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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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THE PILGRIMS - Part II: The Mayflower Compact

The ship that brought the Puritans across the Atlantic Ocean to Massachusetts was not a passenger ship.  The Mayflower was a cargo ship.  In times of conflict, it was also pressed into service as an English war ship.  However, in 1620, it was chartered to carry 102 Puritans, now known as Pilgrims, on what would become a stormy voyage across the Atlantic to the New World.  A second ship, the Speedwell, was also chartered for the voyage but was forced to return to England due to harsh weather conditions.  

The Mayflower was a typical English merchant ship of the 17th century measuring approximately 90' in length and 26' wide.  The upper deck housed the heavy cargo-moving apparatus and three large masts.  There were elevated quarters above the top deck, fore and aft, for the captain and crew.  The lowest level of the ship was used to stow provisions and cargo.  The middle deck housed the guns, cannon, and ammunition stores. 

The middle deck was the only space the Pilgrim families could occupy for the duration of their 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 not only had to work around the ship's armaments, their own sail boat and supplies also took up space.  Throughout the 66-day voyage the women and children remained in their quarters due to rough sea conditions.   

Rather than reaching its intended destination of the Jamestown Colony, winer storms drove the Mayflower north along the eastern seaboard.  Once it became clear their ship was off course, the Pilgrims consulted Captain John Smith's book, A Description of New England.  Smith's explorations and maps of th New
World were invaluable to all who ventured into these uncharted lands.  He published this book after having explored the Massachusetts' mainland six years earlier, in 1614.

Now that their ship, and their destinies, had been rerouted the weary travellers must have been grateful to read Smith's positive reports about the Massachusetts' territory.  He wrote about a site he deemed "ideal" for another English colony.  He named it, Plymouth, after the English port city by the same name.  It was located on high ground with access to fresh water from a nearby river.  There was evidence of an earlier encampment of indigenous people, as well as remnants of cultivated fields.  The native tribe had apparently been decimated by a foreign virus most likely from having contact with Europeans.  English and Dutch mariners had been fishing this northern harbor for cod since the early 1600s calling it, Cape Cod Bay.    

After travelling 580 miles north of Jamestown, the Mayflower finally dropped its anchor just south of Cape Cod Bay.  During the long Atlantic passage, 30-year-old William Bradford emerged as a respected community leader.  He began keeping a record of their aspirations and experiences in a journal he titled, Of Plymouth Plantation, which he maintained for the next three decades. 

Additionally, while their ship lay anchored in the the bay, Bradford and other leaders were instrumental in the writing of the Mayflower Compact, a 200-word document which created the first formal government in the New World.  The purpose of the compact was to creaste a system of self-governance made up of just and equal laws for its citizens, as opposed to a monarchy.  The Compact became the first formal government in the New World, and was studied and imitated by future colonies.
The cold winds of winter were already being felt.  As a scouting party prepared to search the coastline for the location of Captain Smith's Plymouth site, Bradford wrote in his journal, “Summer was gone…and winter, sharpe and violent, lay ahead…” He continued, “There was the mighty ocean which they had passed…” however, ahead of them they saw, “desolate wilderness…” and feared rumors of savages,“…who would readily fill their sides full of arrows.”

The captain of the Mayflower was not happy that he had to wait out the winter anchored in the Massachusetts' harbor. He often warned the Bradford group that as soon as spring arrived, he would deposit the them on shore and sail back to England.  In the meantime, the ice-encrusted ship was home for the passengers and crew for the next four months.  As weather permitted scouting parties went ashore to hunt game and gather grains, however, food was so scarce, mothers often went hungry as they gave their protions to their children.