1620: A Tale of Two Ships

Replica of the Mayflower, Plymouth Massachusetts (Bierle Photo)

Replica of the Mayflower, Plymouth Massachusetts (Bierle Photo)

Many people are familiar with the good ship Mayflower. It has become part of American legend and lore since it brought the Pilgrims to the New World – we imagine a large, sleek sailing vessel cruising across the calm Atlantic, the wind-filled sails billowing above the happy Pilgrims frolicking on the deck. Well, it’s time re-evaluate our “lovely” myths and legends about the Pilgrims…and what better time to do it than in this season of Thanksgiving!?

Through the research and teaching, I learned that we Americans have bought into a lot of myths about our forefathers. We image the Pilgrims waltzing (making that jumping…Plymouth Rock, you know) into the new land, having just a little hardship, making friends with their Native American neighbors, the crops grow, the houses are built, and then it’s time to feast on turkey, sweet potatoes (with marshmallows, grown in the local marsh, of course) and pumpkin pie. My most sincere and humble apologies for my sarcasm!

As with all eras of history, it is extremely important to remember the folks we are studying were REAL people, not marble statues or romanticized paintings. They had hopes and fears. They argued, fought, and forgave. They loved. They grieved. They sweated; dirt got under their fingernails.

So – as a historian – I’m going to make a call to action and give you a challenge. By the time you sit down to your Thanksgiving feast this year, I want you to have learned at least three new things about the Plymouth colonists. (Don’t panic and run to the library, just read Gazette665). I want you to have three “ah-ha” moments when you realize they were real people and not the stiff, dark-clothed, buckle be-sprinkled, solemn parishioners that the Victorian era art has taught and modern advertising has completely spun out of control. Will you try? Will you accept my challenge? (Shout out your answer and thoughts in the comments!)

[Miss Sarah has now climbed off her soapbox and is ready to share history.]

An artist's depiction of the Pilgrim embarking on their voyage.

An artist’s depiction of the Pilgrim embarking on their voyage.

The Mayflower & The…?

Wait, a sec…you mean there were two ships? Yes. The Mayflower and the Speedwell originally both left England, sailing for the New World. But…something happened…and that is the story you are going to hear today. And you get the account in the original words of William Bradford – who was really there, experiencing it all. (Any little comments in parentheses are mine to clarify, liven it up, or make the story relatable!)

Here’s is the account of the Pilgrims trying to leave England in 2 ships: The Mayflower and The Speedwell.

At length (in the year 1620) after much discussion everything was got ready. A small ship (the Speedwell) was bought and fitted out in Holland, intended to help transport them, and then to remain in the country for fishing and such other pursuits as might benefit the colony. (The religious folks in the group we call “Pilgrims” had been living in Holland to escape English persecution). Another ship (Mayflower) was hired in London, of about 180 tons. When they were ready to depart, they had a day of solemn humiliation, their pastor taking his text from Ezra 8:21 – “And there at the river, by Ahava, I proclaimed a fast that we might humble ourselves before our God, and seek of Him a right way for us and for our children, and for all our substance… …Then with mutual embraces and many tears, they took leave of one another…

Thus, hoisting sail, with a prosperous wind they (Speedwell & passengers) came in short time to Southampton, where they found the bigger ship from London lying ready with all the rest of the company… (Skipping the length details about the final supply/money fiasco)

Everything being now ready, and all business completed the company was called together… Then they allotted the company to each ship as they thought best, and chose governors and two or three assistants, to take charge of the people on the way…which done, they set sail from Southampton, about the 5th of August.

Mayflower IIBradford Continues – The Perils of A Leaky Ship

(First Travel Delay) …They had not gone far when Mr. Reynolds, the captain of the smaller ship (Speedwell), complained that he found her so leaky that he dare not go further till she was mended. (Remember, these are the days of wooden hulled ships!) So the captain of the bigger ship (Mayflower), Mr. Jones, being consulted with, they both resolved to put into Dartmouth and have her mended, which accordingly was done… Some leaks were found and mended, and it was then believed that she might proceed without danger…

(Second Travel Delay) But after they had gone 100 leagues beyond Land’s End…the captain of the small ship (Speedwell) again complained that she was so leaky that must bear up (that means “turn around and go home”) or sink at sea… So they consulted again, and both ships resolved to bear up again and put into Plymouth (that’s Plymouth, England), which accordingly was done. No special leak could be found, but it was judged to be the general weakness of the ship, and that she would not prove equal to the voyage.

Bradford Continues – The Decision

Upon which it was resolved to dismiss her, and part of the company, and proceed with the other ship; which, though it caused great discouragement, was put into execution. So after they had taken out such provision as the other ship could well stow, and decided what persons to send back (very hard decisions), they made another sad parting, the one ship (Speedwell) going back to London, and the other (Mayflower) proceeding on her journey…

The Voyage of the Mayflower

And thus on September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set off, alone, across the Atlantic. 102 passengers aboard and a crew of approximately 30. The ship itself was between 100-110 feet in length.

The crossing was rough. Fierce Atlantic storms sloshed the crew and passengers with water. The main mast cracked and was repaired with the large screw taken from Mr. Brewster’s printing press. John Howland was swept overboard, but miraculously survived and was rescued.

The Mayflower anchored near land.

The Mayflower anchored near land.

On November 11, 1620, they sighted land: Cape Cod…but they had wanted to go to Virginia. Eventually, the weather forced them to decide to settle in the Cape Cod area, and, after signing the Mayflower Compact and agreeing to stay together and form a colony in Massachusetts for the glory of God and country, they set out to find the perfect location.

So…why’d you write about this?

Two reasons. 1) Many people don’t know about the Speedwell and it’s frustrating saga. 2) It’s relatable history.

Ever been on a road trip and got continual delays? Or how about just trying to get through a work day – you know, the day that every single time you turn around there’s a delay. (The printer’s out of ink. The line at the sandwich shop is out the door when you’re in the biggest hurry…etc. etc.)

We can relate to the Pilgrim’s experience because we face delays and frustration in our own lives. We can learn from the Pilgrims – they tried several times to overcome the difficulty, but finally decided to try something different. Yes, about half of their group had to stay behind, but the rest went forward…and founded a colony.

The image of the Mayflower and its crew and passengers bravely setting out on their own inspires me to have stronger faith and move forward. I hope it will inspire you.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Was there something in the account of “trying to leave England” that was particularly interesting to you? Tell us in a comment.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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7 Responses to 1620: A Tale of Two Ships

  1. Jim Hodges says:

    Sarah: From what I’ve read, the Speedwell really wasn’t in all that bad shape. Some theorize (since there are no further records of her being overhauled or abandoned, in fact she continued in service) that the captain just didn’t really want to go and came up with this story to abandon the venture. No idea whether this is true or not. But I have heard it proposed.

    • Excellent point, Jim. William Bradford actually mentions this idea in his account “Of Plymouth Plantation”, but it seems like maybe it was something they theorized/discovered well after it happened.

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