The Pilgrims originated from a congregation of English families who wanted to escape religious persecution by King James I. They strongly disagreed with certain practices of the Church of England and wanted to break away to form a separate church. Thus, they were known as "Separatists." This disagreement amounted to treason, which was punishable by "bloody death and cruell torments" because the king ruled the Church of England.


photo of pilgrim woman in gray hat and red clothing

Photo by Svetlana / CC BY-ND 2.0

photo of pilgrim man in orange cap

Photo by Richard Taylor / CC BY 2.0

photo of pilgrim girl in big straw hat

Photo by Amaury Laporte / CC BY-NC 2.0

photo of pilgrim man in gold jacket

Photo by Amaury Laporte / CC BY-NC 2.0

In 1608, a Separatist group from the English farming village of Scrooby managed after several attempts to escape to Holland, a more religiously tolerant country. Settling first in Amsterdam and then in Leiden, they were finally free to worship as they felt called. Yet life was still difficult. They did not speak Dutch, and they were mostly famers unaccustomed to urban life. Many found menial jobs as textile workers and struggled to support their families.


After ten years, their freedom of worship once again came under threat when the invasion of Holland by Roman Catholic Spain seemed imminent. Besides that, the Separatists missed their English culture and lifestyle. They wanted better jobs. They wanted the opportunity to own land. They also realized that their children were adopting the liberal views of their Dutch friends. They needed to find a place where they could worship freely and keep their customs and language. After much deliberation, they decided to emigrate to the New World.


Settling in England's claim in America, named Virginia after the late virgin Queen Elizabeth, required the King's permission. The Separatists negotiated with a group of investors, called "merchant adventurers," for a land patent authorized by the king and issued by the Virginia Company of London. The patent permitted them to settle on America's east coast near the mouth of the Hudson River between present-day New York and New Jersey. Although the King refused official recognization of their religious freedom, he promised he would not "molest them, provided they carried themselves peaceably."


photo of American Pilgrim Museum in Leiden, Netherlands

American Pilgrim Museum, Leiden, Netherlands

Photo by ekenitr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Settling in America also required a lot of money, which the Separatists did not have. For that, they formed a joint-stock company with the same merchant adventurers. In return for financial backing, the Separatists would send the investors their goods and profits from America for seven years, keeping only what they needed to survive. After seven years, the investors would release the colonists from service, dissolve the company, and distribute the assets among the colonists and investors.


In August 1620, the Leiden Separatists sailed from Holland on a small ship, the Speedwell, to England's Southampton Harbor, where a larger ship, the Mayflower, had arrived from London. To increase the colony’s chance of success in America, the investors recruited craftsmen and laborers in London to join the voyage. The London passengers had no problem with the Church of England. They simply wanted opportunity and adventure.


The Separatists became known as the "Saints," and the adventurers became known as the "Strangers." Although the Strangers outnumbered the Saints, the Saints remained in charge. All would eventually be known as "Pilgrims."

The Separatists considered moving to Guiana, South America, but feared the heat, tropical diseases, and invasion by Roman Catholic Spain.

Did You Know?

The Separatists wore brightly colored clothing, not somber black and white (those were the Boston Puritans).

The Puritans wanted to "purify" the English Church from within; the Separatists wanted complete separation from it.

The first time the Separatists tried to escape to Holland, they were arrested and put in jail. 

Dutch painter Rembrandt was born in Leiden in 1606, three years before the Separatists settled there.

They were not commonly known as "pilgrims" until 1820, when Daniel Webster referred to them as our "Pilgrim Fathers" in a speech.

The Pilgrims used the Julian Calendar, not the Gregorian Calendar we use today, so their September 6 is our September 16.

The Separatists did not celebrate Christmas, Easter, or other religious holidays, because they are not mentioned in the Bible.

Pilgrim hats and shoes were not decorated with buckles, because buckles were not fashionable until the late 1600s.

The Separatists used the Geneva Bible. John Alden, from London, carried a King James Bible.

Sunday was a day of rest; no field work was done.

Husbands had to choose between taking their families on a dangerous first journey or leaving them behind until a later voyage, possibly living apart for several years.