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The Church

In the 1500s, King Henry VIII was aware of the importance of having a son and heir. When his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, only provided him with a daughter, Henry wanted a divorce. However, he was unable to get one from the Pope and so decided to break away from the Roman Catholic Church. Henry VIII created his own church, with its own rules; it was called the Church of England. In doing this, Henry was expelled by the Pope and the reformation of the English churches had started.

Many believed that Henry’s new church was still too similar to the Pope’s and wanted even more changes. Some wanted to separate it from other churches by purifying it of all Catholic practices. They became known as the Puritans. However, others believed that you could not change the church and that the only way to form a new group was to break away entirely. They became known as the Separatists. Unfortunately, for the Separatists, if you did not follow the state religion, the Church of England as set out by King Henry VIII, you would be prosecuted.    

The Separatists

Many of the Separatists came from Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. One of the Separatists was William Brewster. He had been inspired by the radical words of Richard Clifton, the rector of the nearby village of Babworth. It is believed that Brewster founded a Separatist church in his family home, the manor house at Scrooby. He was respected as an elder and spiritual guide, and played a significant role in the congregation’s later journeys. Brewster strongly influenced William Bradford from Austerfield, near Doncaster. Bradford went on to become Plymouth Colony’s Governor, serving the colony for more than 30 years. William Bradford’s journal, Of Plimoth Plantation, records everything that happened to the group, including how they had become so persecuted that they could no longer live peacefully.

The preacher of a Separatist group in Gainsborough, John Smyth, decided that he and his congregation would emigrate in pursuit of their religious freedom. They slipped quietly away from Gainsborough, later reappearing in Amsterdam.

The Scrooby congregation made their first attempt to escape to Holland via Boston in Lincolnshire. In the autumn of 1607, they travelled secretly to Scotia Creek near Boston, where they had charted a ship to smuggle them out of the country. But the captain betrayed them and they were held and tried at Boston’s Guildhall. After a month’s imprisonment, most were released.

Undeterred, the following year, the Scrooby Separatists travelled north to board a ship at Immingham. Again though, they were pursued. This time, the men escaped to Holland. However, the women and children were on a separate boat and were caught. They were freed eventually, and all were reunited in Amsterdam. 


Leiden, the Netherlands

The Separatists found life in Holland difficult. They had come from a rural area in England and were not used to the urban context they now found themselves in. Many were not used to the change in labour and earnt very little money. The parents also became worried that their children were being influenced by the Dutch and would forget about their English roots.

After living in Holland for nearly 12 years, some of the Separatists decided they needed to move again, so they spoke with the congregation that was still back in England and decided that they would all travel together to Virginia, America, and start a new community. They would build a new place where they would be able to live and worship as they pleased.  

The trip would be expensive. To help raise the money, the Separatists made an agreement with the Virginia Company, a company created to establish colonies on the coast of North America. The Company needed people to settle in their colonies in America and send back goods for trade. The Separatists would be committed to returning the investment to the Company.

The Separatists in Holland sold their personal belongings in order to buy a ship called the Speedwell. They set sail in August 1620 from Delfshaven, Holland. They headed to England to meet the Mayflower.

The Mayflower

Those in England had hired a ship called the Mayflower, a three-masted, armed merchant ship, about 100 feet long and 25 feet at her widest. The ship was built in Harwich, and commanded and part-owned by her Master, Captain Christopher Jones. In 1611, Jones decided to leave Harwich and move south to Rotherhithe, London, a mile downstream on the Thames from the Tower of London.

Many dissenters from the London Borough of Southwark had fled to Holland but others continued to meet in secret. In 1620, they were given permission to sail to America. They joined the Mayflower and set sail for Southampton, to meet the Speedwell.

Southampton had established trading links with Virginia and Newfoundland, so there was an experienced pool of sailors who had previously made the dangerous Atlantic crossing. It is thought that this is where William Brewster slipped aboard, having been in hiding after publishing religious material that angered King James.

There were already concerns about the Speedwell,that required repairs after developing a leak. But on the 15th August, the two ships weighed anchor and set sail.


The two ships had not gotten very far when the Speedwell began to take on water again. It may have been because she carried too much sail, straining her timbers, or the direct result of sabotage by a reluctant crew. They changed course for Dartmouth, Devon. It took about a week for the port’s skilled craftsmen to make good the damage.

Unfortunately, the second attempt did not go as hoped either. The Mayflower and the Speedwell were 300 miles clear of Land’s End when the smaller ship yet again began leaking badly and could not risk continuing. The two boats turned about for Plymouth.

By this time, the cramped, damp and miserable passengers had already spent up to six weeks at sea, basically getting nowhere. With a fair wind and good fortune, they would have hoped to be nearing America by then.

The Speedwell was finally declared unfit for the journey. Some of the Pilgrims dropped out. The remainder crowded onto the Mayflower, which required re-provisioning, despite funds running low.

She left Plymouth on 16th September, with up to 30 crew and 102 passengers on board. Just under half of them were Separatists, or Saints. They used the name Saints as a way to indicate that they were part of a particular group with a certain set of beliefs. The rest were known as Strangers, as this is how the Saints viewed all others outside of their group. The Strangers were a group of skilled tradespeople sent by the investors to help build the new colony.

Getting to America

It was crowded on the ship, and many endured hunger and terrible living conditions, but this was only a sign of what was to come. To make matters worse, the winter storms blew the ship off course. Instead of landing in New Virginia, the ship arrived in Cape Harbour, at what is now Provincetown, on 21st November 1620.

That day, the settlers wrote the Mayflower Compact. Signed by 41 men on board, the compact was an agreement to cooperate for the general good of the colony. They would deal with issues by voting, establish constitutional law and rule by the majority. This was later claimed to be the foundations of American democracy.

A few days later, Susannah White gave birth to a son aboard the Mayflower, the first English child born in New England. He was named Peregrine, derived from the Latin for ‘pilgrim’.

Having the need for clean water and fertile land, a Pilgrim party went ashore to explore the area for the first time, on 25th November. Having spotted a small group of Native Americans, the Pilgrims tried to follow them but got lost in the woods and stuck amongst some dense thickets. They decided to change course and came across cleared land where corn had been grown. As well as finding corn, that they took back to the Mayflower, they also found graves. The village had been home to the Wampanoag and called Patuxet but had been deserted following the outbreak of a plague.

The colonist would face no resistance in settling there. They departed the bleak shores of Provincetown and arrived, finally, in Plymouth Bay, Massachusetts, on 26th December 1620.


Plymouth, Massachusetts

It was difficult in this new land. The winter was cold and many of the passengers stayed on board the Mayflower. The ship became home to the sick and dying, with many succumbing to a mixture of contagious diseases. By the end of the first winter, just under half of the crew and passengers had survived.

The colony feared an attack by the Native Americans. In February, Captain Christopher Jones oversaw the moving of the cannons from the ship onto land. Each cannon would have weighed almost half a ton.

Once his crew had started to recover from disease, Jones sailed the Mayflower back to England at the beginning of April. It took him less than half the time to sail home, than on their outward journey.


During March 1621, an English speaking Native American, named Samoset, entered the grounds of the Plymouth colony and introduced himself. He is said to have asked for a beer and spent the night talking with the settlers. Samoset, later, brought another Native American, Squanto, to meet the Pilgrims. Squanto’s English was more advanced. They arranged a meeting with the Wampanoag chief, Massasoit.

The relationship between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims developed. The Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims how to hunt and grow crops. They began trading furs with each other. Squanto lived with the Pilgrims, acting as an advisor and translator, ensuring their safe and prosperous relationships with other natives.

In the autumn of 1621, the colonists celebrated a successful and bountiful harvest in a three day festival of prayer with the Wampanoag. This has become known as the first Thanksgiving.

The Wampanoag

Each tribe in New England had their own territory in which to fish, harvest and hunt. The boundaries for hunting were very strict as some areas had large populations. The Wampanoag people knew how to work with the land and moved between sites to get the best of their harvest. They spent the summer near the shore and the winter in land, amongst the woods.

The Wampanoag worked as a confederation, a number of groups united together. A head Sachem managed a Sachem from each of the groups. Within this organisation, family and group links were the most important, connecting them to each other and their territory.

The Wampanoag had already had contact with Europeans. In the 16th century, European merchant ships had sailed the East coast of America. Captains of the ships increased their profits by capturing the Native Americans and selling them as slaves. In 1614, Captain Thomas Hunt captured many Wampanoag and sold them as slaves in Spain. One, Tisquantum (or Squanto), was bought by Spanish monks. They tried to convert him but ended up freeing him.

In the years before the Mayflower landed, The Wampanoag had been attacked by neighbouring tribes, losing land along the coast. Then, sometime between 1616 and 1619, up to 90% of the population was killed during an outbreak of disease. It is thought that the diseases were brought over by Europeans, meaning the colonists had some immunity but the Native Americans were highly susceptible. The losses were so devastating that the Wampanoag had to reorganise its structure and Sachems had to join together and build new unions.

The Narragansett tribe had not been affected by the epidemics and therefore remained a powerful tribe. They demanded that the Wampanoag show them honour and tribute. Massasoit, from the Wampanoag people, formed an ally with the English at Plymouth Colony to help fend off any attacks from the Narragansett.

In 1621, the Narragansett sent the Plymouth colony a threat of arrows wrapped up in snake skin. William Bradford, who was governor of the colony, filled the snake skin with powder and bullets and sent it back. The Narragansett knew what this message meant, and would not attack the colony.


Modern Response

The Native American activist group, The United American Indians of New England, continues to raise awareness of racism towards Native Americans and the consequences of colonialism. When the Wampanoag leader, Frank James, was informed that his speech was inappropriate and inflammatory for the annual Thanksgiving ceremony 1970, he refused to read their revised speech. Supporters followed James to hear him give his original speech on Cole’s Hill, next to the statue of Massasoit. This became the first National Day of Mourning, which continues today in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on the same day as Thanksgiving.



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