Plymouth Gov. Edward Winslow
Detail, portrait of Plymouth Colony Governor Edward Winslow, 1651. Artist unknown.

They sailed to the New World under appalling conditions: One hundred and two English men, women and children, crammed onto a cargo ship that was only about 30 meters long and 7 meters wide.

The Mayflower had no cabins or beds; passengers berthed below deck wherever they could find space.

On board Mayflower II, Plymouth MA​

The voyage was fraught with risk: if rough seas didn’t take them, pirates might. If the passengers landed safely, they faced “famine and nakedness” and “continual danger of … savage people” and “wild beasts,” as Plymouth founder and Governor William Bradford later wrote in his “History of Plymouth Plantation.”

The Pilgrims were the first group of Puritans to sail to New England; 10 years later, a much larger group would join them there.

To understand what motivated their journey, historians point back a century to King Henry VIII of England. When the Roman Catholic pope refused to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry severed relations with Rome and formed the Church of England, naming himself its supreme leader. Membership in the new church was mandatory

But a faction of worshipers, the Puritans, believed Henry’s church held onto too many of the trappings of Catholicism and needed to revert to the simpler worship of the early Christians.

“The Puritans wanted to do away with a set of prayers as in the ‘Book of Common Prayer,’ stained glass, incense, priestly vestments and the like,” said George Washington University professor David J. Silverman, an expert in Native American and colonial history and author of “This Land is Their Land.”

Joos van der Beke portrait of English King Henry VIII, painted ca. 1530 - 1535.The Puritans rejected his Church of England, which they believed contained too many trappings of Roman Catholicism.

“They felt these features distracted from the word of God as preached from the Bible,” Silverman said.

Puritans and Pilgrims

The Puritans also opposed state interference in matters of religion and centralized religious control. They wanted to select their own ministers and decide on their own rules while remaining a part of the Church of England.

But a small group of radical Puritans broke away from the Church of England entirely, a breach of English law for which they were persecuted. They were called Separatists.

“That involved the arrest and imprisonment of dissenting ministers and lay dissenters who failed to attend the state church or who refused to conduct their marriages and baptisms there,” Silverman said. “The English state also banned the publication of dissenting tracts.” 

The terms “Puritan” and "Separatist" are sometimes used interchangeably, but as Silverman explained to VOA, they are different groups.

“The Puritans had a formal aim of purifying or reforming the Church of England. But the Separatists had given up on that goal. And so, technically, they aren’t Puritans,” he said. “But in every other respect, the Separatists are part of the Puritan movement. They have the same outlook. They follow the same principles.”

Seeking Utopia

In 1608, about a hundred separatist Puritans fled to the Netherlands, where they hoped to be able to practice their faith freely. They spent 10 years living in the city of Leiden, but hard work and poor living conditions began to take a toll on their health. They also worried that Dutch youth were corrupting their children.

So in 1620, a fraction of the congregation — about 37 Separatists — decided to sail to America to form a new religious colony. They would come to be known as the “Pilgrims.”

The Embarkation of the Pilgrims (1857), a romanticized painting by Robert Walter Weir at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.

They sailed to Southampton, England, and on September 6, with backing from a London merchant and a patent to settle in the Virginia Colony, they set sail on the Mayflower, headed for the mouth of the Hudson River, which at that time was part of the Virginia Colony.

Traveling with the Pilgrims were about two dozen non-separatist Puritans, whom the Pilgrims sometimes called “strangers,” a few servants, and a crew of 30 sailors — 102 passengers in all.

Change in plans

After a rough crossing, the Mayflower arrived at the tip of Cape Cod on November 10. Dangerous sandbars and rough waters prevented them from reaching the Hudson River, so the Pilgrim leaders decided they should remain on the Cape.

The location was outside the Virginia Colony’s jurisdiction, which meant they did not have legal permission to settle there.

In his “History of Plymouth,” Pilgrim leader John Winthrop explained that the Pilgrims worried that once ashore, “some of the strangers amongst them” might “use their own liberty" — that is, rebel or make trouble.

To ensure lawfulness, the Pilgrim leaders drafted a temporary agreement — the “Mayflower Compact.” It bound Pilgrims and non-separatist Puritans together as a single “civil body politic,” loyal to the King of England but allowed to draft its own “just and equal laws.”

The Mayflower Compact, the first governing document of Plymouth Colony, signed November 11 in what is now Providence Harbor, Massachusetts.

Pilgrim Edward Winslow described what happened next in his 1622 narrative “Mourt’s Relation.” For about a month, they sailed around the Cape, sending parties of men to explore inland.

On December 16, the Mayflower dropped anchor at what is now known as Plymouth Harbor. After three days of exploration, they decided to settle near the site of a Wampanoag village, Patuxet, which they would later learn had been emptied by an unknown epidemic. They named their new home “Plymouth.”

The second wave

In 1625 England, the new king, Charles I, began cracking down on Puritans, and a new group of them made plans to emigrate to America and settle what would be the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In 1630, led by Puritan lawyer and lay preacher John Winthrop, 700 passengers in a fleet of 11 ships set sail for New England. Some of them settled at Plymouth, but most followed Winthrop north, to the Massachusetts Bay, where they founded the city of Boston.

A 1581 edition of the Geneva Bible used by the Puritans, who rejected the Church of England's use of the King James Bible.

During the crossing, Winthrop gave a sermon in which he laid out his vision of the future: This third English colony wouldn’t be a commercial venture but a religious experiment. Puritans would live in brotherly love according to God’s law while waiting for the pending second coming of Christ. 

He warned the passengers, “we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” If the experiment failed, he said, God would withdraw his support and give their enemies reason to “speak evil of the ways of God.”  

‘Civilized and savage’

The Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of Boston were by and large “pretty simple folks,” Silverman told VOA. “Their leaders were well-educated and literate, but most of them were what you might call ‘peasants.’” 

Even so, most could read.

“The Puritans believed everyone should have direct access to the word of God through the Bible, so nearly everyone, including women, could read,” he said.

They weren’t going into the New World blind. They would all be familiar with Spain’s exploits in the Americas, thanks to a 16th-century book by Spanish Friar Bartolome de Las Casas, which had been translated into English as “Tears of the Indians.”

“Everything that Western Europeans thought about the potential of the Americas was shaped by Spanish accounts,” Silverman said.

The Puritans were horrified by the Spaniards’ depravity toward indigenous peoples.

1598, Theodori de Bry illustration for Bartolomé de las Casas' expose on the cruelty of Spanish conquistadors toward Native peoples.

“That said, their basic view was that the world was divided into civilized and savage people, Christians and pagans,” he said.

If Christians worshipped God, pagans worshipped the devil, who was a very real presence for the Puritans.

Woodcut from "History of Witches," Collected by W.P. from Bishops Hall, Morton, Sir Matthew Hale, etc., 1720. For Puritans, the Devil was a real presence.

"[The devil] was active in the world, even inside their communities,” Silverman said. “So, if you believe you are practicing the true faith and you're confronted with people you believe are savage devil-worshippers, you believe you have every right to seize the upper hand with them — violently.”