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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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In Search of Freedom - Part II
By Judy Leithe

William Bradford later became a prominent figure in Colonial American history.  But, at age 18, he and his fellow Separatists realized they would have to flee England in order to freely practice their religious beliefs.  The Netherlands offered fewer religious constraints, but attempting to leave English soil proved to be perilous, as they were being pursued by, "a large body of horse and foot...armed to capture them."  Due to these dangers, ship captains, willing to ferry them to the Netherlands, charged the Separatists exorbitant rates for passage; and rough seas nearly drove them off course. 

Arriving in Amsterdam, in 1607-08, our weary travelers found, "a strange and uncouth language...customs and attire."  Even moving to the smaller city of Leyden, as non-citizens, they would be hired only as poorly-paid laborers --  work that was so strenuous that children and adults aged prematurely, and some died from overwork.  The Separatists came from farming and herding backgrounds.  However, during their 11-year stay in Leyden, some were able to learn trades, like William Bradford, who was able to support his family as a silk weaver. 

In 1609, the same year the Separatists arrived in Leyden, the Netherlands entered into a 12-year truce from war with Spain.  But, as the period of the truce was ending, it was feared that Spain would once again try to conquer the Netherlands, bringing with it the terrifying Spanish Inquisition, whose task was to root out any opposition to the Roman Catholic Church.  

To curry favor with Spain, in 1619 the Netherlands passed a law outlawing Separatists, which did not bode well for William Bradford's group, who now saw themselves as Pilgrims.  They had considered joining the English Colony in the New World, but there was real concern at having to face the unknown savages in this new land.  Although, looking at their limited options, they decided dealing with the natives would be less fearful than facing the Spanish Inquisition!

With few resources, the Pilgrims sought financing for their Atlantic crossing from a group known as Merchant Adventurers, offering to repay their debt with fish and furs from once they established themselves in Virginia.  Even with their investors and, after selling all of their belongings, they still didn't have the funds to finance their voyage.  Forced to share ship accommodations with "adventurers" who were seeking to make their fortunes in America, the 102 Pilgrims finally set sail for what they thought would be the Virginia Colony in the New World.

After eight grueling months at sea, the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower must have been thankful when they heard, "land ahoy," even though they were 240 miles north of their intended destination of Virginia.  Next week: The Mayflower weighs anchor at Plymouth Rock.