above Overlooking the landscape at Plimoth Plantation, a living-history museum recreating Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, which helps to tell the Mayflower’s story.

The Mayflower, 1620-2020: tracing voyages of discovery in Plymouth’s past

Four hundred years ago, the Mayflower carried around 100 would-be colonists across the Atlantic to found Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. What can we learn of these voyagers, the city they left behind, and the impact they had on the indigenous people who were already living on the land where they settled? Current Archaeology's Carly Hilts reports.

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Today, Plymouth is home to the largest naval base in western Europe, but it boasts a much longer maritime history. For centuries it served as a gateway to new worlds, launching ambitious expeditions towards distant horizons – voyages that brought prosperity to Britain, but which frequently signalled exploitation rather than exploration to the indigenous communities that they encountered. Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, James Cook, and Charles Darwin all set sail from its port, and the city was the birthplace of another intrepid, if ill-fated adventurer: the polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of another famous journey that set out from Plymouth docks: the sailing of the Mayflower in 1620, which carried the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ across the Atlantic to found a colony in the New World – a settlement that they named ‘Plymouth Plantation’. This milestone is being marked by an exhibition, Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy, at The Box, a new museum recently opened in Plymouth to tell the city’s story (see ‘further information’ box on p.55). What can we learn of the Plymouth that the Mayflower passengers knew?

above Overlooking the landscape at Plimoth Plantation, a living-history museum recreating Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, which helps to tell the Mayflower’s story.
Overlooking the landscape at Plimoth Plantation, a living-history museum recreating Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, which helps to tell the Mayflower’s story. Photo: Plymouth City Council, The Bo.

A nuanced history

The Box’s permanent galleries house a host of artefacts reflecting the lives and interests of post-medieval Plymothians. These objects paint a picture, by the late 1500s, of a diverse mariner community with an eager appetite for new styles – they were early adopters of smoking tobacco, and gladly imported foreign fashions such as Venetian glass beads. In the 17th century, this was undeniably a seafaring town, with more than 600 sailors in residence, and with commercial contacts stretching all over the world. Plymouth’s Port Books document local, British, and international ships coming and going, as well as the cargoes they carried: Newfoundland cod and Irish beef, French wine and Dutch beer, Spanish wool and Italian glass.

The city was also a key player in the early slave trade: Francis Drake may be celebrated for his circumnavigation of the globe aboard the Golden Hind, which departed Plymouth in 1577, but a decade earlier he had made one of the first English slaving voyages to Africa, in a fleet led by his cousin John Hawkins. Such journeys laid the foundations for a European trade that Britain came to dominate by the 1700s. In The Box’s galleries, this heritage is openly acknowledged: artefacts associated with Drake’s life stand opposite a case containing iron neck- and handcuffs – stark reminders of the real people who were forced to wear them, and of the dignity that they were denied. Yet post-medieval Plymouth was also a popular destination for refugees fleeing religious persecution on the Continent – French Protestant Huguenots in the 1600s, while a century later northern European Jews established the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue still active in the English-speaking world.

It was religion that motivated many of the Mayflower passengers to travel, too. A significant portion of the founders of Plymouth Colony were ‘Separatists’ – dissenters who were dissatisfied with the progress of the English Reformation, and believed that the Church of England was still not sufficiently Protestant. Instead, they wanted the freedom to form independent congregations with like-minded individuals – something that was seen as a dangerous challenge to the authority of the state. Bloody religious conflicts between Protestants and Catholics had flared during the reigns of Mary I and Elizabeth I, and the 1605 Gunpowder Plot showed that England under James I was no less volatile. Differences of faith were determinedly (and often violently) suppressed by the anxious authorities, and in 1608 the Separatists left England to settle in the Dutch city of Leiden, where they hoped to be able to worship as they wished. In these more-tolerant surroundings they built a comfortable life for themselves – many found work in the clothing trade, as tailors, weavers, shoemakers, and hatters, while others operated the Pilgrim Press, smuggling books that were banned in England back across the Channel. This sense of safety lasted for a decade, but when the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants began in 1618, it was time to move on, and, by 1620, the community had resolved to emigrate to America.

left Long-held tradition attests that this ornate cup was presented to Francis Drake by Elizabeth I, as a reward for his successful circumnavigation of the globe in fact, analysis suggests it is slightly too late in date to reflect this episode. The Box’s ‘100 Journeys’ gallery features objects that reflect many of the intrepid journeys that have set sail from Plymouth during the city’s history, but also offer a nuanced and carefully balanced portrait of what these voyages meant for the indigenous people that they encountered including a reminder that local hero Drake was also involved in the slave trade.
Long-held tradition attests that this ornate cup was presented to Francis Drake by Elizabeth I, as a reward for his successful circumnavigation of the globe in fact, analysis suggests it is slightly too late in date to reflect this episode. The Box’s ‘100 Journeys’ gallery features objects that reflect many of the intrepid journeys that have set sail from Plymouth during the city’s history, but also offer a nuanced and carefully balanced portrait of what these voyages meant for the indigenous people that they encountered including a reminder that local hero Drake was also involved in the slave trade.

Colonisation was no small step – it was a costly and dangerous venture, spending weeks at sea to create a new life from nothing in an unknown land. But the Separatists were determined, securing permission from the Virginia Company (see box on p.54) to establish a new settlement on the Hudson River, and investment from the Company of Merchant Adventurers in London to finance the journey. They would not be travelling alone – the London merchants had also recruited hired hands, servants, and farmers to help establish the fledgling colony, and in 1620 the Leiden community set sail in the Speedwell to meet their new neighbours, and the Mayflower, at Southampton.

The Speedwell was not a new ship – she was a veteran of fighting the Spanish Armada in 1588 – and soon proved to be barely seaworthy, decried by Robert Cushman, one of the expedition’s purchasing agents, as ‘open and leaky as a sieve’. Shortly after departing Southampton, the voyagers had to put in at Dartmouth so that the Speedwell could be repaired, and the journey was delayed again when further leaks forced the ships to turn back once more, this time to Plymouth. Enough was enough: it was clear that the vessel would never survive the transatlantic crossing. Some of the Speedwell’s passengers chose to abandon their journey altogether, while others came aboard the Mayflower. It was this (now rather overcrowded) ship that set out alone for America.

above No contemporary images of the Mayflower survive; our understanding of the ship’s appearance mainly comes from detailed research by naval architect William Baker. His work formed the basis of a life-sized reconstruction, Mayflower II, which was built at the Upham shipyard in Brixham, Devon, in 1955-1956, sailed across the Atlantic, and is now on permanent display in Massachusetts.
No contemporary images of the Mayflower survive; our understanding of the ship’s appearance mainly comes from detailed research by naval architect William Baker. His work formed the basis of a life-sized reconstruction, Mayflower II, which was built at the Upham shipyard in Brixham, Devon, in 1955-1956, sailed across the Atlantic, and is now on permanent display in Massachusetts. Images: Drawing by George Clarke, courtesy of The Box, Plymouth.
Photo by [email protected], CC BY 2.0.

Seeking the settlers

Given the historical significance of the Mayflower voyage, it seems surprising that it is not mentioned in any of Plymouth’s port records of the time – nor are there any known contemporary images of the ship. This lack of official interest was down to financial concerns – cargoes of objects meant money for the city, but ships laden with emigrants did not, and so there was no desire to log the ship’s arrival or departure in the Port Books. We also have very few depictions of 17th-century Plymouth itself, though one map helps to evoke the sights that the Mayflower passengers would have seen: it shows the old castle or ‘barbican’, and, beneath that, what are probably the steps that had been built in 1584 to allow people to enter boats and reach large ships moored in the Cattewater (a stretch of open water where the mouth of the Plym meets Plymouth Sound). Today the location of these steps is marked by a stone portico that was built in 1934, and it is thought that they may have been used by the would-be colonists as they took their last steps on English soil.

How did the passengers feel as they boarded the Mayflower? Excited, surely, and relieved to be finally under way – but it would be surprising if they did not also feel a degree of trepidation. Sea voyages were treacherous, and even departing from the confines of Plymouth harbour was fraught with danger. Plymouth Sound hides a vast maritime graveyard scattered with shipwrecks, victims of the submerged rocks that claimed hundreds of vessels over the centuries – the earliest-known such loss dates from 1362. Artefacts from two wrecks are displayed in The Box’s ‘Port of Plymouth’ gallery, one of them an anonymous early 16th-century vessel now known as the ‘Cattewater Wreck’. Found during dredging operations in 1973, it was the first ship to be safeguarded under the Protection of Wrecks Act, which had been passed the same year.

Above This plan of Plymouth’s Barbican dates from the early 1600s. It includes a depiction of the steps that the Mayflower passengers may have used to depart Plymouth; today this location is marked with a stone portico (top opposite).
This plan of Plymouth’s Barbican dates from the early 1600s. It includes a depiction of the steps that the Mayflower passengers may have used to depart Plymouth; today this location is marked with a stone portico (below). Image: courtesy of The Box, Plymouth.

These losses did not stop even with the construction of Plymouth Sound’s first lighthouse in 1699 – the other wreck featured in the museum is the Danish trader Die Frau Metta Catharina von Flensburg, which sank in 1786 while sailing from Russia to Italy with a cargo of hemp and reindeer hides. The Mayflower passengers had no such comforting beacon to offer them hope, however, and thanks to the leaky Speedwell delaying their progress, they were now to cross the Atlantic in late September and October, a time of dangerous storms. Indeed, records of the voyage attest that one passenger, John Howland, was swept overboard during just such a squall – fortunately, he was rescued. Even without the storms, though, the colonists would not have had a comfortable passage across the Atlantic, crammed for 66 days into a cargo ship designed to carry far fewer than the c.102 people who made the crossing – as well as animals including dogs, chickens, and pigs. The Mayflower was not a large ship, and below decks it would have been dark, airless, and uncomfortably cramped – anyone over 5ft (1.52m) tall would have been unable to stand upright.

What do we know of the passengers themselves? Although the voyagers are often popularly known as the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’, only around a third were travelling for religious reasons, and they also counted 18 women among their number (three of whom were pregnant), as well as at least 30 children. They came from 15 different counties in England, and ranged in age from infants to 64-year-old James Chilton, originally of Kent. These details and more are preserved thanks to one of the colony’s leaders, William Bradford, who composed ‘Of Plimouth Plantation [sic]’, an account of the colony’s early years, between 1630 and 1651. From this, we learn of William Mullins, an enterprising shoemaker from Dorking, who was accompanied not only by his wife and two of their four children, but also around 250 shoes and 13 pairs of boots. Edward Winslow was a printer from Droitwich, who had worked for the Pilgrim Press in Leiden, while Samuel Fuller, the colony’s doctor, travelled with an indentured servant, ‘a youth’ called William Butten. William was the only passenger to die during the journey, succumbing to sickness three days before they sighted land.

below A gun from the 16th-century ‘Cattewater Wreck’ being installed in The Box, a new museum in Plymouth.
A gun from the 16th-century ‘Cattewater Wreck’ being installed in The Box, a new museum in Plymouth. Image: courtesy of The Box, Plymouth.

While many of the passengers were family groups, others had taken the difficult decision to leave their wives and children in Leiden, hoping that they would follow later. In some cases, this hope was fulfilled – for example, Francis Cooke, a Norwich woolcomber, whose wife and four children travelled to the colony on a subsequent voyage – but other journeys had less happy ends. Digory Priest’s wife and two children stayed in Leiden when he sailed in 1620 – sadly, when they came to be reunited with him in 1623, he had already died. Bradford’s account also documents some of the more eventful episodes during the voyage: we learn that 14- and 16-year-old John and Francis Billington, Lincolnshire boys who were travelling with their parents, caused an explosion onboard ship after meddling with their father’s musket. But more joyful news comes with mention of the Hopkins family: Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth during the voyage and, rather fittingly, her son was given the name Oceanus.

Indigenous encounters

The Mayflower colonists had been given permission to settle on the Hudson River, but they were blown off course, landing instead at the tip of Cape Cod. It was there that 41 of the male passengers signed the Mayflower Compact, an agreement committing them to caring for the interests of the colony, but they were on shaky legal ground, with no official authorisation to settle. Eventually, the Virginia Company issued the Second Peirce Patent to sanction a colony further south than had been agreed – this manuscript granted each settler 100 acres of land, as well as ‘all such liberties, privileges, profits, and commodities’ that they could get from the land and rivers, but no reference is made to the desires of the indigenous people living there already.

Ghostly gauze images of men, women, and children accompany a large reconstruction of part of the Mayflower in The Box’s exhibition, to help tell the story of the lives and experiences of the colonists. Image: courtesy of The Box, Plymouth

As they set out in a small boat to find a suitable place to build their new home, the Mayflower colonists were travelling through lands belonging to the Wampanoag people, who had lived in the area for c.12,000 years. In the summer, indigenous communities lived in houses called ‘wetus’ on the coast, where they harvested seafood; in the autumn, they moved inland to hunt and farm corn, squash, and beans. Women were in charge of managing agricultural activities, and farmland was passed down the female line.

At the outset of the 1600s there were around 70 Wampanoag villages, but early encounters with Europeans brought devastating diseases to which they had no resistance, and between 1616 and 1619 it is estimated that as much as 70%-90% of their population died. Initially, the new arrivals of 1620 did little to endear themselves to their indigenous neighbours; as they searched for a place to settle, the colonists stole stocks of corn stored for the winter, disturbed burial mounds, and plundered pots, bowls, baskets, and food from wetus that they stumbled across.

Eventually, the colonists discovered a spot with good resources of food and fresh water. The Wampanoag knew it as Patuxet, but the settlers renamed it ‘Plymouth’. The first house-frame was raised on Christmas Day, but progress was slow and the community’s first winter proved brutal. Despite some happy events, including the birth of the plantation’s first baby, Peregrine White (‘Peregrine’ means a traveller or pilgrim), by the end of the first year over half the original colonists had died. Given the settlers’ initial lack of consideration for the indigenous population, it may seem surprising that the Wampanoag people proved the colony’s salvation, teaching its inhabitants how to farm the land and survive in their new environment – though it could be that, with their dramatically reduced numbers meaning that they were now outnumbered by threatening neighbours, they were glad of the cooperation.

While Thanksgiving legends present a rather oversimplified (and romanticised) story, relations were initially good, with the two communities sharing harvests and trading goods. Excavations at the site of Plymouth Colony show that the settlers had ceramics that they had brought from the West Country, but that they were also using pots and plates with Wampanoag designs. Sadly, the concord was not to last.

The Second Peirce Patent was issued to authorise the colonists’ settlement outside the originally agreed area. It gave away 100-acre parcels of land, but makes no mention of the indigenous communities who had lived there for thousands of years. The document is shown in facsimile in the exhibition, after COVID-19 restrictions prevented it from travelling from the USA. Image: courtesy of Pilgrim Hall Museum, USA.

Colonial expansion encroached ever-deeper into indigenous territories, and competition for resources created further ill-feeling. Escalating tensions sparked into flashes of violence such as the 1623 Wessagusset massacre and the 1636 Pequot War, and after William Bradford died in 1657, and the Wampanoag chief Massasoit died in 1660, the personal bonds that had helped to maintain a fragile peace were broken. Hostilities culminated in King Philip’s War of 1675, a conflict with devastating consequences for both communities. Plymouth Colony lost an estimated eight per cent of its male population, while Massasoit’s successor, Metacomet, was killed and many surviving indigenous people were enslaved and forcibly transported to the Caribbean.

below Wampanoag artist Nosapocket/Ramona Peters (pictured) created this traditional cooking pot specifically for the Mayflower 400 exhibition.
Wampanoag artist Nosapocket/Ramona Peters (pictured) created this traditional cooking pot specifically for the Mayflower 400 exhibition. Photo: courtesy of Exeter Cathedral Library.

Although their political sovereignty was destroyed, however, the Wampanoag people have endured to the present day – while Plymouth Colony has not. From 1685, the English Crown began to restructure its colonies, revoking some charters and combining territories, and after 72 years of existence, Plymouth was dissolved. By contrast, the Wampanoag’s distinctive culture has been passed down the generations, and is honoured in The Box’s exhibition. The displays were created in partnership with the Wampanoag Advisory Committee, who helped to source objects reflecting their culture; these artefacts span 5,000 years and represent both pre-contact activities and items documenting interactions with colonists. The displays also feature a new commission by Wampanoag artist Nosapocket/Ramona Peters: a ceramic cooking pot created in traditional style specifically for the exhibition, illustrating how creativity and innovative approaches to this 400-year-old story still endure.

Earlier colonies

The Mayflower was not the first ship to carry settlers from Plymouth to the New World. In 1584, Walter Raleigh founded a colony at Roanoke, in North Carolina, but by 1590 it had vanished in circumstances that remain mysterious today. More attempts followed: in 1606 James I approved the creation of the London Company of Virginia and the Plymouth Company of Virginia to explore America and create colonies. The following year saw the establishment of Jamestown, but by 1610 most of the 500 settlers had died, and the rest were reduced to cannibalism in a desperate existence called ‘the Starving Time’. Famously, their fortunes were revived with the help of Pocahontas and the Powhatan people (see CA 330). Interestingly, one of the Mayflower passengers had been present at Jamestown: Stephen Hopkins, the father of little Oceanus. Evidently a fortunate man, he had also survived being shipwrecked off Bermuda in 1609.

And after Plymouth? Dutch colonists founded Fort Amsterdam, later New York, in 1624. Boston was established in 1630 (this expedition is depicted in a stained glass window in St Botolph’s Church in Boston, Lincolnshire), and over the next decade more than 20,000 Europeans settled in New England. Today, over 30 million people claim a connection with the Mayflower passengers alone.

Further information
Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy runs until 18 September 2021. For more on the exhibition, and on The Box’s permanent galleries, see www.theboxplymouth.com.