A Short History of Thanksgiving Day: Part 3 – Preparing to Sail to New England


By T. V. Antony Raj


John Robinson's House, Leyden, where the Pilgrim Fathers worshipped


Around 1617, the group of Separatists living Leiden, afraid of losing their cultural identity decided to set up colonies elsewhere, in some other country. Discussions were held as to where the group should go. The decided not to settle near England since that might closely duplicate the political environment back in England.

Candidate destinations included Guiana, where the Dutch had already established in 1616, Essequibo, a colony on the Essequibo River in the Guiana region on the north coast of South America; or somewhere near the existing Virginia settlements. Virginia was an attractive destination because the presence of the older colony might offer better security and trade opportunities.

At the same time, there were many uncertainties about moving to far-off places such as America because of the stories they heard about failed colonies over there. Also, there were fears of violent natives; scarcity of food and water; the possibility of exposure to unknown diseases; and hazards of distant travel by sea.

The London Company, also called the Charter of the Virginia Company of London, was an English joint stock company established by royal charter by King James I, for the purpose of establishing colonial settlements in North America. It administered a territory of considerable size in the region.

The territory granted to the London Company included the coast of North America from the 34th parallel (Cape Fear) north to the 41st parallel (Long Island Sound), but being part of the Virginia Company and Colony, the London Company owned a large part of Atlantic and Inland Canada. The company was permitted by its charter to establish a 100-square-mile (260 square km) settlement within this area. The company shared the territory, north of the 38th parallel  with the Plymouth Company, with the stipulation that neither company should establish a colony within 100 miles (161 km) of each other.

The London Company administered a territory of considerable size in the region. The Leiden Separatists made arrangements with the London Company to establish a new colony in North America. The intended settlement site was at the mouth of the Hudson River, at a distance that allayed concerns of social, political and religious conflicts, but still provided the military and economic benefits of relative closeness to an established colony.

Robert Cushman, a well-to-do wool comber, was the Chief Agent for the Leiden congregation.


John Carver (Illustration from 1800s M & E Cigar label. The picture is an unknown artist's conception that was supposedly based on contemporary descriptions)
John Carver (Illustration from 1800s M & E Cigar label. The picture is an unknown artist’s conception that was supposedly based on contemporary descriptions)


John Carver, a successful London merchant, and brother-in-law of John Robinson’s wife, had joined the Pilgrims around 1610.

The New World seemed to offer the opportunity the Leiden congregation needed, but the group had no means for getting across the Atlantic Ocean and establishing a colony. In 1617, the Leiden congregation sent Robert Cushman and John Carver to England to seek financial backing for crossing the Atlantic and to obtain a land patent. But the negotiations delayed because of internal conflicts in the London Company, but ultimately the duo secured a patent in the name of John Wincob on June 9 (Old Style) / June 19 (New Style), 1619.

The charter granted by the king stipulated that the Leiden group’s religion would not receive official recognition.

When the preparations for the voyage stalled because of the continued problems within the London Company, competing Dutch companies approached, and discussed settling in the Hudson River area.

Thomas Weston (born 1584) persuaded Edward Pickering, in 1615, to become his agent in Holland. Together they began to import a variety of nonconformist religious tracts that were seditious. In 1619, he left England and traveled to Leiden, Holland, where his agent Pickering had married a woman belonging to the exiled Separatists, who were then hoping to gain passage to America.

Negotiations with the Dutch broke off when Thomas Weston, the agent for Merchant Adventurer investment group, assured them that he could resolve the delays of the London Company who intended to claim the area explored by Hudson before the Dutch could become fully established. However, the first Dutch settlers did not arrive in the area until 1624.

Thomas Weston  told the Leiden group that parties in England had obtained a land grant north of the existing Virginia territory, to be called New England.

Elder William Brewster


While these negotiations were on, William Brewster ran afoul of the English government by involving in the religious unrest emerging in Scotland.

In 1618, King James had promulgated the Five Articles of Perth, which were seen in Scotland as an attempt to encroach on their Presbyterian tradition. Pamphlets critical of this law, King James I and his bishop were published by Brewster and smuggled into Scotland.

By April 1619, these pamphlets were traced back to Leiden. This was at a critical time for the Leideners, as the preparations for their voyage to America had entered a critical phase and William Brewster’s guidance was badly needed. Brewster’s whereabouts between then and the departure of the congregation to New England remained unknown.

Supplies and a small ship Speedwell, originally named Swiftsure, built in 1577 and took part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada by the English fleet , was procured to take some passengers from Holland to England; and from there cross the Atlantic to Virginia where it would be deployed for fishing, with its crew hired for support services during the first year.

Thomas Weston helped them to lease a second larger ship, Mayflower, for transport and exploration services.

There was not enough berths for the whole congregation to depart on the first trip. Many members were not able to settle their affairs within the time for departure. Also, there were constraints such as the budget for travel and supplies. As such, it was decided that the younger and stronger members of the congregation make the first voyage and settlement and the remainder agreed to follow if and when they could.


Departure of the Pilgrim Fathers from Delftshaven for New England (Engraved by T.W.Knight after a picture by Charles West Cope). Pastor John Robinson blessing the Separatists leaving for New England.
Departure of the Pilgrim Fathers from Delftshaven for New England by Charles West Cope. Pastor John Robinson blessing the Separatists leaving for New England.


Robinson opted to remain in Leiden with the rest of the congregation. He intended to make the Atlantic crossing with the rest of his flock as soon as it was financially possible. It was not to be. Robinson died in 1624 in Leiden.

In July 1620, Speedwell set out from Delfshaven with some members of the Leiden congregation. On reaching Southampton, Hampshire, they met with Mayflower and the other colonists hired by the investors. William Brewster joined the first group of Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower and was appointed to lead the voyagers.


Sailing of the Mayflower - 1620 (From Southampton, Hampshire) Anonymous engraver after a picture by A.Forestier.
Sailing of the Mayflower – 1620 from Southampton, Hampshire by A.Forestier.


After making final arrangements, the two vessels set out of Southampton, Hampshire on August 5 (Old Style) / August 15 (New Style).

Soon afterwards, the crew of Speedwell reported that their ship was taking in water. So, both ships were diverted to Dartmouth in the English county of Devon. There Speedwell was inspected for leaks and sealed, and a second attempt to leave also failed, bringing them only so far as Plymouth, Devon.

Since Speedwell was untrustworthy for the long voyage, they sold it. Speedwell’s master and some of the crew transferred to the Mayflower for the trip.


Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert Walter Weir (1857) in Brooklyn Museum
Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert Walter Weir (1857) in Brooklyn Museum


Again due to limited berths, out of the 121 combined passengers, only 102, seventy-three males and twenty-nine females were chosen to travel on the Mayflower with the consolidated supplies, and a crew led by Captain Christopher Jones.

Half of the passengers had come by way of Leiden. Of these 37 were members of the Separatist Leiden congregation that included about 28 adults. This article “List of Mayflower passengers” mentions the names and details of the passengers on board the Mayflower during its trans-Atlantic voyage.

Mayflower finally set sail from Plymouth, Devon, England on September 6 (Old Style) / September 16 (New Style), 1620.



← Previous – Part 2 – Life in Holland

Next → Part 4 –  Thanksgiving in New England




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