Step aboard the Mayflower

A replica of the Mayflower gives visitors a feel for the hardships of a 1620 voyage

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Imagine if your parents woke you up tomorrow morning and told you the family had decided to move - to the moon. It will be a great opportunity, they say, but the trip will be difficult, dangerous, and long. It will be hard to know what life will be like once you arrive. Would you want to go?

In 1620, some kids your age faced a voyage that probably felt a lot like going to the moon would today. Their parents had decided to sail to the New World on the Mayflower.

Many of these children and their families were living in Leiden, near Amsterdam in the Netherlands. They had moved there from England because they didn't agree with the Church of England. They wanted to worship God in their own way. That wasn't allowed in England, though. They called themselves Separatists because they had separated from the Church of England to form the Church of Saints.

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After living in Holland for about 10 years, they decided to move again. They considered South America, but among other things the hot climate was too unfamiliar. Also, they wanted their children to grow up with English traditions. So they decided to head for the new English colonies in America.

The Separatists wanted to set up a colony where they would be free to practice their religion, but there weren't enough of them to pay for the voyage. So a group of about 70 investors, led by Englishman Thomas Weston, agreed to help finance the new colony. The investors recruited other colonists, including members of the Church of England.

In the early summer of 1620, the investors helped the Separatists hire a small ship, the Speedwell, to sail to America. Other passengers would sail on a bigger ship, the Mayflower.

On Aug. 5, Speedwell and Mayflower set sail together from Southampton, England, for the two-month journey. But Speedwell began leaking, and they had to turn back twice. Finally, the group decided to leave Speedwell in England. That would mean leaving some passengers behind, too. On Sept. 6, Mayflower set sail with 102 passengers - 20 or 30 more than planned. The ship carried food and drink for the journey as well as stores for the winter, livestock, and tools needed to start the new colony.

The weather was good for the first week of the trip. But soon the ship encountered autumn gales. Passengers had to stay below decks.

The Mayflower was a cargo ship. There were no passenger ships then. The ship's passengers had to make themselves comfortable in the large open underdeck called the orlop, designed to carry freight. Most brought mattresses stuffed with hay and slept on the floor. Some families paid to have short partitions built to separate their family from others, but many strangers slept side by side. Some sailors had special beds that were like long narrow cupboards built into the wall. These beds had a door that could be shut from the inside, so they could take a quiet nap.

Passengers passed the time by telling stories and riddles. A strategy game called Nine Men's Morris was popular, too. But one can imagine that, after nine weeks at sea, things got pretty boring.

At other times, though, passengers were probably too scared to be bored. Stormy seas made the trip uncomfortable for many. One passenger, John Howland, was standing on the top deck when the ship tipped sharply - and he fell overboard! Fortunately, he was able to grab hold of a topsail halyard (rope), and sailors pulled him back aboard. Another time, a main deck beam cracked. Even some of the crew wanted to turn back after that. But the ship's carpenter fixed it.

For the most part, the passengers were very religious. They would often pray together for safety or for patience to endure the long trip. On Sundays, they held a religious service - though sometimes it was cut short by bad weather.

Because there were no refrigerators, the ship's one cook was limited in what he could prepare. The main course was usually salt beef, salt pork, or salt fish. The salt kept the meat from spoiling. On salt-fish days, a little hard cheese was served, too, but there was no milk or cream. Rice was expensive, so oatmeal was served instead. Dried peas were common, too.

They also ate "ship's biscuit." These biscuits were not the light, warm-from-the-oven kind. Ship's biscuit was flat and hard, like a very tough cracker. It was made of flour and water and baked three times to drive out moisture and so help preserve it. It could last for up to five years, but it had to be dunked in liquid to make it chewable.

There were no bathrooms. Each family had a chamber pot, which was emptied into a big bucket. The bucket was periodically emptied overboard. (Remember, the journey took 66 days.)

How happy everyone must have been when land was sighted in early November! But it wasn't the right land. They were supposed to be 200 miles south, at the mouth of the Hudson River. But because 17th-century navigation was so imprecise, they were off the tip of Cape Cod. When they tried sailing south, though, they ran into dangerous shoals, so they turned around. On Nov. 11, 1620, they dropped anchor in Provincetown Harbor.

Most passengers stayed aboard while others set out in a small boat to explore.

They settled on an area on their map called New Plymouth. It had a long sloping hill that made it easy to defend. It was the site of the former Wampanoag village of Patuxet. Its inhabitants had died of disease three years before.

On Dec. 16, 1620, the Mayflower anchored off New Plymouth.

That first winter was hard. Only half the colonists and crew survived. But when the Mayflower left for England in April 1621, none of the colonists were aboard. They all stayed to work hard to establish the colony. In the fall of 1621, they celebrated the harvest with the Wampanoag people. Though this is often referred to as "The First Thanksgiving," our modern holiday is rooted in two traditions - a religious "Day of Thanksgiving" and a harvest celebration - that were blended in the 1800s.

Take this Colonial quiz

1. How many colonists were aboard ship when the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England, on Sept. 5, 1620?

A. 63
B. 81
C. 102

2. After 66 days at sea, the ship finally dropped anchor at:

A. Plymouth, Mass.
B. Provincetown, Mass.
C. the mouth of the Hudso n River in New York

3. The cost of a passage on the Mayflower in 1620 was £5. How much is that in US dollars today?

A. $250
B. $750
C. $1,000

4. What did the founders of the Plymouth colony call themselves?

A. Separatists
B. Pilgrims
C. Puritans

5. Of what tribe were the native Americans who attended 'The First Thanksgiving' in 1621?

A. Iroquois
B. Pequot
C. Wampanoag

Answers: (1) C, and a crew of 26. (2) B. The Mayflower was supposed to land by the mouth of the Hudson River, near Manhattan. (3) C; (4) A. They weren't known as 'Pilgrims' until 200 years later. Puritans, a different sect, settled further north. (5) C. Iroquois were from New York; Pequot were from Connecticut.

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