The Pilgrims Reach the New World – Now What?

As I mentioned in my last post, land was first sighted from the Mayflower on November 20, 1620, after a voyage of 66 days. Captain Jones determined it was Cape Cod and turned south to reach the land for which the Separatists had a patent – land which was located north of the Hudson River but was considered part of Virginia.

After a few hours of sailing south, the Mayflower ran into turbulent shoals, so turbulent that Captain Joines had to consider whether continuing in that direction was wise. The ship was in poor shape and probably would not withstand the battering of the turbulence. There were now more than a few people aboard who were sick, and food and beer supplies (the water had long been fouled) were dwindling.

He decided he had no choice but to turn north and sail around the arm of Cape Cod, coming to harborage in Cape Cod Bay early in the morning of the day after. Jones knew exactly where he was. After all, Cape Cod and what would become New England had been visited or exported by several men earlier in the century: Bartholomew Gosnold (1602); Martin Pring(1603); Samuel de Champlain (1605); George Waymouth (1605); Henry Hudson (16090 and John Smith (1614).

This is John Smith’s map

One very important event occurred while the Mayflower was anchored in Cape Cod Bay – the creation and signing of the Mayflower compact on November 11, 1620. The decision to settle outside the bounds of the Virginia Company patent caused some “mutinous speeches” by some of the passengers. The Mayflower Compact was an attempt to establish a temporary, legally binding form of self-government until such time as the Company could get formal permission from the Council of New England. This self-government was not tied to any religion and was based on English and Mosaic law. The Mayflower Compact was regarded as law until 1686 and is significant because it is one of the first examples of a colony self-governing itself. Many consider it to be the beginning of American democracy.

While anchoring in the bay, a party went ashore to see if they could find a source of fresh water (they did) and to explore the coast for a possible settlement. The land around the Cape shore was too sandy for growing crops, so over the next weeks, groups of men explored north along the coast – first in the ship’s boat and then in the reconstructed shallop – looking for a likely site for their settlement.

                               Cape Cod Skaket Beach Sunset by Bill Wakeley

A storm blew nearly destroyed the shallop on their third trip and blew them ashore on what is now known as Clark’s Island, just outside of Plymouth Harbor.

This is Samuel de Champlain’s fairly accurate map of the area, showing the three sites considered for their settlement.

The first was Clark’s Island itself, rejected because although it was defensible, it had no source of water and limited trees for wood. The second was along a river entering the bay at its north end, rejected because it would be an arduous task to get wood there for building.

The third (note the star) was at the southern end of the bay, marked by a huge granite rock, which would become known as Plymouth Rock. This site had a free-running brook (still there today), a high hill on which the colonists’ cannons could be placed, and best of all, cleared land. The land had been cleared by the Patuxet tribe, all of whom died of disease brought by previous explorers during a time called the Great Dying (1617-1619). This was the site chosen.

Two rather fanciful paintings of the landing of passengers from the Mayflower. The women would not have been allowed to leave the ship.

The colonists began building in December with a common house, which burned down and had to be replaced. For the rest of the winter and into the spring, the colonists remained living on the ship. There were still no fires for warmth or cooking allowed below deck. In the frigid, fetid environment, sicknesses, which began during the voyage, became prevalent, taking lives on a regular basis. Mary Norris Allerton, Mary Allerton Cushman’s mother, died in February not long after giving birth to a stillborn boy.

Fewer healthy men were left to build homes, so the building was slow. Bad weather also hindered their efforts. It had been assumed winter weather would be similar to England’s since this site was on the same latitude, so the colonists were not prepared for the brutality of the winter in the New World.


      Artists’ interpretations

Come back to Plymouth with me when the Pilgrims’ first spring arrived.  How many survived?



21 thoughts on “The Pilgrims Reach the New World – Now What?”

  1. Utterly fascinating, Noelle. These are such intriguing and informative posts. It’s hard for me to imagine the fortitude these people had and the hardships they endured.

    1. I think they were tired of the persecution in England and when they moved to Holland they were working seven days a week to support themselves and their children were becoming Dutch!

    2. Later, there was a rebellion in Boston because of taxes and a variety of other problems with England – it was a harbinger of the Revolution, 100 years earlier!

  2. It was a tough experience for all, and they really didn’t know what they were getting into. Thanks for sharing your fascinating research, Noelle.

  3. I can’t imagine having to stay on the ship for those additional months. Ugh. What hardship. The version I learned in grade school was much more sanitized. 🙂 Thanks for the fascinating history, Noelle.

  4. petespringerauthor

    Wow! I start getting cranky after about four hours in a car. 66 days—I’ve lost my right to complain.

    1. Me, too. I would have gone nuts. There is a rumor that Bradford’s first wife committed suicide by jumping overboard in Cape Cod Bay while they were moored there, but it’s not mentioned in many places.

  5. Pingback: The Pilgrims Reach the New World – Now What? — SaylingAway (Reblog) – The Elloe Recorder

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