21 Facts About the Mayflower Voyage and the First Thanksgiving
21 Facts About the Mayflower Voyage and the First Thanksgiving

21 Facts About the Mayflower Voyage and the First Thanksgiving

Larry Holzwarth - November 23, 2020

21 Facts About the Mayflower Voyage and the First Thanksgiving
Hostilities occurred during the first contact between Myles Standish’s party and natives. Wikimedia

11. The first contact with the natives led to an exchange of fire between them

The first contact between the Pilgrims and the natives occurred on December 16, 1620, when a party of 17 of the former landed near present-day Chatham. After raiding some burial mounds, which they had learned on the first expedition contained buried corn, the Pilgrims were attacked by Indians, who fired at them using bows and arrows. The Pilgrims returned fire with their muskets. The party then continued to the west in the shallop, reaching the area they finally selected for their settlement on December 21. There they discovered the remains of a former Indian settlement, with some of the shelters bearing skeletal remains. On December 29, in a conference held aboard Mayflower, the site of Plymouth Colony was selected, with the decision to commence building a shelter immediately.

The first building to be constructed was a twenty-foot square common house. Nearly completed by the end of January, it became the sanctuary for the sick. By then Mayflower was ravaged by disease and death. Scurvy, dysentery, and pneumonia, spread quickly in the confined conditions of the ship, and influenza likely took its toll as well. By early February 1621, less than a dozen of the Pilgrims were well enough to provide care for the sick and dying. A frustrated Captain Jones saw nearly half his crew die that winter. Mayflower’s seaworthiness decreased, as the crew proved unable to perform critical maintenance on the anchored vessel. Supplies continued to dwindle. The single encounter with the Indians imposed a dread on the Pilgrims of a potential attack which they were too weak to resist.

21 Facts About the Mayflower Voyage and the First Thanksgiving
Squanto knew William Bradford in England before Mayflower’s voyage. Wikimedia

12. The last of the Patuxets

Six years before the arrival of the Pilgrims an English fishing expedition left the New England coast with cargo other than just dried cod. English Captain Thomas Hunt kidnaped several Patuxet Indians, including a young native named Tisquantum. He carried the Patuxets to Spain, where he sold several of them into slavery, before monks intervened. Tisquantum found himself in the care of the monks, who both educated him and converted him to Christianity. At some point, the young Patuxet made his way to England, where according to William Bradford, he lived for some time in Cornhill. Bradford recorded he knew the native well, and while in England the young man became known by the diminutive of his name, Squanto.

Squanto returned to his homeland, by way of an English expedition to Newfoundland, sometime before the Pilgrims arrived in the New World. Upon his eventual return to his home village, he found the tribe had been wiped out, likely as a result of an epidemic. Squanto, the last of the Patuxets, moved to the village of Nemasket, accompanying an English exploration party led by adventurer Thomas Dermer. Dermer sent Squanto to meet with Massasoit, the powerful chieftain of the Massachusetts Indian tribes. Squanto then lived primarily in the village of Pokanoket, though he remained in contact with both English explorers and adventurers, as well as with Massasoit. When and how he became aware of the settlement at Plymouth remains uncertain. Contrary to popular belief, Samoset contacted the English first.

21 Facts About the Mayflower Voyage and the First Thanksgiving
Samoset encountered the English settlement in March, 1621. Wikimedia

13. The native Americans were hostile towards each other at the time of the settlement

Massasoit and his followers had enemies surrounding them long before the arrival of the Pilgrims. During the brutal first winter, while Mayflower anchored in the bay and the settlers struggled to survive, the Indian chieftain struggled with a decision. Hostile Narragansetts in and around Rhode Island posed the greatest threat to Massasoit, who also knew of the power and deadliness of the English guns. His indecision during the first winter likely saved the settlement from being wiped out. Other than the brief, hostile encounter in January there was no further contact between the Indians of Massachusetts and the English settlers. Squanto used the time to tell Massasoit of his experiences in England, and the power of the British.

An alliance between the English and Massasoit appealed to the chieftain, as a means of countering the threat from the Narragansetts. Squanto urged Massasoit to consider such an alliance, supported by Samoset, an Abenaki who had also earlier been kidnaped and taken to England, before returning to New England. As for the Pilgrims, fear of an Indian attack led them to take steps so as not to reveal how weak the settlement had become. On March 16, 1621, a Friday, Samoset entered the settlement at Plymouth, where he asked the Pilgrims for beer. Another visit on Sunday was declined by the Pilgrims, since it was the Sabbath, when trading and negotiations were proscribed by the Separatists’ religious beliefs. Squanto did not enter the settlement until March 22, for the expressed purpose of arranging for a treaty between the English and Massasoit.

21 Facts About the Mayflower Voyage and the First Thanksgiving
As the Pilgrims struggled to survive Mayflower lost crewmen and seaworthiness. Wikimedia

14. Mayflower deteriorated badly over the winter of 1620-21

While the Pilgrims struggled to build homes and support dwellings through the winter, Captain Jones struggled to preserve his ship. Nearly half his crew died of the same ailments devastating the Pilgrims. During the planning of the voyage in London, the ship’s time away from England, expected to be many months fewer, dictated the amount of food carried for the return. He had barely enough. John Alden decided to throw in with the settlers, remaining in the New World, costing him the Captain his cooper. Captain Christopher Jones faced another voyage across the Atlantic with a depleted crew, a damaged ship, and insufficient supplies. And there were no products of the settlement to sustain him, no grains, no flour, no meat. Each day he remained made the return voyage more daunting.

William Bradford and William Brewster implored the Captain to remain, with Mayflower and its guns their last resort in the event of an Indian attack. The appearance of Samoset and Squanto, and the subsequent arrival of Massasoit, changed matters decisively. A treaty of mutual peace and amity between the Pilgrims and Massasoit’s followers freed Captain Jones to begin preparations for the return voyage to England. These included the need to ballast the ship, to replace the weight of the stores consumed or off-loaded in Plymouth. Large stones from the rocky shores which surrounded the landing site of the Pilgrims suited admirably to the task. Smith also refilled his water barrels and loaded dried fish and salted game, provided by the Indians for the most part.

21 Facts About the Mayflower Voyage and the First Thanksgiving
Women, tasked with caring for the sick, suffered greatly during the first winter. Getty Images

15. More than two-thirds of the women Pilgrims died during the winter in the Mayflower

The diseases which ravaged the Separatists, Strangers, and the crew in the Mayflower proved particularly deadly to the women of the expedition. Of the 19 adult women who sailed to the New World, 14 of them died in the Mayflower as the ship lay at anchor. Among the survivors was Priscilla Mullins, just 18 years of age when the voyage began. It is often written that Mullins entire family died during the first winter. It is true that all of her family who made the voyage died, though two siblings remained in England. Some evidence indicates that she considered returning to England in the Mayflower. As one of the few surviving women, Mullins nursed the sick and infirm. Among her many patients was John Alden.

Rose Standish, wife of Myles Standish, died during the first winter of an unknown ailment. Her widowed husband, Myles, reportedly became one of the few who did not fall ill during that dreadful winter. William Bradford, whose chronicles contain much of the information known about the early days of the colony, recorded that Standish assuaged his grief by tending to the ill. Bradford noted that Standish cared for him during his own illness. Thus, both Standish and Priscilla Mullins occupied themselves caring for the sick, though beyond the poem The Courtship of Myles Standish there exists no record of a budding relationship between the pair. Standish married his second wife, Anne, sometime after 1623.

21 Facts About the Mayflower Voyage and the First Thanksgiving
A still from the American silent film, The Courtship of Miles Standish, which inaccurately told the story of his relationship with Priscilla Mullins. Wikimedia

16. Mayflower returned to England in the spring, 1621

By early April Christopher Jones completed his preparations for the return voyage. Among his many concerns was the condition of the ship, the shortages of stores, especially beer, and the weakened condition of his crew. On April 3, 1621, he worked the ship out from its anchorage to a less sheltered site. One of the two ship’s boats remained with the settlement, the other with the ship. On April 6 Jones and the remainder of his crew sailed out of Cape Cod and steered to the north. Jones planned to replenish his water in Newfoundland, or somewhere along the New England coast, before turning to the east and home.

At sea, he found the strong westerly winds which had opposed him on the voyage to the New World worked to his favor. Mayflower sped along at speeds never attained during the outbound voyage, despite the seaweed and other growth trailing from its bottom. The return voyage was remarkable only for being so unremarkable. Despite the shortage of sailors to work the ship, Mayflower sighted land in England in late April, and arrived at its homeport on the Thames on May 5. After recovering from the ordeal, Jones and his ship resumed their trade with European ports, carrying wine and other goods. Jones died in 1622, and Mayflower never returned to America, though another ship bearing the same name visited Plymouth several years later.

21 Facts About the Mayflower Voyage and the First Thanksgiving
Mayflower departed Plymouth in 1621, never to return. Wikimedia

17. What happened to the Pilgrims’ Mayflower is uncertain

After the death of Captain Jones, the other three men who shared ownership of the vessel requested a valuation from the Admiralty court. The records of the appraisal, which remain today, give a detailed look at the ship and its equipment. Likely the appraisal came about as part of settling Captain Jones’ estate, with his share of the ship’s value going to his widow. The records also indicated the ship was in a state of disrepair as of 1624. Following the appraisal, there remains no documented history of the vessel. Likely the ship was broken up, with some of its timbers used in the building of other vessels. Legend claims that a barn in Buckinghamshire, known locally as the Mayflower Barn and still standing, used some of the frames from the ship.

One reason for the uncertainty over the ultimate fate of the Pilgrim’s ship is in the records of the Admiralty courts of the day. For reasons unknown, Mayflower became a popular name for ships during the first three decades of the 17th century. Over two dozen vessels bore the name. The ships were recorded in the various Port Books and other records based on the name of their owners and masters, which detailed their voyages and cargoes. The several Mayflowers were of different ship types, tonnages, and missions, though all carried cargoes of varying definitions. One of these sailed to Plymouth in 1629. Because of the voyage of the second Mayflower, some have erroneously reported the ship returned to Plymouth Colony, when in fact it was an entirely different ship.

21 Facts About the Mayflower Voyage and the First Thanksgiving
Another Mayflower made several voyages to the New World, including in the fleet organized by Puritan John Winthrop. Wikimedia

18. The second Mayflower made several voyages to the New World

In 1629 another Mayflower arrived in Plymouth, bearing 35 passengers. Several of the passengers came from the Leiden Congregation. This Mayflower subsequently made several additional crossings of the Atlantic to North America. In 1630 it sailed as part of the Winthrop Fleet. Eleven ships sailed from England that summer, carrying several hundred Puritans, supplies, and livestock. They were bound not for the Plymouth Colony, but for the new Massachusetts Bay Colony. One of the passengers, John Winthrop, served as the Governor of the new colony, which eventually absorbed Plymouth and became the colony, and finally Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The second Mayflower made several additional trips to the British colonies, though not to Plymouth. Instead, it delivered emigrants and supplies to Massachusetts Bay and Virginia, returning to England with crews of dried fish and furs from the northern settlements, and tobacco from Virginia. In total, five successful voyages of the vessel occurred between the 1629 visit to Plymouth and a 1639 visit to Massachusetts. In October 1641, this Mayflower left London bound for Virginia. It carried 140 passengers hoping to join the settlements there. The ship vanished at sea, possibly lost to storms during that year’s hurricane season.

21 Facts About the Mayflower Voyage and the First Thanksgiving
A humorous depiction of life in Plymouth colony from the 19th century. Library of Congress

19. The Pilgrims soon had additional settlers join them in Plymouth

When Christopher Jones arrived home in England, the reports he gave to the Merchant Adventurers were far from promising. As had happened in the first year in the Jamestown Colony, the presence of disease, starvation, and death did not paint the New World as a land of promise. Jones did carry the relatively good news of the treaty with Massasoit and the assistance offered to the colonists by the natives. Ships began carrying passengers and supplies to the new settlement in New England to bolster the new colony, and the Merchant Adventurers’ investments. In November, 1621, the Merchant Adventurers dispatched a ship, Fortune, to the colony. Unfortunately, the ship carried more mouths to feed, but little in the way of supplies. Fortune also carried a demand for a payment from the Merchant Adventurers against the Pilgrims’ debts.

The Pilgrims loaded the ship with goods including dried fish and furs, according to their records a cargo worth the equivalent of $120,000 today. However, a French warship captured Fortune during the return voyage in 1622. The following year two additional ships arrived, both bearing additional settlers from the Leiden Congregation, among them Myles Standish’s second wife, and the future wife of William Bradford. By 1630, about 300 men, women, and children populated the Plymouth Colony. Most of the Leiden Congregation had by then relocated to the New World. Additional Strangers arrived as well, and Separatists gave them areas outside of the village of Plymouth for their settlements, though still within the governance of Plymouth Colony.

21 Facts About the Mayflower Voyage and the First Thanksgiving
The event celebrated as the First Thanksgiving bore little resemblance to that depicted in art and lore. Wikimedia

20. The Mayflower survivors attended the harvest celebration in the fall of 1621

At the end of the summer of 1621, likely during the last week in September, the surviving Pilgrims harvested their first crop in the New World. Squanto and Samoset provided the guidance which ensured the crop succeeded. Two of the Separatists, William Bradford and Edward Winslow left behind records of the event, and the harvest celebration which ensued. Fishing had proved successful, in both fresh and salt water. Waterfowl and game teemed in the area throughout the summer, and though the Pilgrims still had no cattle to provide beef, they had plenty of venison, and the meat of smaller game. To celebrate the harvest, the Pilgrims and their Indian allies enjoyed a three-day feast, “so that we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor”.

There were only 50 surviving of the more than one hundred who arrived in the Mayflower less than one year earlier. They were joined by upwards of 90 natives, meaning Indians outnumbered Pilgrims by nearly two to one. Yet neither chronicler of the event referred to it as Thanksgiving. That did not occur until midsummer, 1623. After mid-July rains ended a drought which threatened that year’s crops, Governor Bradford ordered a 14-day fast, and “they also set apart a day of thanksgiving”, celebrated before completing the year’s harvest. It was the first Thanksgiving in what became the United States ordered by civil, rather than by religious authority.

21 Facts About the Mayflower Voyage and the First Thanksgiving
The replica ship Mayflower II, built in the mid-1950s. Wikipedia

21. Another Mayflower appeared in 1956

In the mid-1950s, using the records of the Mayflower in the hands of both American and British historians, a replica of the famous vessel was built. Private donations paid for the construction. Although not an exact reproduction of the Pilgrim’s ship, it appears as faithful to the design of the original as possible with the information available to its builders. Its timbers were of English oak, its sails crafted in the same manner as in the 17th century and its cordage made of hemp, coated with tar from Sweden. In April 1957, the vessel, christened Mayflower II, sailed to Provincetown, the site of Mayflower’s first anchorage in America in 1620. Since then the vessel has been maintained by Plymouth Plantation, an American non-profit which maintains the colony museum in Massachusetts.

On the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival, in 1970, protestors led by Native-American activist Russell Means temporarily seized the vessel. They did not damage the ship, and released it peacefully after calling attention to the history of the treatment of American Indians. In 2012, the first of a series of scheduled upkeep periods began. They were scheduled so as to ensure the ship, which remains seaworthy, appeared in perfect condition for the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival in 2020. Circumstances forced cancellations of many events regarding the anniversary, but the vessel figures prominently in planning for celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Thanksgiving in America in 2021.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Mayflower”. Editors, History.com. Online

“The Story of the Pilgrim Fathers”. Edward Arber. 1897

“The Mayflower”. Rebecca Fraser. 2017

“Voyage of the Mayflower”. Caleb Johnson, Mayflower History. Online

“Mayflower Bastard: A Stranger Amongst the Pilgrims”. David Lindsay. 2002

“The Mayflower and her Log”. Azel Ames. 1907

“Of Plymouth Plantation: Sixteen-twenty to Sixteen-forty-seven”. William Bradford, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison. 1952

“Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War”. Nathaniel Philbrick. 2006

“Samuel Fuller of Plymouth Plantation: A Skillful Physician or a Quacksalver?” Norman Gevitz, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. 1992

“Governor William Bradford’s Letterbook”. William Bradford. 1906

“Mourt’s Relation or Journal of the Plantation at Plymouth”. Edward Winslow. 1622

“Good News From New England”. Edward Winslow. 1624. Online

“The History of New England from 1630 to 1649”. John Winthrop. 1853

“Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong”. Maya Salam, The New York Times. November 21, 2017

“Historic Mayflower II at Mystic Seaport for Historic Renovations”. Erik Ofgang, Connecticut Magazine. May 21, 2015.

“Celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the Mayflower on both sides of the Atlantic”. Helen Warwick, National Geographic. March 15, 2020