That group of hardy European venturers we think of as “The Pilgrims” began as a community of religious separatists living near Leiden in Holland, where they had taken refuge from their English homeland where the practice of their fundamentalist faith was outlawed. Wishing to improve political ties with England, even the Dutch were beginning to threaten their sense of temporary sanctuary by 1618, so with the help of some prominent friends and investors in London, they petitioned for a license to establish a colony in the Virginia district of the New World. To make this possible their leaders envisioned the need for two seaworthy vessels and began by purchasing a 60-ton freight hauler re-commissioned as The Speedwell in which they sailed for Southampton on August 1st, 1620 where they would divide their number with a larger ship named The Mayflower which they had chartered for the Atlantic voyage. The latter had been used in the wine trades for some years and so was known as a “sweet” ship. Under the command of Captain Christopher Jones, an experienced Master, the Mayflower – three times the size of Speedwell – would have to return to England after the transit however. Key to the enterprise’s success was ownership of the Speedwell, which would remain with the Colony insuring ample supplies and shelter for the first winter as well as the prospect of performing fishery duties, and eventually being sold to help pay off the venture’s growing debt.
Troubles began shortly after the two ships departed for the Atlantic journey on August 5th when the Speedwell showed signs of taking on water. Her fearful and uncertain skipper no doubt added to the problem and both ships returned to Dartmouth Harbor for inspection and repair. With the loss of valuable time, good weather and needed supplies, the congregation nevertheless carried on with great faith. Finally, on August 23rd, the sister ships left port once again, only to make just 300 miles before Speedwell showed signs of sinking (probably under the weight of outsized masts and sails). This time they returned to the Port of Plymouth, a location which must have put the separatists at some risk.
Whether the Speedwell’s troubles were coincidental or mutinous is still a matter of historic conjecture, but the decision to abandon the second vessel was made. This required a new allocation of passengers and crew and completely altered the dynamics of leadership and command. At least twenty of the original passengers remained behind in London.
It was already the 6th of September before the Mayflower set sail alone, carrying 100 colonists plus crew, having been forced to live off their carefully-husbanded shipboard supplies for weeks, and having lost the advantage of fair sailing weather. For 60 storm-tossed days, the crowded and seasick passengers shared what meager comforts Mayflower could offer. During those days, a daughter would be born to William and Susanna White who would be named Peregrine, and another named aptly, Oceanus, to Stephen and Elizabeth Hopkins.
Blown severely off course and running short of beer (the only safe potable liquid in those days), they arrived off Cape Cod far north of their allotted colonial grant on November 11th, 1620, noting the prominent harbor rock they would thereafter call “Plymouth Rock” in deference to their port of departure in England.
After ardent prayer and given their dire circumstances and the threat of an oncoming New England winter, they determined – by common consent – to establish their New World Colony right there, where “God had delivered them”.
As the good ship Mayflower sailed away for England, the 102 newly-arrived American citizens now faced a future dangerously short of resources, and without the comforting presence of the lost HMS Speedwell, upon whose succor so much of their plans had depended.
By the following October, as the colonists began that first feast of Thanksgiving, contemplating 55 fresh graves on the hillside behind them, a relief ship from England, Fortune hove into view, bringing new life to the surviving immigrants from Leiden whom we honor on this Thanksgiving.
A replica of the Mayflower is docked at Plymouth, Massachusetts where visitors today can get a feel for what Pilgrim life aboard might have been like in 1620.
An unknown artist of the 1800s rendered this romantic image of Pilgrim passengers gathered on the ill-fated Speedwell.