What was it like to sail on the Mayflower in 1620? No picnic.
The Mayflower actually sailed three times, the first two times with a smaller sister ship called the Speedwell. Each time the Speedwell began to take on water, the second time 300 miles from England. So the Mayflower returned to port with the Speedwell twice, before the decision was made to proceed with just the Mayflower.
Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall (1882)
The later Governor of the Plimoth Colony, William Bradford, wrote that “overmasting” strained the ship’s hull but attributed the main cause of her leaking to actions on the part of the crew. Bradford later assumed that Speedwell master Reynolds’s “cunning and deceit” (in causing what may have been man-made leaks in the ship) had been motivated by a fear of starving to death in America.
In any event, the Speedwell was deemed unseaworthy and abandoned. Eleven people from the Speedwell joined the others on the Mayflower. Twenty of the Speedwell’s passengers, including Robert Cushman, who would be Mary Allerton’s father-in-law, remained in London. Isaac Allerton and his family were among the passengers on the Speedwell who transferred to the Mayflower.
Thus one hundred and two passengers sailed on the Mayflower for the third and final time, leaving Plymouth on September 6, 1620.
Why was sailing that late in September risky? The North Atlantic is stormy in the autumn – think of hurricane season. Many ships in the 1600s were damaged or shipwrecked by storms. Passengers sometimes fell overboard and drowned. Also, the winds blew from west to east, so the Mayflower was beating against the wind, tacking back and forth. Also, ships could be attacked and taken
A harrowing scene of the the Mayflower at Sea, by Mike Haywood provided by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants.
over by pirates. So the ship sailed on a northern path across the Atlantic to avoid the storms.
Now, imagine yourself living below deck in a dark, dank room 58’ by 28’ or 1624 square feet, with 101 other people. The ceiling (the main deck of the ship) is so low you have to stoop over to walk. That’s sixteen square feet per person, shared with chickens, maybe a pig, a disassembled 33-foot long boat called the shallop, and everyone’s worldly goods except for food stores, which were in the hold.
There was no fire allowed below deck, so food was eaten cold. People partitioned off their tiny allotted spaces with curtains or furniture, and they slept on the deck. Most of the passengers wore the same clothes for the entire trip. If they were lucky they had one or two changes of clothes. Some had none.
Crew galley for hot food Below deck
Imagine the noise of 101 other passengers: talking, coughing, snoring, groaning. Imagine the smells from dank clothing, moldy food, sweat, and later, scurvy, and the smell of vomit from seasickness. And don’t forget the pails that served as chamber pots. You would also have other ‘passengers’ traveling with you – fleas and lice. This is my vision of hell.
What would you have to eat?
Hard biscuits (hardtack), beer, salted (dried) beef, salted ling or cod fish, qats, peas and some ground wheat, butter and sweet oil, mustard seed, aqua vitae, pickled food, dried fruit, and cheese.
Much of this food grew moldy from the dank. The water for the children grew rancid and the children had to drink beer. Hardtack is hard. It is made months ahead from flour, salt, and water and I made some for my critique group. The only way they could eat it was to dunk it in coffee, but it is tasteless. Onboard the Mayflower it became infested with maggots, and the sailors taught the passengers to dunk their hardtack in beer and wait until the maggots floated to the top. Actually, I think those maggots might have been more nourishing.
Remember, the passengers had to bring enough food to last until the women could plant and harvest a garden and the men could hunt or fish. And they had already eaten some of it during the previous two sailing with the Speedwell.
Heavy storms drenched everyone and everything above and below decks, as water poured in through the hatches and gunports. So clothing and bedding and food got wet. Then one of the storms cracked one of the massive wooden beams supporting the frame of the ship. There was a spare beam aboard, but no way to hold it in place so it could be nailed in.
Luckily, the Pilgrims remembered a “great screw” they had in the hold and it was used to hold the beam in place. This was a jackscrew and was assumed to be what the colonists would use to hold the beams of their house in place when they were building. But another thought is that it was designed for a printing press. The Pilgrims had printed and disseminated many religious tracts when they were in Holland and also in England.
It wasn’t long before both passengers and crew suffered from scurvy, what we now know as a deficiency of vitamin C. Scurvy is a nasty disease with symptoms such as severe brittleness and massive decaying of the teeth and tooth loss, foul breath, ocular irritation, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, poor wound healing, and general weakness. A cure was not known, but the Mayflower passengers did not suffer from scurvy after their first years in the New World because of a healthy diet. Also, they may have learned from the Native Americans that pine needle tea is loaded with vitamin C.
One baby was born during the journey. Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth to her first son, appropriately named Oceanus, on Mayflower. Another baby boy, Peregrine White, was born to Susanna White after Mayflower arrived at Cape Cod.Mary Allerton’s mother was also pregnant.
Land was first sighted on November 20, 1620, after a voyage of 66 days. Captain Jones determined it was Cape Cod, based on maps made by previous explorers. He turned the Mayflower south to reach the land for which the Pilgrims had been granted a patent – a part of ‘Virginia’ which was located north of the Hudson River.
This is an extant map from 1657, from the Library of Congress. You can clearly see Cape Cod.
But the Mayflower never got there, and I will tell you why in the next post.
PS. These posts are the background to my book, The Last Pilgrim, the Story of Mary Allerton Cushman, which I hope you will find interesting with this background information.