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Mayflower Pilgrims

Figure 1

The Mayflower Pilgrims are people who came to the New World and settled here.  They are an important part of American history and one of the most well known because of their association with the Thanksgiving holiday.  However, holiday traditions sometimes skew the actual history of the people who came to America and played such an important part in American history.

Who were the Pilgrims?

The term Pilgrim means “one who journeys in foreign lands”.  This certainly applies to those people who settled in America and are known for starting the first Thanksgiving.  Nowadays, when used with a capital “P”, the term refers specifically to these early colonists. 

Originally, the Pilgrims lived in England and were part of a religious group called Separatists.  In England during this time in the 1600’s the established church was called the Church of England and it was illegal to be part of any other religious affiliation.  So, these Separatists were not treated well, in fact, some were even thrown in jail.  This made life very difficult for the Pilgrims.  The Separatist church was based in Scrooby, a town located in Nottinghamshire, England.  But because of the difficulties and the persecution (to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict; specifically: to cause to suffer because of belief) the Separatists decided to leave England. 

The Church of England and Separatists

England was a Catholic country until 1534 when it broke off from Catholicism to form the Church of England.  The head of the church was the king and to go against the king was considered treason.  The Pilgrims disagreed with the beliefs of the Church of England and in 1606 established their own church in Scrooby.  This, of course, was illegal and went against King James I.  Because of this, members were harassed, fined and even jailed.  In order to worship in the manner they wished, freely, they decided a move had to be made.

Separatists move to the Netherlands

In order to practice their faith freely the Separatists moved to the Netherlands (some people call it Holland but it is properly called the Dutch Netherlands).  They traveled to Amsterdam before finally settling in Leiden.  Here, they could worship freely but there were still some significant problems.  The group had to work very hard to earn money to survive.  Children were forced to work as well as the adults and the group, as a whole, had very little money despite their efforts.  Some of the group’s younger generation became integrated into Dutch society and culture and left to become sailors or soldiers.  This worried the separatists that they were losing their identity and a decision was made to move again.  So, after approximately 12 years in the Netherlands, the Separatists decided on another move.

Funding a move to America

Jamestown Colony was already established but because of a fear of continued persecution, the Pilgrims decided to colonize elsewhere.  They decided to move farther north of the Virginia Colony, near present day New York.  The move, however, would be quite expensive.  Passage to America and supplies to establish a settlement would cost money the Pilgrims did not have.  So, they made an agreement with investors to fund their journey.  For seven years the investors would own all assets of the settlement and the Pilgrims would work for the investors.  After the end of the term, the assets would be divided. 

Figure 2

Getting to America

The journey to America would not be an easy one.  The Pilgrims purchased a ship that would take a portion of the group to America while the rest stayed in Leyden to settle affairs before also journeying to America.  The ship they purchased, the Speedwell, was to stay with them in America and be used for fishing and trading.  A small group of Separatists set sail to England where they met with other colonists gathered by the investors in Southampton.  The Mayflower was another ship that was to be used to transport the colonists to America, this one rented by the investors.  The two ships set sail to America only to have to return twice.  The Speedwell was unsuitable for travel and could not continue the journey.  But, the Mayflower was small and could not accommodate all the passengers from both ships.  Therefore, some people had to be left behind and some families were divided. So, on September 6, 1620, 102 passengers finally left England on the Mayflower to travel to America.

Figure 3

The difficult journey to America

Travel in the 1600’s was much different than it is now though some of the dangers remain the same.  For example, there was the possibility of being attacked by pirates, having the ship damaged in a storm, falling overboard and drowning, becoming ill and dying.  The Mayflower sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on a northerly route to avoid pirates but they did encounter some severe storms that damaged the ship.  There was even a case of someone falling overboard but he was saved.  There was a death on the Mayflower and also a birth.  There was a lot of sea sickness.  The journey to America took sixty-six days and they finally spotted land on November 9, 1620.

For a fun worksheet [click on Sea Travel Then and Now Venn Diagram.]

Arriving in America

Originally the Pilgrims decided to settle in northern Virginia Colony near present day New York on the Hudson River.  However, when they reached land near Cape Cod it was determined that traveling to the Hudson River would prove too difficult.  So, they anchored on November 11, 1620 in what is now Provincetown Harbor. 

Figure 4

Mayflower Compact

The Mayflower Compact is a document that was signed by the Pilgrims and was considered a contract of cooperation.  Although the core group was the Separatists, there were other colonists among the group on the Mayflower who were not Separatists.  Some of the other settlers wanted to go against the agreement that was in place with the investors because they were no longer settling in the original, agreed upon area.  To deal with this, a contract was drawn up and signed by forty-one of the passengers.  The Mayflower Compact stated that the settlers would vote on any issues that arose and that they would remain loyal to England.  Additionally, the first governor of the colony was chosen, John Carver, who had chartered the Mayflower.  This was signed November 11, 1620.  This document reportedly influenced the way the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution was drafted.

Figure 5

Scouting for a settlement location

After the Mayflower anchored, the settlers remained on board because there was no place to live yet.  Over the next few weeks scouting parties went out in search of a suitable location to build their settlement.  They came across an abandoned Wampanoag which would become the site of their new settlement.  On December 16, 1620 the Mayflower arrived in Plymouth Harbor and construction began on the houses. 

A difficult winter

During construction the majority of the settlers remained on the ship.  Able men would come ashore to build houses during the day.  However, the winter was harsh and many of the settlers became ill.  The first common house was complete by January 9, 1621 and the remainder of the settlement was nearly complete by late February of the same year.  By March, only 52 settlers survived the harsh winter and the illnesses that were going around.  William Bradford succeeded John Carver as Governor after Carver died in 1621.  In March the settlers met with local Native Americans and the Mayflower returned to England April 5th.

Figure 6

The Wampanoag

The Native Americans who lived in the area were primarily from the Wampanoag tribe.  The settlers had seen these natives while exploring and building but no direct contact had yet been made.  In March of 1621, however, the Wampanoag entered the colony and spoke with the settlers in English.  Some of the Wampanoag had learned English from other English who had fished along the area.  A few days later another native, Tisquantum, entered the colony to talk with the settlers.  Tisquantum, better known as Squanto learned English when he was taken captive many years earlier.  Squanto and the Wampanoag leader, Massasoit, forged a friendship with the settlers with Squanto living among them and teaching them about how to plant corn.

Wampanoag treaty

On March 22, 1621 a treaty was signed between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag.  This treaty stated that:

  • Neither the Wampanoag nor the Pilgrims would cause each other harm
  • If anything was ever stolen from the other party the stolen item would be returned to its rightful owner and the offender returned for discipline from their own people
  • During meetings weapons would be left behind
  • If war occurred, the two people would be allies

The Pilgrims and Wampanoag enjoyed a friendly relationship and the Pilgrims learned valuable skills from them on how to plant and harvest food. 

The first Thanksgiving

In autumn of 1621 Plymouth colony was thriving and they celebrated their first harvest with their native allies.  The celebration lasted three days and included the Pilgrims as well as ninety Wampanoag including Massasoit.  While the colonists at the time did not think this a significant event because days of thanks were often celebrated during harvest, this celebration was to be the basis of the national holiday, Thanksgiving. 

Continuing growth in Plymouth

Over the next several years, more colonists came to Plymouth.  Many of the Separatists who had to stay behind in the Netherlands or in England from the original voyage made their way back to their families and relocated to America.  By 1627 the population of Plymouth Colony was 160 and it was a stable and comfortable settlement. Plymouth was the first settlement in Massachusetts Colonly, the second of the original 13 colonies in the United States.

Mayflower Pilgrims Timeline

1534 – The Church of England was established by King Henry VIII

1606 – The Separatists church was founded in Scrooby

1608 – Separatists moved to Amsterdam, The Netherlands

1609 – Separatists moved from Amsterdam to settle in Leiden, The Netherlands

July, 1620 – The Speedwell left with a portion of the Leiden colonists to meet the Mayflower in Southampton

August 5, 1620 – Speedwell and Mayflower set sail from Southampton port to travel to America but had to turn back

September 6, 1620 – The Mayflower set sail for America with 102 passengers

November 9, 1620 – The Mayflower passengers spot land

November 11, 1620 – The Mayflower anchors in what is now Provincetown Harbor and the Mayflower Compact was signed

December 16, 1620 – Mayflower arrived in Plymouth Harbor

January 9, 1621 – Construction on the first common house in Plymouth settlement is complete

March 22, 1621 – A treaty is signed with the Wampanoag

April 5, 1621 – The Mayflower returned to England

1627 – Population of Plymouth Colony was 160 and the colony was thriving


Figure 1: William Halsall, Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, 1882

Figure 2: Robert W. Weir, Embarkation of the Pilgrims, 1844

Pilgrims on the deck of the Speedwell before their departure for the New World from Holland

Figure 3: Replica ship Mayflower II at the State Pier in Plymouth, Massachusetts, US., June 2006

Figure 4: Photograph of a painting by Edward Percy Moran (1862-1935), showing Myles Standish, William Bradford, William Brewster and John Carver signing the Mayflower Compact in a cabin aboard the Mayflower while other Pilgrims look on. ca.1900. The original hangs at the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, MA.

Figure 5: Original map drawn by Samuel de Champlain in 1605

Figure 6: Sculpture entitled “Massasoit, Great Sachem of the Wampanoag, Friend and Protector of the Pilgrims, 1621“. Near Country Club Plaza, Kansas City, Missouri, USA.

Figure 7: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, The First Thanksgiving, c. 1912-1915


Persecute. 2012. In Retrieved April 11, 2012 from

Pilgrim. 2012. In Retrieved April 11, 2012 from

Plimoth Plantation. (n.d.). Who Were the Pilgrims? Retrieved April 11, 2012 from

Social Studies for Kids. (n.d.). The Pilgrims: Voyage to Freedom. Retrieved April 11, 2012 from

Discussion Questions

The following questions cover the previous material in depth and encourage further research and discussion.  It can be easily modified to cover younger or older audiences.  For older children, spend more time discussing specifics, dates, cultural and ethical questions.  For the younger kids, a general understanding will likely suffice for now:

  • What does the term “pilgrim” mean? One who journeys in foreign lands
  • When there is a capital “P” in Pilgrim, what does it refer to? The Mayflower Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth.
  • In 1534 what was England’s church? Church of England
  • Who was head of the church? The king
  • Could citizens of England worship how they wanted? No, they had to be a part of the Church of England or it was considered treason
  • Did the Pilgrims believe in the Church of England? No
  • What was the name of the church the Pilgrims started? Separatist
  • Where in England were they located originally? Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, England
  • Were the Pilgrims treated well in England? No, they were persecuted for their religious differences
  • What did the Pilgrims decide to do? Leave England
  • Where did they go? Netherlands (or Holland) – first to Amsterdam and then Leiden
  • Were the Separatists able to worship freely in the Netherlands? Yes
  • Was their life easier in the Netherlands? No, they had to work very hard for little money
  • What did the Separatists decide to do? Move to America
  • How long were they in the Netherlands? 11-12 years
  • How did they get money to travel to America? They made an agreement with investors to fund travel and set up costs in return for sharing profits
  • What were the names of the ships that were schedules to take the Pilgrims to America? Speedwell and Mayflower
  • Did they both go?  Why/Why not? The Speedwell was not seaworthy so they had to turn back.  Only the Mayflower, a rented ship, made the final journey
  • What happened when the Speedwell was returned to England? Some of the passengers had to stay behind because the Mayflower could not accommodate all the settlers
  • How long did it take to get to America? 66 days
  • Where did the Pilgrims intend to set up a colony? In northern Virginia Colony on the Hudson River near present day New York
  • Where did they land? Cape Cod area, Provincetown Harbor
  • Why didn’t they go where they originally intended? The journey would be too difficult by ship.
  • Was there a form of government for the colonists? If so, what? Yes, the Mayflower Compact was signed which was an agreement for the colonists to cooperate and to vote on issues
  • Aside from framing the government of the colony, why else was the Mayflower Compact an important document? It set the tone for a republic, both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were said to be influenced by the Mayflower Compact
  • How was the location for a settlement determined? Scouts explored the area until they found an abandoned Wampanoag settlement which was an ideal location.
  • Where did the Pilgrims start their colony? Plymouth
  • Did all the Pilgrims go ashore when the location was agreed upon? Why/why not? No, the settlers had to remain on the ship for several months until houses were built.
  • Was it easy to stay on the ship? Why/Why not? No, it was a difficult winter and about half of the people on board became ill and died
  • When was the settlement finished? February 1621
  • Did the Pilgrims have contact with natives? In March 1621 natives contacted the Pilgrims
  • Were the natives friendly? The natives were friendly
  • What tribe of natives contacted the Pilgrims? Wampanoag
  • How did they communicate with the English? They spoke some English because of other Englishmen who fished in the area. 
  • Who was Squanto? Squanto was a native who was captured by English and learned the language.  He lived with the Pilgrims and taught them valuable skills
  • Who was Massasoit? The leader of the Wampanoag
  • Did the Wampanoag and Pilgrims remain in friendly terms? Yes, they even signed a treaty
  • What did the treaty do? Neither the Wampanoag nor the Pilgrims would cause each other harm; If anything was ever stolen from the other party the stolen item would be returned to its rightful owner and the offender returned for discipline from their own people; During meetings weapons would be left behind; and if war occurred, the two people would be allies
  • What was the first Thanksgiving? The harvest celebration of 1621 in autumn between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims is considered the first Thanksgiving and the basis of modern day traditions.
  • What happened to the Pilgrims who were left behind when the Speedwell could not make the journey? Many of the Separatists who were left in England and the Netherlands made their way to America to join the Plymouth Colony.
  • What colony was Plymouth in? Massachusetts Colony


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