The Pilgrims were a small group of people who made a great impact on world history. Their story begins in England, sometime after King Henry VIII started the independent Church of England, also known as the Anglican or Episcopal Church. Most of the countries surrounding England did not agree with the King's decision. Many people in England did not agree either. Some wanted the Anglican Church to be more like the old Catholic church. Others wanted it to be even more simple and to rely more on Bible teachings than ceremony.
Puritans and Separatists
Near the end of the 1500s, a number of groups began to form in England with renewed interest in trying to establish different church practices. One of these groups was called "Puritans" because they wanted to make the existing Anglican church more "pure" and simple. Others were called "Separatist" because they wanted to become completely separate from the official Church of England. The Pilgrims were "Separatists," and they were often punished severely for this. (One of their beliefs was that they should be allowed to select their own church leaders and ministers).
As different Kings and Queens took over ruling England throughout this period they had different ideas about religious practices. When King James came along, the Pilgrims thought they might finally be able to ask for permission to set up their own church. But the King denied the request, and the Pilgrims decided to leave England and move to Holland, where freedom of religion was accepted.
After several years of living in Holland, the Pilgrims became restless and unhappy. Their children wanted to speak Dutch instead of English and they missed other things about English life as well. Their leaders, William Bradford, Reverend John Robinson and several others worked out a plan to move the entire Pilgrim church group to America. That way they could still be English. But it was too difficult and too expensive to move everyone at once.
History in the Making
The trip was difficult to organize. In addition to the Pilgrims, it was necessary to include around fifty other English people to pay for the ship and supplies. (The original Pilgrim church members called themselves "Saints" and the others "Strangers.") Finally, after many setbacks, the "Mayflower" left for America on September 6, 1620. The trip across the ocean was rough and uncomfortable for the 101 passengers. But they sensed that what they were doing was an important piece of history.
On November 11, 1620, the Pilgrims got their first look at the New World when they saw Cape Cod. The Pilgrim group had permission to settle in the northern part of Virginia (which in those days reached to present day New York). When the "Mayflower" turned south, however, it ran into rough, shallow waters and became in danger of tipping over and sinking. It was quickly decided to head back to the deeper, safer waters off the tip of Cape Cod. But now a decision had to be made. Was this where they should stay?
The next thing that happened was very important indeed. Since Cape Cod was outside the area they were supposed to settle in, the group agreed to write a "compact" or "self-governing" agreement. This agreement became known as the Mayflower Compact. It called for the election of a governor from amongst the members of their group (something they were already comfortable with from their church practices). This was the first act of European self-government in the New World.
After signing the Mayflower Compact, the Pilgrims decided to look over Cape Cod as a place to settle. They sent out three separate "discovery" expeditions to see what the area had to offer. During these "discoveries" they found their first fresh water, took some Indian corn, and almost had a battle (called the First Encounter) with some Native Americans. Cape Cod had many good features, but after a month of searching, it was decided to finally settle in Plymouth.
The Mayflower Compact
In the Name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the faith, etc.
Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian Faith and honor 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 into 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.
In witness where we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Ano. Dom. 1620
Last updated: January 31, 2017