Legendary Mayflower Ship – The Vessel That Changed History and Brought America Its First Pilgrims

The Mayflower was a well-known merchant trading vessel with special significance in American and British history. In 1620, this ship ferried 102 passengers and around 30 crew members from Plymouth in England, to Massachusetts in the US.

They set up many permanent New England colonies in North America. These passengers were called English Pilgrims and lived alongside the Native American Indians and other travellers who had settled in small areas of the continent.

What Commenced the Journey?

The pilgrims, in this case, were people who believed life in the Western part of the world to be one of the New World – where opportunities could be found in larger capacities and where they were free from religious persecution. Men, women and children comprised the 102 passengers in the Mayflower ship that undertook the journey and created a place for itself in the pages of world history.

These people thought that the Church of England had begun systematic oppression and wished to leave England for this reason. They were also called separationists since they disagreed with King Henry VIII on the powers and operations of the Church.

Initially, they received asylum in the city of Leiden in Holland which was religiously tolerant then. However, many factors plagued the group, ultimately forcing them to leave Holland. They lived under the constant fear of being expelled or branded criminals. The threat of a Spanish conquest also created additional dangers. Lastly, they were beginning to lose their identity and assimilate into Dutch society. To escape to the “New Land” and start life afresh, many of these puritans began planning sea voyages to reach North America.

At that time, small colonies were already spread throughout certain parts of the Eastern coast of North America. They lived alongside the continent’s original inhabitants- the Native American Indians. Despite minor skirmishes, both groups had begun to co-exist peacefully, inspiring the Puritans to sail to America.

Planning for the Voyage

Obtaining funding was difficult during this period as voyages were costly, sufficient stocks had to be acquired, and a sturdy boat had to be hired. The expedition was primarily backed by London merchants who hoped to import goods sent from the new lands and sell them locally in Europe. Two boats were chosen for the voyage – the Speedwell, which took a large group of the Puritans, and the Mayflower, which carried other individuals and families.

The people on board the two vessels were classified: as the Saints or Separatists and The Strangers. The saints were the Puritans fleeing persecution and wishing to practice their religious beliefs in peace. On the other hand, the strangers wanted to start a new life for themselves and explore the opportunities of new land. Some initial mistrust existed between the groups, but the hazards of surviving the arduous sea voyage ensured that they got along quickly.

Men, women, and children of all ages comprised the 102 passengers of the Mayflower that undertook the first of many trans-Atlantic journeys and created a place for themselves in the pages of world history.

The Mayflower Ship

Mayflower Ship
Image for representation purposes only.

The Mayflower was a merchant trading vessel before it was used to ferry Pilgrims to the United States. In the early 17th century, the ship regularly sailed the Baltic and French coasts until it came to be used as a passenger’s vessel and was captained by Mr Christopher Jones until he died in 1622.

The Mayflower weighed 180 tons and was designated as a small trading ship designed to handle coastal journeys, not transoceanic voyages. Her main cargo was wine, clothing, and fish. Size-wise, the Mayflower measured around 30 meters in length and was nearly 8 meters at her maximum beam. It was divided into three decks- the main deck, gun deck, and cargo hold, and used three masts for sail power.

Of the many pilgrims on board the Mayflower, two noted individuals were William Bradford and Miles Standish. They served as the Second Governor and First Military Commander at the newly established Plymouth colony. Another person was Edward Winslow, a separatist leader and a skilled diplomat. He was instrumental in brokering peace between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe.

After the trans-Atlantic crossing, the ship returned to England on May 6th 1621, after setting sail from the United States on the 5th of the previous month. After this journey and the death of its Captain and owner Christopher Jones in 1622, the ship was sent for an Admiralty appraisal because it was unused due to its dilapidated condition.

The price that the appraisal committee agreed upon was around 128 pounds, which was relatively less for a ship of the size and calibre of the Mayflower. But owing to its ruinous condition, the agreed amount was considered fair. Interestingly, if the Mayflower Ship had been in operation, the price would have been somewhere near 700 pounds per the appraisal enquiry. Most proceeds from the appraisal went towards settling the estate and accounts of Christopher Jones.

The Voyage And Life on the Mayflower Ship

The life of the passengers on board the Mayflower Ship was like the life of passengers on any ship in that era.

The initial plan for the journey of the two boats (the Mayflower and the Speedwell) was to meet up at Southampton separately and then begin the trip across the Atlantic. The Speedwell was incoming from Holland with the Puritans when it developed a minor leak. After joining the Mayflower at Southampton, repairs were made, and the ships departed from the port on August 15th 1620.

However, further leaks forced them to turn to the port of Dartmouth, where additional repairs were carried out to contain the leaks. Unfortunately, the ship continued taking on water after leaving Dartmouth, and both vessels eventually returned to Plymouth on the English coast.

At Plymouth, some passengers abandoned hopes of reaching America and stayed back. Around 20 others were transferred from the Speedwell to the Mayflower, along with rations and goods. Various theories exist about why the otherwise sturdy Speedwell had developed problems, but nothing could be proven. One theory suggested that the Captain did not wish to sail to America and had created leaks to force the ship back. Other theories suggested that the vessel was severely overcrowded from the people, goods, and livestock on board.

Finally, the Mayflower left Plymouth on September 16th 1620 and sailed Westwards towards North America. The initially planned landing site was the Colony of Virginia, where permission had been granted for the group to arrive and stay. The necessary paperwork had been completed and submitted to the Company of Merchant Adventurers that oversaw operations at the Colony.

The vessel was incredibly cramped, as it was not designed to hold 130 people on board. However, trust rapidly grew between the various groups on board, and they were able to create some measure of order and privacy. Several Puritans ensured that the group stayed motivated by regularly enthralling them with the tales of the wonders awaiting them at the New Land. Several Biblical parallels have been drawn between the Pilgrims and religious persecution throughout history.

The voyage was arduous due to the poor weather and frequent storms that plagued the Mayflower. Living conditions were cramped, and the weather continually battered the ship. Several unfortunate incidents occurred, including the death of a servant on board. However, a baby was born during the voyage and was aptly christened Oceanus.

Food provisions consisted mainly of salted fish, hardtack, salted beef, and cheese. It has to be added that these food products were not nutritious and considerate of the passengers’ health at all. However, unexpected delays in England had reduced the stores on the Mayflower, despite food items being transferred from the Speedwell. Additionally, the Mayflower Ship’s hygiene was questionable, as privacy was non-existent. But it must be noted that despite all these drawbacks, the Mayflower Ship successfully sailed through the Atlantic Ocean and reached North America.

The Pilgrims aimed at berthing close to the Colony of Virginia near the Hudson River, as there were earlier colonies in this region. However, due to the storms and treacherous waters, they landed further North than expected. Rather than attempt a risky South journey by ship, the Pilgrims decided to dock at the first available land in sight. On November 9th, 1620, the coast of Cape Cod came into view, and it was agreed to berth there.

Initial Settlements and Life in America

The Pilgrims settled on Cape Cod in Massachusetts and explored present-day Plymouth while planning where to set up a permanent colony. Initial contacts were made with the local tribes, but no effort was taken to maintain this contact. Moreover, the tribes were wary of the Pilgrims due to their experiences with colonialism and the widespread diseases of the previous century. However, small tokens were left by the local tribes, such as baskets of corn, to help the Pilgrims survive the winter.

Winter at Provincetown (where they initially settled) was extremely harsh, and less than half the initial population survived the extreme conditions. They began setting up houses for the remaining people, and efforts were taken to establish a legal order within the Colony. This was done earlier by the Mayflower Compact that was drawn up on board the Mayflower and signed by 41 men. Miles Standish, a prominent Pilgrim and army officer, was chosen to enforce the Compact, and people were grouped into families to stay together.

At this time, most Pilgrims had died of disease and cold, which forced the Captain of the Mayflower- Christopher Jones, to abandon immediate plans of returning to England. However, as conditions improved amongst his crew members by March of 1621, it was decided to return in April. The Mayflower set sail back to England on April 5th and reached on May 6th, in just half the time it had taken to complete the initial voyage.

Back in America, the Pilgrims began to contact the tribes and learn essential skills. Their first established contact was with the Wampanoag tribe that had lived for over 10,000 years in the area. Thanksgiving, celebrated for the first time in the Autumn of 1621, marked the first successful harvest of the Pilgrims and was celebrated alongside the tribe that had helped them survive. However, over time, mistrust developed between some members of the tribe and the Pilgrims, leading to widespread war and conflicts. This led to several deaths on both sides and irreparably broke the relationship between both groups.

After the wars that chased the Wampanoag tribe out of their ancestral land, the original group of Pilgrims began setting up colonies of their own, which gradually spread colonial occupation all over the continent. Unfortunately, the Compact, which upheld that religious freedom was allowed in the new continent, was violated on several occasions since people with varying beliefs were persecuted (Quakers). These led to divisions amongst the colonists and forced many people out of their colonies.

Legacy and Replica of the Mayflower

Because of the rich history that the Mayflower imparted to England and the United States, a replica of the original Mayflower Ship was built by naval architect William A. Baker and was christened the Mayflower II. This ship is currently on display in the Plimoth (now read as Plymouth) Plantation and measures around 106.5 feet lengthwise, 25.5 feet beam-wise and 13 feet draft-wise.

It was designed in England, using plans drawn up by Baker, who supervised the construction at the shipyards of Devon. The Mayflower II also undertook a journey similar to the one taken by the original Mayflower and reached its destination in just 53 days. It left Plymouth, England, on April 20th 1957 and arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, on June 22nd, 1957.

The replica is considered reasonably accurate, except for specific improvements to ensure the vessel was seaworthy for the long Atlantic journey. It underwent extensive repairs in 2012 to handle various problems that had been brought to the attention of the US Coast Guard. The 400th anniversary of the original voyage was to be celebrated in 2020, but the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has put all plans on hold.


For today’s generation, travelling by ship means taking a cruise across oceans and visiting important places. But sailing on a boat meant seeing the world and learning from new experiences for people of that era. And this is why the journey of the Mayflower Ship needs to be widely commemorated and appreciated so that the world can understand what travelling through the Atlantic waters meant to the people of that generation.

Around 10 million people living in the US can directly trace their ancestry to the original Pilgrims on the Mayflower board. This includes several prominent actors, politicians, business people, and Presidents. Despite the immense significance of the journey, the subsequent history of the colonists in the New Land was filled with wars and violence. This affected the continent’s indigenous inhabitants for the worse, and today, they live as a minority in their lands.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why is the Mayflower ship so famous?

Mayflower is a well-known vessel with special significance in American and British history. In 1620, this ship carried 102 passengers and 30 crew members from Plymouth in England to Massachusetts in the US, establishing the first New England colonies in North America.

2. How many people died on the voyage?

Although the journey was dangerous, fortunately, only one out of the 102 died on the 66-day-long journey. Sadly, their fortunes turned for the worst once they got down at Cape Cod.

3. What was Mayflower used for before becoming a passenger ship?

The Mayflower was a merchant trading vessel before it was used to ferry Pilgrims to the United States. In the early 17th century, the ship regularly sailed the Baltic and French coasts until it came to be used as a passenger’s vessel and was captained by Mr Christopher Jones until he died in 1622.

4. Why was the Mayflower Replica constructed?

Due to its historical significance and popularity, a replica of the original Mayflower Ship was built by naval architect William A. Baker and was christened the Mayflower II. This ship was displayed in Plymouth Plantation. It measures 106.5 feet lengthwise, 25.5 feet beam-wise, and 13 feet draft-wise.

5. What happened to the Mayflower ship?

The vessel was docked in port until April when it departed for England. The actual fate of the ship is unknown and remains a mystery till day. Some say it was ultimately scrapped for its timber used to construct a barn in Buckinghamshire, England.

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References: Britannica, thanksgiving November


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About Author

Zahra is an alumna of Miranda House, University of Delhi. She is an avid writer, possessing immaculate research and editing skills. Author of several academic papers, she has also worked as a freelance writer, producing many technical, creative and marketing pieces. A true aesthete at heart, she loves books a little more than anything else.

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One Comment

  1. i know you are really good with history in famous ships i need to know more about blackbeard and his ship if you can email me some imfo.?????

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