PLYMOUTH was the smallest and poorest of the colonies. It looms large on the horizon of history only because the Pilgrims were the first prophets of the America that was to be, the first to come with the desire to make this a really new world and not merely another Europe.
Great things necessarily have small and humble beginnings. Only the few and the obscure are foot free for new departures. The Pilgrims set up not alone a church without a bishop, but also a society and a State of self-governing common people, without "any persons of special eminence above the rest," as their pastor in Holland said.
In the searching and sifting of hearts, four or five out of every six in the little congregation of English exiles at Leyden fell away and, with "watery cheeks," knelt on the dock at Delfthaven to pray for the success of the 33 who embarked on the Speedwell in July of 1620. "We knew we were Pilgrims," said William Bradford. But we do not know how many actual Pilgrims there were on the Mayflower. Possibly a majority had no religious motive for their emigration.
The Mayflower herself was chartered to carry a body of colonists from London, and the Leyden Pilgrims embarked on her only after their leaky Speedwell had twice put back for repairs in English ports. Nevertheless the little minority from Holland at once took the leadership and held it to the last. Among them were Bradford, Brewster, Winslow, Carver and Allerton—the more dominant characters, with one notable exception.
Myles Standish alone of the 67 who started from England arose to conspicuous leadership, though he was not a Pilgrim but a professional soldier. Priscilla Mullins also was among them! And John Alden was picked up at the Southampton dock because he was a cooper and a general mechanic of sorts.
Unlike the Virginia-bound ships, there was not a "gentleman" on the Mayflower. Bradford wrote that the people who took refuge in Holland "had only been used to a plain country life and the innocent trade of husbandry"—the plowboys for whom Tyndale translated the Bible into English.
A few had acquired skilled trades in their Leyden exile. Bradford had become a "fustian weaver," Allerton a tailor and Winslow and Brewster printers. Only Brewster ever had seen the inside of a university, and he did not graduate. Edward Winslow alone rose to the distinction of having his portrait painted, the only authenticated likeness we have of a Pilgrim. Nor was there a lawyer or even a clergyman aboard.
Pastor Robinson stayed by the church in Leyden. But he sent with those who went as much of his spirit as they could carry. The Plymouth colonists reflected, though imperfectly, the good man's tolerance, patience and charity. Above all, he warned them to keep an open mind, because he was "very confident that the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word."
When, finally, the Mayflower got away from old Plymouth, in Devonshire, on Sept 15, she must have been chock-a-block with a passenger list of 102, which total included 44 men, 18 wives, one spinster and 39 boys and girls. "Their hearths as well as their altars went with them."
Not only were about four out of ten of the passengers children, or persons under age, but the Pilgrim fathers themselves were no graybeards. Nor were the Pilgrim mothers past their bloom, though all too soon that would fade amid frontier hardships. Perhaps there were two persons in the company who were 50 or more. There were only nine who had seen 40. Standish and Bradford were in their 30s, Winslow was 25, and Alden 21.
Who came over in the Mayflower are duly listed but what came over is not. After the passengers of the Speedwell had crowded aboard, there must have been little room left for cargo in a three-master of 180 tons, which was, perhaps, 90 feet long and 24 wide, carrying a crew of some 20 men. The Pilgrims themselves took so little thought of this now sacred ocean tramp that they did not call it by name. They spoke of it only as "ye ship."
At the last minute, the Pilgrims had to sell some of their food in order to meet a port charge of £100. They sailed "scarce having any butter," no oil; not a sole to mend a shoe, nor every man a sword to his side; wanting many muskets, much armor, etc." They brought some salt, some peas, beans and vegetable seeds; too little extra clothing; too few boots and shoes; some pewter and wooden kitchen and table ware; andirons and candle molds; hoes, axes carpenter and blacksmith tools; but neither a cow; nor a horse nor a plow.
After a wracking voyage of more than nine weeks, but with the loss of only one passenger, who died at sea, and the birth of another to take his place, the Mayflower sighted Cape Cod on a November day. Turning southward, she soon retreated before the "dangerous shoals and roaring breakers" between the Cape and Nantucket, and anchored in Provincetown Harbor. By that prank of fortune—or act of Providence—New England obtained its first permanent colony and became the breeding ground of religious and political revolution.
Since they had permitted the Nantucket shoals to dissuade them from settling, according to their patent, within the then limits of Virginia, they were squatters, without a law over them. They made their own law before they went ashore. There in the cabin of their ship, where they framed and signed that compact, government by consent of the governed was born to America. The American Revolution certainly "came over on the Mayflower."
James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 24, 1927, p. 14