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What Is the Mayflower?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 05 July 2014
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The Mayflower was the ship that carried the Pilgrims, or English Separatists, from England to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. It is a symbol of early European colonization and of religious freedom in the United States; the Pilgrims left their hometown of Plymouth, England to seek a place in which they would not be persecuted for their Puritan religion. Plymouth, Massachusetts is the oldest city in New England, and one of the oldest in the entire United States.

The Pilgrims decided to depart for America around 1617. They had been living in the Netherlands for almost ten years, where they had fled from their native England to escape religious persecution. The Pilgrims disagreed with the Church of England and refused to attend its services, preferring to conduct their own independent worship. They chose to leave the Netherlands because they feared assimilation into a foreign language and culture and believed the country's moral climate to be too lax.

The first boat the Pilgrims took out of the Netherlands, the Speedwell, persistently leaked, and the boat could only make it as far as Plymouth, England. Thereafter, the Pilgrims transferred to the Mayflower, which would successfully carry them to the modern-day United States. The journey was difficult, however, plagued by bad weather and disease. The ship carried 102 passengers, along with 25 to 30 crew members. One child and one crew member died during the trip, and one child was born and named Oceanus.

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The journey from England to America took 66 days, arriving in New England in November, during a harsh winter. While the Pilgrims originally intended to land near the Hudson River, the ship was blown off course by inclement weather and ended up at Cape Cod. The settlers founded a new town at the site of their landing, which they named Plymouth after the English port town from which they had begun their journey. They also drafted and signed the Mayflower Compact, a set of rules and regulations governing the settlement.

The Mayflower left Plymouth, Massachusetts to return to England in April of the next year, arriving about a month later. It returned to its use as a cargo ship transporting trade items between European countries and was likely dismantled in 1623. A second ship called the Mayflower made several trips from England to America, bringing new settlers. In 1641, during its sixth trip to America, that ship was lost at sea.

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