Four hundred years ago, a group of radical Puritans left England for persecution by the Anglican Church. After a short time in the Netherlands, they moved to North America aboard the ship Mayflower. They arrived exhausted from the trip, but the worst had not yet come

In the early seventeenth century, the only British colony in North America was Virginia, officially established in 1607 by King James I. Two trading companies, the London Company and the Plymouth Company, exploited the territories of North America bound along the coast of Atlantic, but only the first had established a stable settlement at the mouth of the James River (about 200 km south of the city of Washington). However, the situation was destined to change within a few years.

From England to Holland

For decades, the Anglican religion was established in England, which accepted the King as the supreme head of the Church: Catholics and Puritans (followers of the Reformer Giovanni Calvino, who lived in the 16th century) were reduced to a minority. Moreover, the puritans of the early seventeenth century were further divided, by the greater or lesser availability of their members to conform to the official crown and religion. One of the most radical branches was the Congregation of the Separatists, for which the believers had to be organized into free and democratic communities and therefore could not obey the official Anglican Church.

Persecution against them increased to the point that in 1607 a large group, led by John Smyth and William Brewster, left England and moved to the Dutch city of Leiden. Here they found a kind reception, but within ten years new problems arose.

The separatists believed that the sexual habits of the Dutch were very unacceptable, and noticed that the new members of the group began to assimilate the lifestyle of the natives. Moreover, language barriers remained difficult to overcome, and the economic reserves with which they had come from the homeland were declining. Finally, the Separatists considered it necessary to preserve their English cultural identity and the spread of the Gospel to populations where Christianity had not yet arrived.

From Holland to America

This was thought to be a new transfer, rejecting America at first because there were so many voices talking about the difficulties facing the Virginia colony. Only later were members of the community sent to England to make arrangements with the crown and LondonCompany, which held the rights to exploit Virginia. The talks were lengthy, also due to the need to find financiers who would provide the necessary capital, to purchase supplies and to rent ships.

The first ship chosen was the Speedwell, only 60 tons, but it turned out to be unreliable: the crew discovered that the hull had been sabotaged. It was then decided for a second ship: the Mayflower, with about 180 tons, in which more than a hundred passengers took place (including 52 men, 18 women and 32 children: only about thirty of them were Separatists in the strict sense, the others were Anglican merchants, soldiers and servants) plus, of course, about thirty crew members. Continuous delays delayed the launch date, which occurred from Southampton on September 16, 1620. After a brief initial period of good wind, the Mayflower had to face a long series of storms.

The large Atlantic waves hit the columns, making the conditions on board almost uninhabitable from moisture and water. Halfway through one of the beams (horizontal beams supporting the deck of the ship) snapped, endangering the safety of the ship. Sailors and passengers worked side by side to place a screwing iron (a kind of car jack) under the cracked beam to allow it to be held until the end of the journey. Another wave pulled a passenger into the sea, who nevertheless managed to get caught behind a cable and escape. During the trip, another child was born, Oceanus Hopkins (he would later die in America at the age of just six).


After a 65-day voyage Mayflower spotted Earth on November 9, 1620. It was Cape Cod, a narrow sandy peninsula with a characteristic shape that creates a wide bay, slightly larger than the province of Milan. William Bredford, one of the executives, described the moment in his personal diary: wide and furious ocean, protecting them from all dangers ”. However, it was not the intended destination, that is, the mouth of the Hudson River (where New York would later be born), because the winds had pushed the ship further north.

However, the passengers were tired from the trip and Mayflower threw the anchor at the natural harbor which is located inside the cape, in what is today the Province. The problem was that the area was outside the jurisdiction of the London Company and for this reason, the agreements made before departure lost most of their legal value. A rift immediately developed between the group of Puritans and others who threatened to leave.

Bredford himself, along with John Carver and William Brewster, then drafted a short document (less than 200 words) before landing on the Mayflower Pact, with which everyone, not just the Separatist group, pledged to obey the laws that would be given to them by coming down to earth, forming a “civil political body.” For this reason, the pact is considered by historians as the first social contract in modern history and an essential reference point for the entire American democratic tradition.

Birth of the Colony

The Mayflower began searching for a suitable site to build the “New Canaan,” as the Calvinists wanted to call their colony, and found it on the other side of Cape Cod Bay, in Plymouth. According to legend, the landing was made easier by a large rock of glacial origin, known today as the Plymouth Rock: the first nucleus of the colony was founded right here. After a quick exploration of the surroundings, a small shared lodge was built for the end of December and each family began to build their own home.

The first winter was very difficult. Food was scarce, settlers suffered from scurvy (a disease caused by a lack of vitamins), the weather was unbearable: about half of the settlers died from hardship and disease, so much so that in March next year there were only 42 survivors, who had succeeded in surviving only with the help of the Wampanoag Indigenous people, a powerful tribe led by Chief Massaso, who controlled the entire region.

The newcomers were particularly helped by some Squanto (Tisquantum), which taught them to hunt, fish and grow corn (settlers immediately realized that the seeds they brought from Europe were not taking root), feeding them with their land products. A year later the situation had improved greatly. In November 1621 the surviving settlers were able to celebrate their first harvest and thank God: thus was born the tradition of Thanksgiving Day, which is still celebrated today on the fourth Thursday of November and represents one of the most popular holidays. in the US. / Airone

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