Did the Mayflower Go Off Course on Purpose? And Other Questions...

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, by William Halsall Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, by William Halsall (click for source)

The Mayflower landed on the coast of Cape Cod, in modern-day Massachusetts, on November 11, 1620. Its target had been the area around the Hudson River, north of the then extant Virginia Colony, and hundreds of miles from where it ended up. The explanation passed down by the Pilgrims was that a serious storm had blown the Mayflower off course, and that they had arrived in America too late in the year to correct themselves.

It is a plausible explanation, yet many on the Mayflower had much to gain from their faulty navigation. Leaders of the group were seeking religious independence in America, and above all a freedom from the corrupting influences that were ever-present in England or in Leiden. They were not in close religious alignment with the Anglicans of Virginia, and may have justly feared that tensions and a loss of freedom might have arisen had they settled in that colony.

Other people had economic reasons to favor an isolated location. Many people on the Mayflower were bonded out to the London Company for seven year terms of indentured servitude. The London Company's jurisdiction included Virginia and some parts north, but it ended well short of Cape Cod. By remaining in the wrong place, these indentured servants were indentured no more, and could live on equal terms with the rest of the Pilgrims. Of course, this is not the kind of plan that would have been written down on paper, since it was basically illegal, but it should at least be considered as a motive for the ship being "blown off course".

A level of social equality was ensured by the Mayflower Compact, which was signed upon arrival by every male settler on the Mayflower. After paying the requisite tribute to King James I, perhaps to assuage concerns about the remoteness of their settlement, they established the working order of their colony. With pledges to "covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic", the Compact has been interpreted as a precursor to American democratic ideals. This is part of a more general myth about how the sacred values of the American Revolution and later periods had a genesis in 1620. The fact of the matter is, the authority of King James I was assumed to be God-given in the Mayflower Compact, and the its egalitarian nature in other areas was a practical necessity. With fewer than a hundred men present, the Pilgrim leaders could not afford to drive anyone away with autocratic overreach.

Even so, the Pilgrims' colony nearly failed. It was to their great fortune that they had stumbled into the ruins of an abandoned native settlement. Previous explorers had exposed the Wampanoag Indians to a virulent plague, perhaps leptospirosis, and Cape Cod was thereby fertile yet almost unpopulated. Locals such as Squanto had survived and were able to provide further guidance to the Pilgrims on their new environment. This dependency is somewhat acknowledged in the Thanksgiving story, but in way that makes the Pilgrims appear far less desperate than they actually were. It also leaves out the episodes where starving Pilgrims blatantly raided and stole food from local Indian tribes.

There are other questions and myths about the Pilgrims that survive. Why do depictions of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts invariably show them dressed in black, without a glint of levity? This is another misrepresentation that has been passed down through the centuries. The black and white style of clothing was in fashion in the late 1600s and early 1700s, when artists began to render the colonists. These compelling, but inaccurate depictions of the Pilgrims influenced subsequent artists and histories until they came to be widley accepted.

The fact of the matter is that Pilgrims wore colorful clothes, using whatever natural dyes were available at the time. Only for the Lord's day did they take on the more somber hues. Many artists show them wearing buckled shoes, but this is almost certainly inaccurate. Buckles were expensive and unfashionable in the early 1600s, and there is little chance they would have been used in the new colonies.

In general there are many questions and misconceptions about the Pilgrims that historians are just now able to answer and correct. The classic Pilgrim tales are nearly as mythical as those of Romulus and Remus.

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