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THE PILGRIMS - Part II: The Mayflower Compact

The most famous ship in American history was the Mayflower.  However, it was not a passenger ship.  The Mayflower was used for the transportation of cargo, and in times of conflict, it was even pressed into service as a warship to defend England’s maritime interests.  However, in 1620 it was chartered to carry 102 Puritans, along with 60 additional passengers and crew, on a stormy voyage across the Atlantic to the New World.  A second ship called the Speedwell was also chartered, but harsh ocean storms caused it to return to England.

The Mayflower was a typical English merchant ship of the 17th century, measuring 90’ in length and 26’ in width.  The ship’s cargo was stored in the space below deck.  The middle deck housed the gun room, cannons, and ammunition stores.  The upper deck housed the heavy cargo apparatus and three large masts.  The steerage room was on the top deck, and also included sleeping quarters for the captain and the crew.

The gun deck was the only space available to the Puritans for the duration of the voyage.  This meant that 102 people “lived” in a space of about 54’ long by 24’ wide.  The ceiling was just 5’5” high, causing taller passengers to stoop while in a standing position.  In this already cramped space, they also had to work around the ship’s main mast pole and cargo lift, as well as their own sailboat and supplies which they were bringing with them to North America.  During their 66-day voyage, many Puritans choose not to leave their quarters because of the rough seas and the coarse behavior of the crew on the top deck.

Rather than reaching their intended destination of Jamestown, harsh winter storms forced the Mayflower to sail north for nearly six hundred miles until they could safely anchor in the Massachusetts harbor known as Cape Cod Bay.  This aptly named bay was well known to Dutch and British mariners who had fished there for cod for decades.  After leaving Jamestown in 1614, Captain John Smith explored the Cape Cod mainland searching for an “ideal” location for another English colony in the northeast.  He found evidence of a high-ground site with access to fresh water and remnants of a cultivated cornfield.  It appeared that this native community may have traded with European fishermen and was depleted by a foreign virus, for which they had no immunity.  Captain Smith mapped the site and called it Plymouth after the English port of Plymouth.            

During the Puritans’ Atlantic passage, thirty-year-old William Bradford emerged as a respected leader of their community.  He oversaw the writing of the Mayflower Compact, which was completed on November 11, 1620, as The Mayflower anchored in Cape Cod Bay.  Forty-one of the fifty-one male passengers onboard signed the compact which became the first governing document of the New World.  It is interesting to note that the Compact maintained respect for their former country and king.  However, in contrast to having their lives dictated by a king, the Puritans clearly outlined the importance of establishing a “civil body politic,” with “equal laws…constitutions and offices…convenient for the general good of the Colony…” In other words, they chose self-governance as opposed to monarchical rule.  One hundred and fifty years later, John Adams and other founding Fathers, referred to the Mayflower Compact as foundational in their writing of The Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights

By mid-November, the captain of the Mayflower lowered the ship’s anchor just south of the long, curved spit of land that created the bay at Cape Cod.  The cold winds of winter were already being felt as the Pilgrims pondered their future.  Bradford began keeping a journal entitled Of Plymouth Plantation, which he maintained from 1620 – 1647As he and his scouting party prepared to search the coastline for Captain Smith’s Plymouth location, he wrote, “Summer was gone…and winter, sharpe and violent, lay ahead…”  (Bradford continued,) “There was the mighty ocean which they had passed…” however, ahead of them they saw nothing but, “desolate wilderness…” and feared rumors of savages, “…who would readily fill their sides full of arrows.”

The British ship captain was not happy that he had to wait out the winter anchored in Cape Cod Bay. He often warned the Bradford group that as soon as spring arrived, he would deposit them on shore and sail back to England.  In the meantime, as winter set in the ice-encrusted ship was home for the passengers and crew for the next four months.  As weather permitted, scouting parties went ashore to find food and look for Smith’s “ideal” spot for their colony.  The Puritans were now truly Pilgrims, making their way in a foreign land.

Prior to leaving England, the British investors had given instructions that the colony was to operate as a collective, which meant that each family unit was to share whatever crops or goods they produced with the whole community.  In time, it became clear that there were those among their party who did not contribute their fair share of work.  But, just like the Jamestown experience, there were some people who felt free to help themselves to the communal stores of food and supplies.

Bradford wrote in his journal that under this collective system, the colonists “…languished in misery, discontentment…thievery and famine…”  After two difficult years, Bradford parceled out land to individual families to exploit for their own benefit.  “…this had a very good success,” wrote Bradford, “for it made all hands very industrious.”  From that time forward, the colony prospered under Bradford’s new direction, which emphasized community while allowing for individual enterprise and trade among the colonists and native tribes.  William Bradford was repeatedly elected Governor of Plymouth over the next thirty years.

John M. Murrin, et al, Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People (Harcourt College Publishers)