- Plural of pilgrim
Pilgrims, or Pilgrim Fathers, is a name commonly applied to the early settlers of the Plymouth Colony in present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts. Their leadership came from a religious congregation who had fled a volatile political environment in the East Midlands of England for the relative calm of the Netherlands to preserve their religion. Concerned with losing their cultural identity, the group later arranged with English investors to establish a new colony in North America. The colonists faced a lengthy series of challenges, from bureaucracy, impatient investors and internal conflicts to sabotage, storms, disease, and uncertain relations with the indigenous people. The colony, established in 1620, became the second successful English settlement in what was to become the United States of America, the first being Jamestown, Virginia, which was founded in 1607. Their story has become a central theme of the history and culture of the United States.
Separatists in ScroobyThe people who would come to be known as the Pilgrims (known as the Pilgrim Fathers in the United Kingdom) were brought together by a common belief in the ideas promoted by Richard Clyfton, parson at All Saints' Parish Church in Babworth, East Retford, Nottinghamshire, between 1586 and 1605. This congregation held Separatist beliefs comparable to nonconforming movements (i.e., groups not in communion with the Church of England) led by Henry Barrowe, John Greenwood and Robert Browne. Unlike conforming Puritan groups who maintained their membership in and allegiance to the Church of England, Separatists held that their differences with the Church of England were irreconcilable and that their worship should be organized independently of the trappings, traditions and organization of a central state church. Unlike the Puritans the Pilgrims left England seeking a complete physical separation. William Brewster, a former diplomatic assistant to the Netherlands, was living in the Scrooby manor house, serving as postmaster for the village and bailiff to the Archbishop of York. Having been favorably impressed by Clyfton's services, he had begun participating in Separatist services led by John Smyth in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. The Separatists had long been controversial. Under the 1559 Act of Uniformity, it was illegal not to attend official Church of England services, with a fine of 12d (£.05; 2005 equivalent: about £5) for each missed Sunday and holy day. The penalties for conducting unofficial services included imprisonment and larger fines. Under the policy of this time, Barrowe and Greenwood were executed for sedition in 1593.
During much of Brewster's tenure (1595-1606), the Archbishop was Matthew Hutton. He displayed some sympathy to the Puritan (but not to the Separatist) cause, writing to Robert Cecil, Secretary of State to James I in 1604:
The Puritans (whose phantasticall zeale I mislike) though they differ in Ceremonies & accidentes, yet they agree with us in substance of religion, & I thinke all or the moste p[ar]te of them love his Ma[jes]tie, & the p[re]sente state, & I hope will yield to conformitie. But the Papistes are opposite & contrarie in very many substantiall pointes of religion, & cannot but wishe the Popes authoritie & popish religion to be established.
It had been hoped that when James came to power, a reconciliation allowing independence would be possible, but the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 denied substantially all the concessions requested by Puritans, save for an English translation of the Bible. Following the Conference, in 1605, Clyfton was declared a nonconformist and stripped of his position at Babworth. Brewster invited Clyfton to live at his home.
Upon Hutton's 1606 death, Tobias Matthew was elected as his replacement. Matthew, one of James' chief supporters at the 1604 conference, promptly began a campaign to purge the archdiocese of nonconforming influences, both separatists and papists. Disobedient clergy were replaced, and prominent Separatists were confronted, fined, and imprisoned. He is credited with driving recusants out of the country.
At about the same time, Brewster arranged for a congregation to meet privately at the Scrooby manor house. Beginning in 1606, services were held with Clyfton as pastor, John Robinson as teacher and Brewster as the presiding elder. Shortly thereafter, Smyth and members of the Gainsborough group moved on to Amsterdam. Brewster is known to have been fined £20 (2005 equivalent: about £2000) in absentia for his non-compliance with the church. This followed his September 1607 resignation from the postmaster position, about the time that the congregation had decided to follow the Smyth party to Amsterdam.
Scrooby member William Bradford, of Austerfield, kept a journal of the congregation's events that would later be published as Of Plymouth Plantation. Of this time, he wrote:
But after these things they could not long continue in any peaceable condition, but were hunted & persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken & clapt up in prison, others had their houses besett & watcht night and day, & hardly escaped their hands; and ye most were faine to flie & leave their howses & habitations, and the means of their livelehood.
Migration to AmsterdamUnable to obtain the papers necessary to leave England, members of the congregation agreed to leave surreptitiously, resorting to bribery to obtain passage. One documented attempt was in 1607, following Brewster's resignation, when members of the congregation chartered a boat in Boston, Lincolnshire. This turned out to be a sting operation, with all arrested upon boarding. The entire party was jailed for one month awaiting arraignment, at which time all but seven were released. Missing from the record is for how long the remainder were held, but it is known that the leaders made it to Amsterdam about a year later.
In a second departure attempt in the spring of 1608, arrangements were made with a Dutch merchant to pick up church members along the Humber estuary at Immingham near Grimsby, Lincolnshire. The men had boarded the ship, at which time the sailors spotted an armed contingent approaching. The ship quickly departed before the women and children could board; the stranded members were rounded up but then released without charges.
Ultimately, at least 150 of the congregation did make their way to Amsterdam, meeting up with the Smyth party, who had joined with the Exiled English Church led by Francis Johnson (1562-1617), Barrowe's successor. The Scrooby party remained there for about one year, citing growing tensions between Smyth and Johnson.
LeidenThe success of the congregation in Leiden was mixed. Leiden was a thriving industrial center, and many members were well able to support themselves working at Leiden University or in the textile, printing and brewing trades. Others were less able to bring in sufficient income, hampered by their rural backgrounds and the language barrier; for those, accommodations were made on an estate bought by Robinson and three partners.
Of their years in Leiden, Bradford wrote:
"For these & other other reasons they removed to Leyden, a fair & bewtifull citie, and of a sweete situation, but made more famous by ye universitie wherwith it is adorned, in which of late had been so many learned man. But wanting that traffike by sea which Amerstdam injoyes, it was not so beneficiall for their outward means of living & estats. But being now hear pitchet they fell to such trads & imployments as they best could; valewing peace & their spirituall comforte above any other riches whatsoever. And at length they came to raise a competente & comforteable living, but with hard and continuall labor.
Brewster had been teaching English at the university, and in 1615, Robinson enrolled to pursue his doctorate. There, he participated in a series of debates, particularly regarding the contentious issue of Calvinism versus Arminianism (siding with the Calvinists against the Remonstrants). See the Synod of Dort. Brewster, in a venture financed by Thomas Brewer, acquired typesetting equipment about 1616 and began publishing the debates through a local press.
The Netherlands was, however, a land whose culture and language were strange and difficult for the English congregation to understand or learn. Their children were becoming more and more Dutch as the years passed by. The congregation came to believe that they faced eventual extinction if they remained there.
Decision to leaveBy 1617, although the congregation was stable and relatively secure, there were ongoing issues that needed to be resolved.
Bradford noted that the congregation was aging, compounding the difficulties some had in supporting themselves. Some, having spent through their savings, gave up and returned to England. It was feared that more would follow and that the congregation would become unsustainable. The employment issues made it unattractive for others to come to Leiden, and younger members had begun leaving to find employment and adventure elsewhere. Also compelling was the possibility of missionary work, an opportunity that rarely arose in a Protestant stronghold.
Reasons for departure are suggested by Bradford, when he notes the "discouragements" of the hard life they had in the Netherlands, and the hope of attracting others by finding "a better, and easier place of living"; the "children" of the group being "drawn away by evil examples into extravagance and dangerous courses"; the "great hope, for the propagating and advancing the gospell of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world"
Edward Winslow's list was similar. In addition to the economic worries and missionary possibilities, he stressed that it was important for the people to retain their English identity, culture and language. They also believed that the English Church in Leiden could do little to benefit the larger community there.
At the same time, there were many uncertainties about moving to such a place as America. Stories had come back from there about failed colonies. There were fears that the native people would be violent, that there would be no source of food or water, that exposure to unknown diseases was possible, and that travel by sea was always hazardous. Balancing all this was a local political situation that was in danger of becoming unstable: the truce in what would be known as the Eighty Years' War was faltering, and there was fear over what the attitudes of Spain toward them might be. The charter was granted with the king's condition that the Leiden group's religion would not receive official recognition.
Because of the continued problems within the London Company, preparations stalled. The congregation was approached by competing Dutch companies, and the possibility of settling in the Hudson River area was discussed with them.
Weston did come back with a substantial change, telling the Leiden group that parties in England had obtained a land grant north of the existing Virginia territory, to be called New England. This was only partially true; the new grant would come to pass, but not until late in 1620 when the Plymouth Council for New England received its charter. It was expected that this area could be fished profitably, and it was not under the control of the existing Virginia government.
A second change was known only to parties in England who chose not to inform the larger group. New investors who had been brought into the venture wanted the terms altered so that at the end of the seven year contract, half of the settled land and property would revert to them; and that the provision for each settler to have two days per week to work on personal business was dropped.
VoyageIn July 1620, Speedwell departed Delfshaven with the Leiden colonists. Reaching Southampton, Hampshire, they met with Mayflower and the additional colonists hired by the investors. With final arrangements made, the two vessels set out on August 5 (Old Style)/August 15 (New Style). The reduced party finally sailed successfully on September 6/September 16, 1620.
Initially the trip went smoothly, but under way they were met with strong winds and storms. One of these caused a main beam to crack, and although they were more than half the way to their destination, the possibility of turning back was considered. Using a "great iron screw" (probably a piece of house construction equipment) brought along by the colonists, they repaired the ship sufficiently to continue. One passenger, Steve Panitch, was washed overboard in the storm but caught a rope and was rescued.
One crew member and one passenger died before they reached land. A child was born at sea and named "Oceanus".
Arrival in AmericaLand was sighted on November 10/November 20, 1620. It was confirmed that the area was Cape Cod, within the New England territory recommended by Weston. An attempt was made to sail the ship around the cape towards the Hudson River, also within the New England grant area, but they encountered shoals and difficult currents around Malabar (a land mass that formerly existed in the vicinity of present-day Monomoy). It was decided to turn around, and by November 11/November 21 the ship was anchored in what is today known as Provincetown Harbor.
To address this issue, a brief contract, later to be known as the Mayflower Compact, was drafted promising cooperation among the settlers "for the general good of the Colony unto which we promise all due submission and obedience." It was ratified by majority rule, with 41 adult male passengers signing. At this time, John Carver was chosen as the colony's first governor.
First landingsThorough exploration of the area was delayed for over two weeks because the shallop or pinnace (a smaller sailing vessel) they brought had been partially dismantled to fit aboard the Mayflower and was further damaged in transit. Small parties, however, waded to the beach to fetch firewood and attend to long-deferred personal hygiene.
While awaiting the shallop, exploratory parties led by Myles Standish—a Manx soldier the colonists had met while in Leiden—and Christopher Jones were undertaken. They encountered several old buildings, both European-built and Native-built, and a few recently cultivated fields.
An artificial mound was found near the dunes, which they partially uncovered and found to be a Native grave. Further along, a similar mound, more recently made, was found, and as the colonists feared they might otherwise starve, they ventured to remove some of the provisions which had been placed in the grave. Baskets of maize were found inside, some of which the colonists took and placed into an iron kettle they also found nearby, while they reburied the rest, intending to use the borrowed corn as seed for planting.
William Bradford later recorded in his book, "Of Plymouth Plantation", that after the shallop had been repaired,
"They also found two of the Indian's houses covered with mats, and some of their implements in them; but the people had run away and could not be seen. They also found more corn, and beans of various colours. These they brought away, intending to give them full satisfaction (repayment) when they should meet with any of them, - as about six months afterwards they did.
"And it is to be noted as a special providence of God, and a great mercy to this poor people, that they thus got seed to plant corn the next year, or they might have starved; for they had none, nor any likelihood of getting any, till too late for the planting season."
By December, most of the passengers and crew had become ill, coughing violently. Many were also suffering from the effects of scurvy. There had already been ice and snowfall, hampering exploration efforts. During the first winter, 47% of them died.
ContactExplorations resumed on December 6/December 16. The shallop party—seven colonists from Leiden, three from London, and seven crew—headed south along the cape and chose to land at the area inhabited by the Nauset people (roughly, present-day Brewster, Chatham, Eastham, Harwich and Orleans), where they saw some native people on the shore, who ran when the colonists approached. Inland they found more mounds; one containing acorns, which they exhumed and left; and more graves, which they decided not to dig.
Remaining ashore overnight, they heard cries near the encampment. The following morning, they were met by native people who proceeded to shoot at them with arrows. The colonists retrieved their firearms and shot back, then chased the native people into the woods but did not find them. There was no more contact with native people for several months.
The local people were already familiar with the English, who had intermittently visited the area for fishing and trade before Mayflower arrived. In the Cape Cod area, relations were poor following a visit several years earlier by Thomas Hunt. Hunt kidnapped twenty people from Patuxet (the place that would become New Plymouth) and another seven from Nausett, and he attempted to sell them as slaves in Europe. One of the Patuxet abductees was Tisquantum, who would become an ally of the Plymouth colony. The Pokanoket, who also lived nearby, had developed a particular dislike for the English after one group came in, captured numerous people, and shot them aboard their ship. There had by this time already been reciprocal killings at Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod. the "Indian fever" is assumed to have been fulminating smallpox introduced by European traders. The outbreak had been severe enough that the colonists discovered unburied skeletons in abandoned dwellings. With the local population in such a weakened state, the colonists faced no resistance to settling there.
The exploratory party returned to Mayflower, which was then brought to the harbor on December 16/December 26. Only nearby sites were evaluated, with a hill in Plymouth (so named on earlier charts) chosen on December 19/December 29.
Construction commenced immediately, with the first common house nearly completed by January 9/January 19. At this point, single men were ordered to join with families. Each extended family was assigned a plot and built its own dwelling. Supplies were brought ashore, and the settlement was mostly complete by early February.
Between the landing and March, only 47 colonists had survived the diseases they contracted on the ship. During the worst of the sickness, only six or seven of the group were able and willing to feed and care for the rest. In this time, half the Mayflower crew also died.
William Bradford became governor in 1621 upon the death of Carver, served for eleven consecutive years, and was elected to various other terms until his death in 1657. The patent of Plymouth Colony was surrendered by Bradford to the freemen in 1640, minus a small reserve of three tracts of land. On March 22, 1621, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony signed a peace treaty with Massasoit of the Wampanoags.
The colony contained roughly what is now Bristol County, Plymouth County, and Barnstable County, Massachusetts.
When the Massachusetts Bay Colony was reorganized and issued a new charter as the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1691, Plymouth ended its history as a separate colony.
- Pilgrim Archives, Searchable municipal and court records from Leiden Regional Archive
- First Parish Church, the original Plymouth congregation
- Photographs of New York (Lincs - UK) and Pilgrim Fathers monument (Lincs - UK)
- Church of the Pilgrimage, founded after the 1801 schism
- Pilgrim Hall MuseumPilgrim history and artifacts
- Mayflower Steps All about the Mayflower and Pilgrim Fathers with a Plymouth (UK) focus. Lots of pictures
- Admiral MacBride Pub Built upon the original Mayflower Steps from where the pilgrim fathers set sail for America.
- Pilgrim ships from 1602 to 1638 Pilgrim ships searchable by ship name, sailing date and passengers.
- Native American Perspective on Pilgrims
- Native American Perspective on Pilgrims Continued
pilgrims in German: Pilgerväter
pilgrims in French: Pères pélerins
pilgrims in Italian: Padri Pellegrini
pilgrims in Dutch: Pilgrim Fathers
pilgrims in Japanese: ピルグリム・ファーザーズ
pilgrims in Norwegian: Pilegrimene
pilgrims in Polish: Pielgrzymi
pilgrims in Portuguese: Peregrinos
pilgrims in Turkish: Pilgrimler