In 1620 the Mayflower brought a small band of English men, women, and children across the Atlantic to settle in America. It was not the first such voyage, nor would it be the last. But the people who sailed on the Mayflower--later called “Pilgrims”—became enshrined in American history.
Seventeenth Century Ships
We do not know what the Mayflower looked like, but enough evidence survives to make some educated guesses. Mayflower was a typical merchant vessel of the period, a three-masted sailing ship of about 180 tons. “Ton” in this case does not mean 2,000 pounds of weight. Rather, it means the ship’s hold could accommodate 180 casks or tuns (tons) of wine. There were tall castle-like projections fore and aft, and the bow was rounded, not pointed.
In the 1950s a faithful replica was designed by naval architect William A. Baker. Now on display at near Plimoth Plantation, it can give us an idea of what the original ship must have been like. Mayflower II is 106 and a half feet long, with a beam of 25 and a half feet, and a draft of 13 feet
Ships like the Mayflower were the backbone of Britain’s commercial empire. Even its name was not special—there were perhaps dozens of ships that were called Mayflower. “Mayflower,” in fact, is the blossom of the hawthorn plant. A representation of the blossom is carved on the ship’s stern.
History of the Mayflower Before 1620
The first real record of the Mayflower is found in 1609. The ship’s master (today Captain) was one Christopher Jones. For more than a decade Mayflower carried British goods—cloth, fox and rabbit fur, iron and pewter—to French and Spanish ports. On return trips, the cargo would be French wine, some vinegar and salt. Mayflower was considered a “sweet ship,” because wine spillage in the hold countered the stench of the bilge.
Life Aboard the Mayflower
Sailing on a seventeenth century ship was never easy, but a mid-Atlantic crossing was dirty, uncomfortable, and hazardous. After a false start Mayflower set sail for America in August, 1620. It was late in the season, and with the coming of fall there would be fierce Atlantic storms. The ship was indeed buffeted, but survived.
There were 102 passengers crammed into Mayflower’s hold. Roughly forty or so were “Saints,” also known as Separatists. Religious dissenters, they rejected the state’s Anglican Church. The rest, called “strangers,” were a mixed bag of indentured servants, craftsmen, and others.
Food rations were monotonous at best, and not very nutritious. Salt fish, hard tack, salt beef, and cheese were the daily fare. Sanitation was primitive even by seventeenth century standards. Wooden “chamber pot” buckets were used as toilets, and there was little real privacy. Since water was limited, passengers had to wear the same set of clothes for the entire voyage—in this case, about nine weeks.
Mayflower in New England
Mayflower finally arrived in America in November, 1620. It was an area that famed explorer and Jamestown adventurer John Smith had dubbed New England a few years before. The original plan had been to settle in “Northern Virginia”—what roughly corresponds to the New York-Hudson River area. They were plainly farther north than their original goal, but decided to stay.
The celebrated “Mayflower Compact" was the first frame of government, and one of the roots of today’s Massachusetts Commonwealth—a government not of anarchy, but under the rule of law. It was signed in the Mayflower’s stern “great cabin.” The Compact is considered one of the important documents of American history.
The first winter in New England was wet and cold. Mayflower stayed the entire winter, providing support for the struggling colonists. Many died of sickness and exposure, but it might have been worse if Christopher Jones and his sturdy ship had not remained..
Mayflower’s Later History
The Mayflower left the new settlement—now called Plimoth (Plymouth) Colony–in 1621. Perhaps suffering from the effects of that harsh winter, Christopher Jones died March 5, 1622. His ship was then idle, tied up to a dock not far from where he was buried. In 1624 the Mayflower was appraised, and valued at a mere 128 pounds. The low assessment probably means the ship had been neglected, allowed to slowly rot away. Its subsequent fate is unknown, but it was probably broken up for scrap.
Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower (Penguin, 2007)
Cyril Leek Marshall, The Mayflower Destiny (Stackpole, 1975)
Daniel J. Boorstin et al, America’s Historylands (National Geographic Society, 1986)