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The Mayflower incident


Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Since we are heading toward the Thanksgiving holiday, I thought I’d write a little about THE ship.

First of all, a little history…

Pictured above is the Mayflower—the larger ship, not the smaller boat—a 180 ton-rated ship, originally built in… perhaps southern England somewhere, sometime… probably circa 1610. I’m guessing it was a merchant ship, which would have made for rustic or primitive accommodations for the passengers (more on the voyage later). 

I have no idea why the Mayflower and this particular voyage is so famous compared to all the other thousands of ships and voyages happening before and after this one. Other religious groups came to America for the same reasons, and other colony settlers, too. If anyone knows this answer I’d love to know.

Traveling back then, well anytime prior to the mid-1800s when they steamships were all the rage, was sloooooowwwww. Everything depended on the weather. A great example is with the Mayflower. The 65 passengers actually embarked, that is they left the port, in the middle of July 1620. The behemoth then moseyed on down the Thames and into the English Channel (for more details see and then anchored for a week or so, waiting for another ship, the Speedwell, with the pilgrims from Holland to show up. Fast forward another couple weeks to August 5(!) and they FINALLY set sail. Now, I’ve been reading about other voyages with ships of the past, and this was pretty much the norm, so from the time a person boarded the ship and actually left the country, it could have been a couple weeks to a month. Onward with the tale.

So, of course, the Speedwell had a severe leak (possibly sabotage was involved), and they had to wait again for repairs. Remember, they were still in England and English waters. They set sail again and it had another leak. The Mayflower abandoned the Speedwell at that point and… it was September by then and still in English waters. The Speedwell‘s 102 pilgrim passengers boarded the Mayflower and joined the English “Merchant Adventurers” tour group (I don’t think it was exactly like that, but I’m relating it to our times now and trying to add a little humor. In reality I think they were being sent to America to help colonize it while the religious group on the Speedwell was trying to get out of the country so they wouldn’t be killed or something worse). I don’t know if the 102 number is the total passengers all together or just the pilgrims in addition to the English tour group already on the Mayflower. There were also the crew members, around 30-40 I imagine, plus the officers. Also, the passengers had some of their smaller-sized livestock, chickens, and pets… dogs, cats, birds. Fun times and probably pretty crowded.

When the Mayflower left England it wasn’t an ideal time to leave, but leaving when they had was probably the last chance that year, otherwise they would have had to wait again to sail in March or April of the following year (1621). With autumn coming on, the weather would be beginning to turn rough with the approaching winter. The Wikipedia article mentions that the Mayflower had acquired contaminated water during one of their stops and had to stop again to get fresh water (so that would be about… 4 stops prior to setting sail for good to America, so… the Mayflower actually may have departed from Cornwall, England, and not Plymouth).

Traveling by sea was a bit of an amusement park ride (probably without the fun) and no doubt, terrifying. Every wave and howling of the wind would be heard, or maybe even felt. With the weather getting rough with approaching winter, the pounding waves cracked a structural support beam. The passengers had to assist the ships carpenter(s) with fixing the ship.

What I’ve found in genealogy is another event that happened on the Mayflower due to the family, and it’s truly a miracle the Mayflower made it to shore at all. If this story is true and not embellished or fabricated: My very own great great great great great great great great great great grandfather, and I have no doubt, many, many other Americans’ gggggggggg grandfather, Francis Billington, a fourteen year old, along with his older brother, John, (members of the Merchant Adventurers Company as were their parents), were either playing around near the stored gunpowder or, (as I’ve read in another story) smoking near the gunpowder and caught something nearby on fire, nearly blowing up THE Mayflower. Apparently, the nearby passengers or crew members were able to put out the fire before things got out of control. Bet that riled up everyone’s blood pressure.

Again, traveling during that time wasn’t the greatest. The Mayflower sighted land (somewhere around Cape Cod, Massachusetts) in early November, but due to the weather and seas, could not reach their intended location in Virginia. (The Merchant Adventurers were scheduled to arrive in Virginia). Imagine how annoying that would be… you book a flight for let’s say, Phoenix, Arizona in January and instead, your pilot drops you off in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and you are stuck there until March of the following year, and you were dressed and all packed for the winter weather of Phoenix and not Minneapolis. One good thing, the captain and crew were stuck there with them for the winter.

In typical American fashion back then, they came across an empty Native American settlement and took it over (and their beans and corn), and messed up their grave sites. I’m pretty sure this didn’t sit well with the Native Americans and tensions ensued. The settlers paid them back for the food they “borrowed” so that was good. (Is that the start of the tradition of Thanksgiving in America?)

They stayed at the cruise ship (Mayflower) during the winter, and some ended up getting sick. Out of all those passengers, in the end half died (also the crew). Those still alive in the spring made another attempt at settling in the area. Apparently, tensions still ensued, so much so that the settlers retrieved the cannons off the Mayflower, afraid of an attack. They ended up moving on down the shore. More colonists arrived and kept on arriving and pushed the Native Americans farther back away from their lands. Tensions kept on ensuing until King Phillip’s War erupted not too long afterward… I have other ancestors involved in that, one particular person who was involved in starting it, in fact. This is another story sometime, maybe. The whole situation annoys me though in the way it was brought about and the the end was extremely barbaric. 

The Mayflower finally left Plymouth to head back to England in April 1621. It arrived in May, much faster than its previous journey. The ship was pretty much empty and the winds were favorable.

I am thankful we no longer need to travel by ship in such a manner any more! One of the best inventions has got to be the airplane.