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How Much Do You Know About the Mayflower?

Historical Facts | November 1, 2018

Visitors of the Mayflower II in Plymouth. (Photo by Essdras M Suarez/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

As kids, we learned about the Mayflower at an early age. It was, in fact, probably one of our first history lessons in kindergarten. We were told that the Pilgrims set sail from England aboard the Mayflower and they landed on Plymouth Rock just in time to have a great Thanksgiving feast with the Native Americans. Much of the story of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower has, however, been simplified and white-washed. What do we really know about the ship that carried the Pilgrims to the New World? You may be surprised at how little you know about one of the most famous boats in U.S. history. 

The Mayflower was tiny by today’s standards.

Historians estimate that the Mayflower was approximately 100 feet in length and perhaps about 25 feet wide. By comparison, the average yacht today is about 300 feet long. The Mayflower had three levels, the main deck, a cargo hold and the gun deck. The ship also had three sailing masts. Taking on an ocean voyage in a ship as small as the Mayflower took a lot of bravery and skill. 

The Mayflower was previously used as a merchant ship.

Prior to sailing into history with a load of Pilgrims in 1620, the Mayflower was a merchant ship. In fact, the boat was about twelve years old and had been used to carry such interesting and non-Pilgrim-like cargo as wine, hemp and hops, before it became a passenger ship for the Pilgrims. The Mayflower was partially owned by its captain, Christopher Jones. 

The Mayflower was armed.

We may think of the Pilgrims as peaceful, religious people…and, indeed, they were…but they were prepared for a fight. Aboard the Mayflower, there were a total of twelve cannons, eight small ones and four medium-sized ones. The Pilgrims and the crew all agreed that the cannons were needed in case there was a need to defend the ship from a threat, such as the Spanish, the French, the Native Americans, or even pirates. 

The Mayflower was slow.

As a merchant ship, the Mayflower was not designed to navigate the open ocean. It was difficult to sail and progress was slow. Historians believe that the ship was only able to travel about 80 miles per day. Today, we can drive that distance in a little more than an hour. 

The Mayflower was packed with people.

When the Mayflower set sail from England in 1620, there were 102 passengers on board, as well as a crew of about 30. People were crowded together, there was no privacy and no room to spread out. The voyage across the ocean took a lot longer then they planned…66 days, in fact…so by the time, they spotted land, food, fresh water and tempers were wearing thin. When the ship landed, however, it was short a few passengers. Two passengers succumbed to illness and one was swept overboard by rough waves. The small size of the ship and the huge waves in the open ocean meant that the trip was a treacherous one. Nearly everyone on board suffered from seasickness. 

Another ship was supposed to join the Mayflower.

When the Pilgrims left England on the Mayflower, they expected to be accompanied by another ship, the Speedwell. The Speedwell, a 60-ton pinnace, was much smaller than the Mayflower and planned to carry only a few passengers. The Speedwell was plagued with repairs in the weeks leading up to the voyage. Even after the two ships embarked on their journey, the Speedwell was experiencing leaks. Both ships turned back to England and the passengers of the Speedwell came aboard the Mayflower

The Pilgrims continued living on the ship after it reached Massachusetts.

After the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and met the local Native Americans, they still needed a place to stay. Their first winter in the New World was spent aboard the tiny, cramped Mayflower, anchored in the harbor. The ship was not built to protect passengers from the brutal winters of the Northeast and the Pilgrims waged a constant battle against the cold and sickness and hunger. About half of the Pilgrims and crew members died that first winter. In the spring, those who survived moved to the Plymouth Colony. 

The Mayflower returned to England, but the Mayflower II is in Plymouth.

The trip back to England from the New World was much quicker and smoother than anticipated. The crew arrived back in England in late spring of 1621. A few years later, in 1924, the Mayflower was sold for scrap in London. A replica of the famed ship, the Mayflower II, was built in England in 1955 and sailed into Plymouth, Massachusetts, on April 20, 1957. The shipbuilders used period blueprints and hand construction to make the ship as historically accurate as possible. Today, the Mayflower II is anchored in Plymouth and is a popular tourist attraction. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.