The Mayflower…Fact vs. Fiction

The Metacom Saga is a retelling of the King Philip’s War that occurred in the New England colonies in the years between 1675 and 1677. The characters were actual people who experienced actual events. The causes that led to the war were many and complex. I need to discern what happened, how it happened, and if it really happened. To do this, it is necessary to investigate and separate what is fact, and what is myth.

In writing the first installment of my series, I am devoting some time to the early years of the New England colonies to help establish the setting of the events surrounding the native Indian’s earliest dealings with the English before the breakdown of relations and the eventual outbreak of the war.

I am reading about the first settlers, the Pilgrims, who made the journey from England as religious separatists to escape prosecution and abuse and establish a settlement where they would be free to live and worship in peace. I am of course referring to the voyage of the Mayflower. The landing at Plymouth Rock. The establishment of the Plymouth plantation. And everybody are friends with the Indians, and they have a big feast which we now celebrate as Thanksgiving.

Well, let me tell you! The Pilgrims did not have an easy voyage. There were originally two vessels carrying passengers and supplies. The second ship was called the Speedwell. The original plan was to depart England when the season was favorable and arrive in Virginia at the mouth of the Hudson River, where they had received permission by The Company of Merchant Adventurers. These were the investors who paid for most of the expenses of the voyage in return for work from the land in the new settlement.

There were many delays. The two ships departed on August 5, but had to turn around because the Speedwell had sprung a leak and needed repairs. They decided it that the ship was to be sold. The Pilgrims lost valuable supplies, and it forced many of the congregation to return to Holland.

William Bradford, one of the Pilgrims, wrote that captain of the Speedwell was a “cunning and deceitful man”. Some historians have surmised that the Dutch had bribed the captain of to keep the English out of Virginia. Some argue this captain was doing everything and anything to avoid a voyage across the Atlantic during an unfavorable season that would cause them to arrive shortly before winter.

The Mayflower finally departed in September. The seas were treacherous. They ran low on supplies. They consumed sizeable amounts of beer because it was of better quality than the water on board full of disease. During one horrendous storm Christopher Jones, the ship captain knew that the ship would not reach Virginia. He decided to head North to an area of land John Smith had mapped that in 1605. This land was known as Cape Cod. His passengers and crew were sick with disease, and they needed to make landfall.

On November 9, 1620, they spotted land. Captain Jones tried to steer the ship South and make for Virginia, but because of the winter seas and the shoals, it forced him to reverse course and return to the Cape. Despite what tradition says, the Pilgrims did not land at Plymouth Rock. Rather, they made landfall on the outside eastern edge near the head of the curve of the Cape where the current town of Provincetown is located.

An expedition set ashore to explore. They discovered artificial mounds which contained graves and stores of corn and beans. This was their first interaction with the locals, the Nausets. First impressions did not go well because of the apparent stealing of food and desecration of graves.

The expedition of thirty-four men returned to the Mayflower, and Captain Jones raised anchor and sailed into the Cape Cod bay which offered them better protection from the winter winds, and avoided future conflict with the Nausets. After exploring the coast, they found a safe harbor where they could lay anchor and begin building their settlement in the spring. It was during this expedition ashore that we assume that Plymouth Rock is discovered.

The passengers and crew remained onboard the ship in New Plymouth Harbor for the rest of the winter, where they suffered with disease. When spring of 1621 arrived, only fifty-three of the original one-hundred and two passengers, and half of the crew had survived. On March 21, 1621, the Pilgrims finally disembark.

So, the Pilgrims set shore and discovered Plymouth Rock. But as the commercialized tale of Thanksgiving has been told over the years, we had lost the roundabout trip that it took to get to Plymouth Harbor. The story of our forefathers looting food and rummaging through Indian graves would not be a popular subject. So, that becomes excluded in our tale.

How many of you knew about a second ship? How many of you knew of a Dutch conspiracy?

In the story of Thanksgiving, they teach us that Chief Massasoit and the Wampanoag tribe help the new settlement to learn how to plant and grow crops. They taught the Pilgrims how to harvest food from the sea. They taught them how to survive. As a child, I always pictured a big banquet. I never knew how few survived the winter.

This first generation of English truly relied upon their native neighbors. They formed a close bond. For fifty years two cultures worked together. But only one generation later, new leaders forsake this bond and old friendships. Resulting in a war that nearly wipes out both sides.

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