second visit. Negotiations were entered into with the Dutch, with a view to emigrate to the Hudson. But they finally concluded to establish a new colony on the northern American coast, where they would be free from any interference with their fixed purposes. In July, 1620, they embarked for England in the ship Speedwell. Here, in the port of Southampton, they found the Mayflower, a vessel of one hundred and eighty tons' burden, which had been engaged for the voyage. Two starts were made, but in each case they were obliged to return, the Speedwell proving unseaworthy. Finally, on September 6, the Mayflower sailed alone, and "put to sea with a prosperous wind." Among the leading spirits of the expedition may be named Bradford and Brewster, members of the original Scrooby congregation, Winslow, a personage of superior condition to his companions, who had joined them in Holland, and Miles Standish, who was not a member of the church, but who loved adventure, and whose military knowledge was of great value to the emigrants.

At early dawn of the sixty-first day of their voyage (November 9, 1620) they came in sight of the white sand-banks of Cape Cod. In pursuance of their original purpose, they veered to the south, but by the middle of the day they found themselves "among perilous shoals and breakers," which caused them to retrace their course. An opinion afterwards prevailed, on questionable grounds, that they had been purposely led astray by the master of the vessel, induced by a bribe from the Dutch, who were averse to having them near the mouth of the Hudson, which Dutch vessels had begun to visit for trade.

The narrow peninsula, sixty miles long, which terminates in Cape Cod, projects eastwardly from the mainland of Massachusetts, in shape resembling the human arm bent rectangularly at the elbow and again at the wrist. In the basin enclosed landward by the extreme point of this projection, in the roadstead of what is now Provincetown, the Mayflower dropped her anchor at noon on a Saturday near the close of autumn, November 11.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 1)