The Pilgrims originated with 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. Since the official church was part of the English government, their dissension was considered treason and punishable, sometimes "by bloody death and cruell torments."
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 at last free to worship as they felt called. Yet life was still difficult. They didn't speak Dutch and they were accustomed to farm life, not trade and industry. Many found menial jobs as textile workers and struggled to support their families.
Holland was peaceful when the Separatists first arrived, but after ten years, invasion by Roman Catholic Spain seemed imminent. Besides the threat of Catholicism, 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 more liberal views of the Dutch. They wanted to find a place to live where they could worship as they pleased and keep their customs and language. After much deliberation, they decided to emigrate to the New World.
Settling in England's claim in America, known as the Virginia Territory, required the King's permission and a significant investment. The Separatists negotiated with a group of investors, called "merchant adventurers," for a land patent issued by the Virginia Company of London. The patent permitted them to settle on America's east coast between 38-41° North (near the mouth of the Hudson River between present-day New York and New Jersey). Although the King refused to recognize their religious freedom officially, he promised he would "not molest them, provided they carried themselves peaceably."
To finance their voyage and settlement, the Separatists formed a joint-stock company with the merchant adventurers. In return for financial backing, the Separatists would send the investors their goods and profits for seven years, keeping only what they needed to live. 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 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 had recruited craftsmen, laborers, and other workers in London. The London passengers had no issue with the Church of England; they simply hoped to find 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.
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.