By Jonathon Van Maren
“In the beginning, there was Plymouth,” Nathaniel Philbrick told me. He should know. His book Mayflower: Voyage, Community, and War was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History. It is a magnificent retelling of one of America’s origin stories. Plymouth wasn’t where America formally began, Philbrick told me. “But it is a narrative that resonates with America.”
This fall marks the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s landing at Plymouth Rock. The ship left England at 6 p.m. on September 16, 1620. It dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. Before heading ashore, 41 male passengers signed a now-famous document — the Mayflower Compact.
America’s Spiritual Founding
The Compact read as follows:
In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King defender of the Faith, etc.:
Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith, and the honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another; covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic; for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue thereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be though most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.
In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, 1620.
A Desperate Pilgrimage
Of the 102 passengers, a third were Puritan Separatists. For years they had been seeking a place to worship in freedom and in peace. The Church of England, they believed, was corrupt. Still, they were forbidden to start their own churches. Many fled to the Netherlands. In Leiden, they found religious liberty but a foreign culture. They also feared a siege and renewed persecution by Catholic Spain. To serve God in their own way, they decided cross the Atlantic and rebuild in the New World.
The Separatists had planned to settle in northern Virginia, but brutal storms and savage seas blew them more than 500 miles off course. Upon landing in what is now Provincetown Harbor, they hunted for a place to settle. They had arrived late, and winter was almost upon them. During the winter of 1620-21, 45 of the 102 Mayflower passengers died. Survivors suffered from scurvy and lack of shelter.