Sept. 16, 2022

The Mayflower Sets Sail

The Mayflower Sets Sail

September 16, 1620. The Mayflower sets sail for the New World, carrying the first Pilgrim settlers to America.


Cold Open 

It’s a snowy December morning in 1620, on the shores of Cape Cod, in what is today Massachusetts.

In the early light of dawn, a group of Puritans sit around a campfire eating breakfast. Among them is a highly respected Puritan leader, Edward Winslow.

Just last month, Edward and a group of his fellow Puritans, arrived here in the so-called “New World” to start a settlement. Their journey across the Atlantic was long and hard but the work isn't over. Now they’re here, Edward and his party are out on a patrol mission to scout the area. Soon, they’ll pack up their things and head back to join their fellow travelers on board the Mayflower, anchored in nearby Plymouth Bay.

Edward and his men talk about their plans for the next day when suddenly, their quiet conversation by the fire is interrupted… by someone shouting in the distance.

Edward squints into the dim morning light. He sees a member of his party running toward the camp in full speed, eyes wide with fear. He cries out: “Indians!”

As Edward leaps to his feet… an arrow strikes the ground nearby... then another... and another. Soon, a swarm of arrows soars down from above. Edward and his party scramble to grab their muskets. Then they take cover, take aim, and fire.

But the arrows keep coming.

As the Puritans fire back in the direction of their attackers, Edward peers out into the surrounding trees. But it’s too dark. He can’t see a thing.

Edward glances over at a member of his party who runs to the fire, grabs a flaming log, and waves it around in the air to scare the attackers off.

But it only emboldens them. Soon, Edward sees the figure of a warrior emerge from the shadowy treeline. In rapid succession… the warrior shoots three arrows. Edward and the Puritans train their weapons… and fire back. But the warrior doesn't move. He doesn’t run away in fear. Instead… he lets out an extraordinary roar. And then he and the rest of his fellow warriors disappear into the trees.

In November of 1620, Edward Winslow, and a group of just over 100 Puritans and other Englishmen, arrived in America after 66 days at sea. Some came in search of gold, others glory. But Edward and his fellow Puritans came for religious freedom. At the time of their journey, Edward and his congregants called themselves “the Saints”. But eventually, they will come to be known by another name: “The Pilgrims”.

Not long after their arrival, these Pilgrims came into contact with indigenous peoples who’ve called the “New World” home for thousands of years. Following the so-called “First Encounter” on the shores of Cape Cod, the Pilgrims claim they were viscously and needlessly attacked. But the warriors of the Nauset tribe of the Wampanoag Nation likely saw it differently. They had reason to suspect the Pilgrims were hostile. Prior to this violent exchange, the Pilgrims had stolen their food and robbed their graves. The Nauset warriors likely thought they were defending themselves, their land, and their customs. And as time goes on, the two disparate cultures will continue to collide in profound and tragic ways; a chain of events that was set in motion when the Pilgrims set sail on board the Mayflower on September 16th, 1620.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is September 16th, 1620: The Mayflower Sets Sail.

Act One: The Voyage

It’s September 16th, 1620 in Plymouth, England.

Captain Christopher Jones stands on deck of his 100-foot-long cargo ship, the Mayflower. He peers out over the placid waters of the bay. Normally, Jones’ ship is filled with casks of wine that he transports across the channel to and from France. But today, the bowels of his ship is filled with people.

Jones has been hired to sail the Mayflower, and 102 passengers, west to the New World. Jones has never made the trip across the Atlantic before. Still, he’s a seasoned captain and expects to be up to the task except that most travelers who make the journey leave earlier in the year to avoid arriving in the winter months.

Jones and his passengers tried to beat the cold by leaving back in August. They set sail on two ships - the Speedwell and the Mayflower. But they didn’t get far. At sea, the Speedwell sprung a leak. And the passengers were forced to abandon the vessel, climb on board the Mayflower and return to Plymouth. Some lost hope and decided not to continue the journey. The rest joined their fellow passengers on board the Mayflower alone, where they’ve been waiting for favorable winds ever since.

Today, as Jones stands on deck, looking out over the still water, he sighs in frustration. He knows they’re running out of time. They have limited supplies and provisions. And if they don’t leave soon, it’ll be the dead of winter by the time they arrive. They will have to embark soon, or else miss their chance to make the crossing at all.

Below deck, Edward Winslow - the Pilgrim leader - knows their situation too. He kneels on the floor and bows his head in prayer. As he clasps his hands, Edward prays that God will grant him good fortune, and safely guide him - and his fellow congregants - to the “New World”. For Edward, this journey is not about adventure or the search for money or power, it’s a religious pilgrimage.

Edward is what is known as a Separatist. He believes that the Church of England has strayed beyond the teachings of Christ. But under the rule of England’s monarch, King James I, such beliefs are criminal. So Edward and his fellow Separatists decided to flee Europe and start a new settlement in Virginia, the first enduring English colony in North America.

Soon, they secured a royal patent from the Virginia Company; the English trading outfit King James charged to colonize the eastern coast of America. To finance the journey, they struck a deal with some London Financiers. And in exchange for ships and supplies, Edward's pilgrims agreed to pay their investors back with profits from their new settlement. But today, as Edward kneels and prays, he hopes their efforts will not have been in vain.

For days, the Mayflower has been stuck in the harbor due to unfavorably mild winds. There’s nothing to do but wait - and pray - for the wind to pick up so they can begin their journey.

As Edward finishes his prayer, he climbs to his feet and brushes the dust off his knees. Then he looks up and takes in his fellow passengers. He’s happy to be surrounded by so many courageous, and righteous, men, women, and children.

But the 40-some-odd Pilgrims are not the only passengers. There are roughly 60 others on board. And these Strangers, as the Pilgrims call them, are not members of Edward’s congregation. They’re sailing on behalf of the London Investors who financed this expedition. And unlike the Pilgrims, their motivations are far less pious.

Edward eyes these Strangers warily. He worries they’ll sow conflict, and be a dangerous influence on the children.

But before he can worry too much further, Edward sees one of his fellow Pilgrims bounding down the steps from the upper deck. With a beaming smile, the Pilgrim announces the winds have turned in their favor, and the ship will sail immediately. The air fills with cries of joy and praises of thanks to God.

As the Mayflower pushes out to sea, Edward’s heart lifts. Soon, the oppression - and the blasphemy - that he and his fellow Pilgrims have endured for so long will be nothing more than a distant memory. And finally, after so much strife, the Pilgrims are on their way to their very own “Promised Land”.

Act Two: The Wampanoags

It’s late at night in November 1620, just over two months since the Pilgrims began their journey.

The Mayflower is anchored in the dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean, just off the east coast of what is today the United States. Below deck, Edward Winslow listens as his fellow passengers engage in a fiery debate.

After 66 days at sea, the Mayflower finally reached the New World, but nothing went according to plan. On the voyage, bad weather blew the Mayflower off course. And instead of arriving in the Virginia Colony at the mouth of the Hudson River as intended, the Pilgrims ended up farther north, here off the coast of Cape Cod, in modern-day Massachusetts.

This is a major problem. Everyone on board understands that their royal patent with the Virginia Company only applies to a settlement south of the Hudson River in the Virginia Colony. Cape Cod is hundreds of miles to the North which means they technically don’t have the King’s blessing to start a settlement here.

After they arrived, the Captain tried to sail south to Virginia, but the waters along the route were too treacherous. He made a decision to turn around and come back. Now, the ship is anchored here in Cape Cod. And tomorrow, at first light, The Mayflower will make land. But the question being debated is: what happens next? Should the travelers form a settlement and establish a government as the patent intended? Or already being an unsanctioned territory, should they ignore the patent and forge their own destiny?

Most of the Pilgrims do not want to do anything drastic. They recognize that making it to Virginia is no longer possible. So they want, instead, to form a settlement here in Cape Cod and send word back to England asking for royal approval for their change of location. But some of the Strangers have other ideas in mind.

In the midst of the debate, one of the Strangers steps forward and takes the floor. He argues that King James and the Virginia Company have no authority over this land. And when they step foot on shore, the Stranger intends to be a free man. No one will have the power to command him.

Edward bristles at these fiery words. What this Stranger is suggesting is mutiny against the Crown. Back in England, this sort of talk would get them all locked away in the Tower of London, or worse. But Edward knows the law back home doesn’t hold much sway here, thousands of miles away. What concerns Edward more is a matter of survival.

The travelers are short on food and supplies, and winter is coming. Many are already sick from the long journey, several have already died. Edward may not trust these Strangers. But he also believes that, despite their many differences, their best chance for survival is if they all band together as one.

On the other side of the debate, at least one Stranger is having similar thoughts: a merchant named Christopher Martin. From the very beginning, Christopher’s been wary of these religious zealots on board. But right now, he’s less worried about Edward Winslow and more about his fellow Strangers who are advocating mutiny. Christopher has no love for King James or the Virginia Company. But he has strong ties to the London financiers who paid for this expedition. Christopher understands that the only way for the settlement to thrive, and pay back their investors, is for everyone - the Pilgrims and the Strangers - to work together.

And Christopher is an influential man. He was already named the de facto Governor of the Mayflower. In the wake of the debate, Christopher uses his influence to win the Strangers over to his way of thinking.

Soon, the Pilgrims and the Strangers come together and take an extraordinary step. In keeping with the customs of the time, the women are excluded; but nearly all the men sign the so-called “Mayflower Compact” - the first attempt to establish self-government in this New Western World. The brief, 200-word document binds the Pilgrims and the Strangers into a body politic; it commits them to form a government and pledges them to abide by any laws that will be later established for the greater good of the colony. This pact is made, not between men and their monarch, but between men and one another.

The next day, the Mayflower will come ashore at Cape Cod. There, the men, women, and children on board - Pilgrims and Strangers alike - will set about putting their experiment in consensual government into action. But not long after setting foot on shore, the travelers will come into contact with indigenous peoples who’ve lived on Cape Cod for thousands of years. Their cultures will collide, and members of both sides will have to make a difficult decision: forge peace or wage war.

Act Three: King Phillip’s War

It’s March 16th, 1621, in the heart of the Pilgrim’s brand new settlement, named after the place where their journey began: Plymouth.

The air is just beginning to warm after a harsh winter. The exhausted, malnourished, and sickly Pilgrims are nevertheless hard at work building their new home.

But soon, a lone man steps out of the woods and walks toward the settlement. His name is Samoset and he’s an emissary of the Wampanoag tribe that calls these lands home. Samoset’s been sent here by the Wampanoag to make contact with the English settlers. He carries with him a bow and two arrows. One is pointed, the other is not. It is a symbol of his mission today: to figure out if the Pilgrims want war or peace.

When Samoset approaches the Pilgrims, he greets them in their native tongue. He watches their faces turn in shock. They’ve never seen someone like Samoset speak in English before.

But Samoset has had plenty of interaction with their kind. The waters in this area are a popular destination for European fishing boats during the warmer months. Some Europeans have engaged in trade with the Wampanoag and other nearby native nations. But the Europeans have also brought with them mysterious diseases that have killed thousands. Others have lured indigenous people aboard their ships, only to take them captive and sail off. Most were never seen again.

So as Samoset continues to communicate with the English, he has on a brave face. But he is extremely nervous and ready to respond if violence breaks out. In a gamut to ease tensions, Samoset asks the settlers for something to drink.

Soon, he is sharing a meal of cheese, butter, pudding, and fowl with members of the Plymouth colony. Over the course of the meal, Samoset shares what he knows about the surrounding area. He makes sure the Pilgrims understand the Wampanoags are strong and numerous. But they are willing to cooperate with the English. They may even help protect them from other more hostile tribes.

Many of the Pilgrims though aren’t sure if they can trust Samoset. They haven’t forgotten the violent altercation that occurred only shortly after their arrival. But they also know their colony is in a precarious position. Roughly half of the Mayflower’s original passengers and crew have died from sickness or starvation.

Among the survivors is Edward Winslow. Even though Edward was present at the so-called “First Encounter”, he doesn’t advocate for violence. Instead, he plays a pivotal role in pushing his fellow Pilgrims toward peace. And soon, the two parties meet and take their first step toward signing a treaty.

That November, the Pilgrims celebrate their first successful harvest. On what is considered the first-ever Thanksgiving feast, the Pilgrims are joined by members of the Wampanoag tribe.

But sadly, the fragile peace will not last.

In the coming decades, the colony grows to over 1,000 people. Included in that number are more settlers arriving from overseas, many of whom are hostile to the indigenous people. And over time, the Colonists - through intimidation and violence - will push the Wampanoag off their land. It is a complicated beginning to a complicated story that includes both the seeds of American democracy and the subjugation of a sovereign people. The consequences of both will change the world but began when the Mayflower set sail from England on September 16th, 1620.


Next onHistory Daily. September 19th, 1893. New Zealand becomes the first country to grant women the right to vote.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack. 

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.