By 1620 the Pilgrims, those religious separatists who had fled persecution in England for the relative freedom of Holland, had become disgusted with the too-tolerant atmosphere they found there. So they decided instead to try their luck in the New World.
Around the same time, a group of Dutch fur traders called the New Netherland Company was looking for colonizers to populate New Netherland and challenge the English hegemony in the area of Jamestown and points north. The company petitioned the States General to allow the Pilgrims to colonize New Netherland under the Dutch flag.
But the scheme failed. The States General were in the process of going to war against Spain, and had no desire to antagonize England just when they might need her as an ally.
So the Pilgrims instead accepted a land patent from a group of English investors, who called themselves the Merchant Adventurers.
Their agreement with the Merchant Adventurers seemed fair. It obligated the Pilgrims to work for the company four days out of every week, for seven years . Two days each week they could work for themselves, with one day set aside for worship. Each colonist over the age of sixteen would be given one free share in the company, and all costs and supplies of the venture would be provided out of the company’s joint stock. At the end of the seven years, the shareholders would split the profits, and the colonists would own their houses and the land on which they stood.
On the eve of the Pilgrims’ departure from Holland, they discovered that the Merchant Adventurers had neglected to secure them a ship for the voyage. They were forced to purchase the Speedwell to make the trip from Holland to England, where they were to pick up supplies for their longer voyage to the New World.
Then at the very last minute, the Merchant Adventurers unilaterally changed the terms of the agreement. Instead of working for the company four days out of every week, the Pilgrims were to devote all their time to turning a profit for the company. Furthermore, the land and houses would become common property rather than the private property of individual families.
Although the Pilgrims’ representative hastily signed the revised agreement, the majority of the group would not go along with the new terms. The company’s representative was so offended that he stormed off, refusing to even make the final payment owed for the Speedwell and the Mayflower. The Pilgrims were forced to sell off some of their already inadequate supplies to make the payment.
Due to uncertainty regarding the terms of the contract, many Pilgrims backed out of the project. So the company decided to make up the difference by adding fifty-two non-separatists to the passenger list; having these strangers in their midst contributed even more to the discomfort of the remaining Pilgrims in the group.
The first attempt to leave England had to be aborted; the Speedwell leaked so badly that she could not even be repaired. The entire group would have to crowd onto the already overcrowded Mayflower. By September, the would-be colonists had already eaten almost half their provisions, and they hadn’t yet left Southampton.
When they finally did sail, they immediately ran into miserable weather. They discovered that the Mayflower was hardly any more sound than the Speedwell had been. Performing makeshift repairs to their leaky vessel, they continued their voyage and finally sighted Cape Cod after two months at sea.
Their troubles were still not over, for they spent another two days sailing up and down the coast, looking for a safe place to land. It took them another month to find a suitable place to settle, but they finally arrived, tired and sickly, at Plymouth, just as winter was beginning.
The area had recently been all but depopulated of Indians by a plague, and the skulls and bones of plague victims lay scattered all over the ground.