Famous Early Immigrants: The Pilgrims

by Bob Brooke

"After long beating at sea they fell with that land which is called Cape Cod...they were not a little joyful." William Bradford.

And so the ship Mayflower set anchor in Provincetown Harbor on November 21, 1620, thus beginning the American genealogy of thousands of people. This was the first, but by no means the last, group of people to come to America to escape prejudice and oppression in search of religious freedom, and so they became known as the "Pilgrims."

The Pilgrims were English people who didn't agree with the methods of the Church of England. They secretly set up their own separate church. Since that was illegal, several of their leaders were jailed. The "separatists," as they were called, decided that the only way they could pray as they wished was to leave England. In 1608, a group of them sailed over to Holland. Although they could pray freely in Holland, they felt like outsiders there, too.

After hearing about the New World, the separatists secured permission from the King of England to establish a colony in Virginia and arranged to take two sailing ships from Plymouth, England, to North America. One ship, the Speedwell, began leaking shortly after departure, so 102 people--68 adults and 34 children, and a crew of 30-jammed onto the second ship, the Mayflower.

These travelers spent 66 days at sea before they spotted what's now known as Cape Cod on November 9, 1620. After exploring the coastline, they established a colony on December 26 and named it Plymouth, in honor of their town of departure.

Over the years the Pilgrims and their lifestyle have been stereotyped and their present-day image relegated to cardboard stand-up decorations for Thanksgiving. But what was daily life really like for these people?

It wasn't until Jan.1, 1621 that Pilgrim leaders made land allotments by counting "how many families there were, willing all single men that had not wives, to join with some family as they thought fit, that so we might build fewer houses; which was done and we reduced them to nineteen families," wrote William Bradford.

Bradford continued: "We went to labor that day in the building of our town, in two rows of houses for more safety." The common house, just 20-foot square, with its thatched roof was at the head of the street. They surrounded the entire compound, which they called Plimoth Plantation, with a stockade fence to protect them from the Indians, whose frequent visitations caused much alarm.

Over half of the group died that first winter. Most of the others, sick with diseases, were nursed back to health by just seven people, including William Brewster and Myles Standish. But their lifestyle remained cloaked in mystery to most until their village was recreated just outside Plymouth at Plimoth Plantation.

Plimoth Plantation is 17th-century Plymouth. The smell of hickory wood and roasting meat and the sound of laughter among gossiping women fills the air. In the Pilgrim Village, each day corresponds to a day in 1627, where the inhabitants in lilting Elizabethan English show visitors how to cook a pottage or build a timber frame house. There's even a restaurant in the Visitor Center that serves 17th-century cookery. In all, this is the best place to experience what it was like for the Pilgrims as they settled into the New World.

The Pilgrim Hall Museum, America's oldest, in Plymouth, exhibits items belonging to those first settlers, including the first patent for land in the New World.

<< Everyday Genealogy

What's New in Genealogy ... Today!
click to view original photo