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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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The Pilgrims - Part II
By Judy Leithe

When William Bradford was just 18 years old, he and his fellow Puritans realized they would have to flee England in order to freely practice their religious beliefs. The Netherlands offered fewer religious constraints on such matters, however, leaving England proved to be perilous as they were pursued by British soldiers who were sent to arrest them. Recognizing the desperation of the Puritans, ship captains charged them exorbitant fees to transport them to Holland.

Rough seas nearly drove their ships off course but, the Puritans finally arrived in Amsterdam in 1608. The weary travelers found, “A strange and uncouth language, customs and attire.” Even moving to the smaller city of Leyden, as non-citizens, they could be hired only as poorly-paid laborers – work that was so strenuous that children and adults aged prematurely, some even dying from overwork. The Pilgrims came from farming and herding backgrounds. However, during their eleven-year stay in Leyden, some learned new trades, such as silk weaving, which allowed them to help support their community.

In 1609, Spain threatened war with the Netherlands. Fearing they couldn’t withstand attacks by the powerful Spanish Navy, the Netherlands’ government entered an eleven-year truce with their aggressor. Of additional concern was that, if Spain were to conquer the Netherlands, the terrifying Spanish Inquisition would soon follow. Under its heavy-handed policing, one of its main tasks was to root out any opposition to Spanish rule, especially anti-Catholicism.

As the truce was nearing its end, in 1619, the Netherlands tried to curry favor with Spain by passing a law which outlawed non-Catholics. This did not bode well for Bradford’s group. They considered joining the newly settled Jamestown Colony in Virginia, but had real concerns about having to face the native “savages” in the New World. Although, looking at their limited options, they decided going to Virginia would be less dangerous than facing the Spanish Inquisition!

Because of King James’ relentless harassment of the Puritans, he was convinced to allow them passage to the New World. With few resources, the Pilgrims sought financing for their Atlantic crossing from an English group known as the Merchant Adventurers. The goal of the investors was to make profits by paying the passage for people who wanted to go to North America. Once settled, they would repay their debts to the investors by sending them shipments of fish, fur pelts, and other natural resources from Virginia.

The 102 Pilgrims were finally setting sail for Jamestown, but quickly found they were on board the cramped ships’ quarters with a mix of people with whom they shared little in common.