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About the Pilgrims

An overview of the English pilgrims, including their founding of the Plymouth Colony, their beliefs, and their journey

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

The Pilgrims were English Separatists who founded (1620) Plymouth Colony in New England. In the first years of the 17th century, small numbers of English Puritans broke away from the Church of England because they felt that it had not completed the work of the Reformation. They committed themselves to a life based on the Bible. Most of these Separatists were farmers, poorly educated and without social or political standing. One of the Separatist congregations was led by William Brewster and the Rev. Richard Clifton in the village of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire. The Scrooby group emigrated to Amsterdam in 1608 to escape harassment and religious persecution. The next year they moved to Leiden, where, enjoying full religious freedom, they remained for almost 12 years.

In 1617, discouraged by economic difficulties, the pervasive Dutch influence on their children, and their inability to secure civil autonomy, the congregation voted to emigrate to America. Through the Brewster family's friendship with Sir Edwin Sandys, treasurer of the London Company, the congregation secured two patents authorizing them to settle in the northern part of the company's jurisdiction. Unable to finance the costs of the emigration with their own meager resources, they negotiated a financial agreement with Thomas Weston, a prominent London iron merchant. Fewer than half of the group's members elected to leave Leiden. A small ship, the Speedwell, carried them to Southampton, England, where they were to join another group of Separatists and pick up a second ship. After some delays and disputes, the voyagers regrouped at Plymouth aboard the 180-tonMayflower. It began its historic voyage on Sept. 16, 1620, with about 102 passengers — fewer than half of them from Leiden.

After a 65-day journey, the Pilgrims sighted Cape Cod on November 19. Unable to reach the land they had contracted for, they anchored (November 21) at the site of Provincetown. Because they had no legal right to settle in the region, they drew up the Mayflower Compact, creating their own government. The settlers soon discovered Plymouth Harbor, on the western side of Cape Cod Bay and made their historic landing on December 21; the main body of settlers followed on December 26.

The term Pilgrim was first used by William Bradford to describe the Leiden Separatists who were leaving Holland. The Mayflower's passengers were first described as the Pilgrim Fathers in 1799.

Oscar Zeichner

Bibliography: Abrams, Ann Uhry, The Pilgrims and Pocahontas: Rival Myths of American Origin (1999); Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647, ed. by S. E. Morison (1952); Harris, John, Saga of the Pilgrims (1990); Notson, A. W. and R. C., eds., Stepping Stones: The Pilgrim's Own Story (1987); Plooij, Daniel, Pilgrim Fathers from a Dutch Point of View (1932; repr. 1970); Smith, Bradford, Bradford of Plymouth (1951); Usher, Roland G., Pilgrims and Their History (1918; repr. 1975); Willison, George F., Saints and Strangers: The Story of the "Mayflower" and the Plymouth Colony (1966).

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  • Subjects:
    Colonial and Revolutionary America
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