From grammar school through college Americans are taught the story of the Mayflower. History books tell the story that in 1620, a group of English pilgrims desired to express their religious beliefs without persecution. Believing their objectives could be achieved in the New World; they boarded the Mayflower, crossed the frigid Atlantic Ocean, and landed on Plymouth Rock. There they established a village and during their first dreadful winter nearly starved to death before Native Americans came to their rescue. This first act of camaraderie between the Native Americans and the pious pilgrims was the first Thanksgiving; a holiday set aside to celebrate a blessed bounty and to give thanks for the coming year.
The facts of this American historical drama cannot be denied. However, few Americans are aware that an error in navigation was actually responsible for the first settlement in the New England Colonies. As is often the case in historical events and innovations, this error proved prosperous and paved the way for America’s initial stable society that would become a model for social order in the New World.
The story draws its origin from a group in England who called themselves “Separatist” and believed that the Church of England held too many traits of the Catholic Church. This minority group opposed the Church rituals and mandatory attendance of services. In the early years of the reign of James I, a group from Scrooby Manor, a small community one hundred and fifty miles north of London, chose to formerly leave the state church and suffer the consequences of non-attendance rather than remain in England. Thus, off they trekked to The Netherlands, where a more tolerant mindset regarding religious practiced was tolerated. Indeed the Dutch were accommodating, showing little opposition to the beliefs of the newly established group. But as the years went by and the Separatists’ children began to come of age, there arose a shared dismay that the new generation was dismissing their roots, and a plan to reestablish their religious identity began to take shape.
The plan was put into motion in 1617, when their appointed leader, William Bradford, petitioned for a land patent from the Virginia Company of London, the same group of investors who helped finance John Smith to establish a settlement in Jamestown ten years earlier. But Bradford’s proposal was to move entire families, unlike Smith’s assemblage of young, able bodied men. Apparently the investors saw some merit in their plan, so in 1620 they boarded a ship named the Speedwell from Delfshaven in the Netherlands and sailed out for an encounter with the Mayflower, captained by Shipmaster Christopher Jones.
After their rendezvous, the two ships adjusted cargo and passengers and together embarked on the frigid voyage across the North Atlantic. But as fate would have it, the Speedwell sprang a leak and was forced to return to England. It was later written by Bradford that the leak was created intentionally because both crew and captain feared starving to death before they could solidify a settlement.
When the Mayflower set sail on its lonely voyage it was packed with as much rations and supplies as possible and included over one hundred and fifty total headcount. Its destination was fixed at between 38 and 41 degrees latitude; the area known then as Northern Virginia. Somewhere along the way the Mayflower veered slightly north and continued that route until land was finally spotted.
Desperate to leave the ship, the company moved around the area and discovered little more than an abandoned Indian village. To their dismay, they also discovered that they were well north of the intended Hudson Bay area, and had instead landed in New England. Realizing that they had no charter to settle this land, they boarded the ship and tried to navigate south to their intended target, but treacherous seas forced them back to Cape Cod. Since all in the company, including the sailors, knew they were on illegal land, near munity had to be quelled and on November 11, 1620 a group of 41 men convened and drafted the Mayflower Compact, which stated the intention to “Covenant and combine ourselves into a single body politick.”
This auspicious covenant did indeed parlay into a success story for the fragmented Mayflower survivors. Thiers was a triumphant story unlike any other in the treacherous endeavors to colonize the new world. While the Pilgrims numbered only a few dozen, they laid the foundation for the Puritans who made the journey only ten years later with numbers in the hundreds.
Although the Chesapeake colonies boast of being the initial gateway to the new World, theirs was a region that went the way of plantations and slave dependent labor. The Pilgrims, on the other hand, laid the foundation for organized towns and cities with well-developed streets and schools that provided learning opportunities to benefit the next generations.
But would America’s story be the same had the Pilgrims reached their intended destination of Northern Virginia? Of course we will never know the answer to this question. We are left to speculate that it was God’s plan for the winds to push their sails in a different direction, or the mishaps of man to miscalculate the degrees of latitude.
Only half of those who landed on Plymouth Rock survived, but those few laid the foundation for the initial populous regions. These areas spawned the learned and prosperous men and women that largely created the charters and declared America an independent nation.