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The Separatists1 were less numerous by far than other classes of Nonconformists, yet they formed the advance guard of the great Puritan exodus from the mother country to the shores of New England. The town of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire was the center of a scattered congregation of Separatists whose minister was John Robinson and whose ruling elder was William Brewster, the village postmaster. After enduring many persecutions this little band of Christians, who now became "Pilgrims," escaped with difficulty from their native land to Amsterdam, Holland, whence a year later they removed to Leyden. Here they dwelt for eleven years, exiles for conscience' sake, earning their bread by the labor of their hands.

But the Pilgrims felt that Holland was not their home; they could not endure the thought of giving up their language and customs for those of the Dutch, nor were they willing to return to their native England, where religious persecution had not abated. They had heard of the colony of Virginia, and their thoughts were directed to the wilderness of the New World.

Through the friendship and aid of Sir Edwin Sandys, and others, they secured a little money and purchased a little vessel, the Speedwell, hired another, the Mayflower, and determined to cross the wide waters to America, where they might worship God in their own way and still be Englishmen. Having secured a grant from the Virginia Company to settle in the Hudson Valley, and a promise from the king that he would not interfere with them, and having mortgaged themselves to a company of London merchants, they set forth with brave hearts to encounter the unknown perils of the sea and of the wilderness.

The Speedwell proved unfit for the sea, and the little band reëmbarked from Plymouth, England, in the Mayflower alone. Their minister Robinson had remained in Leyden, and Brewster was the leader. He and John Carver were well advanced in years, but most of the company were in the prime of life. William Bradford was thirty and Edward Winslow was twenty-five. Before leaving Plymouth they were joined by Miles Standish, a sturdy soldier of thirty-six, who was in sympathy with the movement though not a member of the congregation.

The "Pilgrim Fathers" with their wives and children, as borne by the Mayflower, numbered one hundred and two; one died on the voyage and one was born. After a perilous voyage of many weeks they anchored off the coast of New England, far from the point at which they had aimed, and here they were obliged to remain.2

Being north of the bounds of the company that had granted them a patent, they occupied a country to which they had no legal right. Before landing they drew up a compact for the government of the colony and chose John Carver governor for the first year. This compact, the "first written constitution in the world," was an agreement by which they pledged themselves "solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and of one another," to form a body politic, to frame such laws as they might need, to which they promised "all due submission and obedience."

The compact was signed by all the adult males, forty-one in number, on the 11th of November, the day on which the Mayflower entered Cape Cod harbor.3 An exploring party went ashore, and they found the country bleak and uninviting in the extreme. The snow was half a foot deep, and the fierce wind blew the spray of the sea upon them where it froze until their "clothes looked like coats of iron."

But the Pilgrims had not sought ease and comfort; they expected hardships and discouragements. They chose Plymouth harbor as a landing place, and on December 16, one hundred and two days after leaving Plymouth, England, they made a landing in the face of a wintry storm, on a barren rock since known as Plymouth Rock. Next they "fell vpon their knees and blessed ye God of heaven, who had brought them ouer ye vast and furious ocean."4

In a few days the men were busily engaged in building cabins, returning each night to the ship; but ere they were finished the wintry blasts had planted the seeds of consumption in many of the little band, and before the coming of spring more than forty of them, including the wives of Bradford, Winslow, and Standish, had been laid in the grave. And yet when the Mayflower sailed for England in the early spring, not one of the survivors returned with her, and it is a singular face that nearly all who survived that dreadful winter at Plymouth lived to a good old age. Among those who died the first year was Governor Carver, and William Bradford, the historian of the colony, was chosen to fill the office, and he held the position for thirty-one years.


Footnotes

1The Separatists were often called Brownists, from Robert Browne, the reputed founder of the sect. The sect, however, had its origin before Browne's time. See Eggleston's "Beginners of a Nation," p. 146.[return]

2There had been earlier attempts to colonize the New England coast. Gosnold had sailed into Buzzards Bay in 1602, but the would-be colonists who came with him went back in his ship to England. In 1607 George Popham, with a party, undertook to colonize the coast of Maine, but after the experience of one severe winter they all returned to England. Without attempting to plant a colony, Martin Pring had sailed into Plymouth harbor in 1603, and George Weymouth visited the coast of Maine in 1605.
          In 1615 Captain John Smith with a company of sixteen men explored a portion of the New England coast, and it was he and not the Pilgrims, as is commonly stated, who gave the name "Plymouth" to the landing-place of the latter.[return]

3New style, November 21.[return]

4The tradition of the famous "Landing on Plymouth Rock" should be revised, as the women and children remained in the ship for many weeks longer. See Ames's "The Mayflower, Her Log," p. 278.[return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter IV, pp. 99-103. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.




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