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The Pilgrims


Portrait of Edward Winslow [detail]

by Robert Walker, 1651


Girl With Oliebollen [detail]

by Aelbert Cuyp, c. 1652

[They] laboured to have ye right worship of God & discipline of Christ established in ye church, according to ye simplicitie of ye gospell, without mens inventions...

–William Bradford

The Mayflower pilgrims originated from a congregation of families in England who wanted to escape religious persecution by King James I. The group strongly disagreed with certain practices of the Church of England–those that aligned with Catholic tradition but were not biblical–and wanted to break away to form a separate church. Thus, they were known as "Separatists." However, because the king ruled the Church of England, this separation was illegal and amounted to treason, which was punishable by "bloody death and cruell torments."


In 1608, a Separatist group from the English farming village of Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, succeeded after several failed attempts to escape to Holland, a much more religiously tolerant country. The congregation settled in Leiden and were finally free to worship as they felt called. Yet life was not easy. They did not speak Dutch and were mostly farmers unaccustomed to city life. Most found menial jobs in Holland's textile industry and struggled to support their families.

After a dozen years, their freedom of worship once again came under threat as Roman Catholic Spain prepared to invade Holland. The Separatists needed a new home where the government did not dictate worship. They also longed for their English culture and lifestyle. They wanted to speak English. They wanted to farm their own land. And realizing that their children were adopting the liberal attitudes of the Dutch, they wanted a more conservative environment to raise their families. After much thought, the Separatists resolved to settle in America​.

Settling in America's British-claimed land, known as the Colony of Virginia, required the king's permission. The Separatists negotiated with the king's Privy Council of Virginia and received a land patent 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 King James refused to recognize their religious freedom officially, he promised not to bother the Separatists as long as they "carried themselves peaceably."

Settling in America also required a lot of money, which the Separatists lacked. To finance their venture, they formed a joint-stock company with the Merchant Adventurers of London. In return for financial backing, the Separatists would send the investors their goods and profits from America for seven years, only keeping 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, a group of Leiden Separatists sailed from Holland to England on a small ship, the Speedwell. They docked in Southampton Harbor and joined the Mayflower, a larger ship from London. Aboard the Mayflower were London craftsmen, merchants, and laborers whom the investors had recruited to increase the new colony's chance of success. These recruited passengers sought opportunity and adventure and had no issue with the Church of England.

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




Washing the Skins and Grading the Wool

by Isaac van Swanenburg (1537-1614)


The Separatists wore colorful clothing, not plain black and white (those were the Boston Puritans).


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


While the Puritans wanted to purify the Church of England, the Separatists wanted to leave the Church, believing it had strayed too far from the Bible.


Before moving to Holland, The Separatists made unsuccessful attempts in which they were arrested and jailed.


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


The Pilgrims used the Julian Calendar, not the Gregorian Calendar we use; their September 6 is our September 16, and their year started on March 25, not January 1.


The Separatists did not celebrate Christmas or Easter because the Bible does not mention them.


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


The Separatists used the Geneva Bible. John Alden, of London carried a King James Bible, printed in 1620.


Husbands had to choose between bringing their families on a dangerous maiden voyage or leaving them to come on a subsequent voyage, possibly years later.


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