While their journey began very late in the year, dozens of English citizens clung to the hope they would arrive safely at their destination across the vast Atlantic.
They received authorization from the British crown to establish a second colony in America. About half of the individuals were entrepreneurs who would operate a trading post there.
Most of the others belonged to a separatist group of Puritans that had broken away from the Church of England. They fled to Holland a decade before to practice their religious faith in their own manner.
Late summer wasn’t the time for these people to sail across the ocean and begin their lives anew on another continent. They wouldn’t be able to gather enough food and create hospitable dwellings once they arrived. This would leave them to the mercies of the harsh winter and indigenous residents.
But they felt compelled to make this voyage and seek the life they wanted for themselves and their children. They placed their trust in their divine creator to see them through.
There were 102 passengers in all. The separatists were displeased they had to travel with non-separatists. They wanted to create a special community based on their interpretation of the Bible.
But they had no choice but to allow the non-separatists to accompany them across the Atlantic. Their financial backers insisted on this as they saw such an arrangement as an investment in a potentially profitable endeavor.
In August, they left Southhampton, England, in two merchant ships: the Mayflower and the Speedwell. But they had to return because the Speedwell sprang leaks. So all of the men, women and children boarded the Mayflower and departed from Plymouth, England, in early September.
Being so late in the season, the trip was perilous. The extreme sea conditions pushed them off course. They had planned to sail to the Hudson River near what is now New York City; this region of country was still considered part of Virginia at that time.
But when they spotted the first land they had seen in 66 days — Cape Cod — it was far past their initial destination. Ship master Christopher Jones decided they would stop at this site.
Some of the passengers believed this freed them from their obligations to their financial backers. They wanted to pursue their own interests once they went ashore.
So the religious leaders drafted a contract to maintain order and unity. The male passengers voted to accept the document, which read in part:
“Having undertaken for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith and honour of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another covenant and combine ourselves together in a civil body politic for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices from time to time as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”
Through their signatures, the pilgrims implemented the Mayflower Compact on Nov. 11, 1620 — four hundred years ago this month. This inspired future measures designed to secure our rights and independence from Great Britain.
Enacting the agreement, in essence, became the first act of democracy in America. In her 2017 book “The Mayflower,” Rebecca Fraser documents the historic significance of their mission:
“Plymouth Colony was the first experiment in consensual government in Western history between individuals with one another and not with a monarch. The colony was a mutual enterprise, not an imperial expedition organized by the Spanish or English governments. In order to survive, it depended on the consent of the colonists themselves. Necessary in order to bind the community together, it was revolutionary by chance.”
The passengers confronted severe hardship in their settlement. Unfortunately, about half of them died during the winter.
But in the spring of 1621, representatives of the Wampanoag tribe taught them how to plant the vegetables they would need. Later that fall, the separatists joined the indigenous people for a three-day feast. Future generations of Americans would re-create this event and enshrine it as one of our most cherished holidays.
Despite its early setbacks, the Plymouth colony eventually succeeded and attracted numerous other immigrants to the area. This began a population growth that led to the formation of the United States.
It would be easy to romanticize these early events and ignore all the horrors that lay ahead. We need to be mindful of the tragedies endured by indigenous people and the lingering consequences with which their ancestors continue to wrestle.
But the quest for religious liberty these pilgrims embarked upon led to a society that offers humans around the globe the best hope of obtaining lasting freedom. While we have much work to do to ensure full opportunities for all Americans, the mechanism for such progress is in place.
In keeping with the spirit of this occasion, let’s acknowledge the debt of gratitude owed to the separatists who risked their lives to create something better for themselves, their offspring and the world. We wish all our readers a blessed and healthy Thanksgiving.