The Conditions On The Mayflower: What Was It Like On The Famous Ship?

By Karen Harris
The replica of the Mayflower under sail on its way back to Plymouth Harbor. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Our elementary school lessons about the Pilgrims gave us a romantic view of the founding of the United States, but in reality, crossing the Atlantic in the Mayflower was a harrowing experience, with too many people crammed into a damp, dank ship. It was unsanitary, smelly, and downright miserable.

The Mayflower Was Smaller Than You Think

The Mayflower was surprisingly small, only about 25 feet wide and 106 feet long. The hold where the passengers stayed was, of course, even smaller, about the size of two semi trailers side by side with a ceiling only five feet high, meaning most Pilgrims couldn't fully stand. In that small space, 102 people spent one month in port and then more than two months at sea with zero privacy or insulation from the elements. The frigid water of the North Atlantic seeped into the wood, coating the entire passenger hold in a film of chilly dampness, and the Pilgrims practically slept on top of each other. Some families tried to carve out their own spots by hanging curtains, but they weren't very effective. Even when a passenger named Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth, to a son appropriately named Oceanus, the rest of the passengers could hear the entire ordeal.