The Voyage of the Mayflower, 1620 – 2020

On December 18, 1620, a ship called the Mayflower, blown off course by storms, made land in a spot where few foreigners had ever been before. Rather than joining the thriving Virginia Colony that had been building rapidly since 1588, the Puritans who had fled England for the Netherlands were hundreds of miles to the north, in the middle of a Massachusetts winter. There, they founded a settlement they named Plymouth after the town in England they had originally come from. In the young United States, to be a descendant of these cold and frightened refugees made you something of an aristocrat. 

The founding of the Plymouth Colony was once at the heart of the great myth of American history: a group of people wanting to live their lives on their own terms, who decided to strike out for the New World to build a society more to their liking. A group of emigrants who wrote a contract describing their obligation to one another, and signed it on Nov. 11, 1620, while the Mayflower was still lost in the middle of the Atlantic, a Mayflower Compact which was one of the inspirations for the U.S. Constitution. A group who first set foot on the soil of their new country by stepping on a certain boulder which became an emblem of not just their colony, but the entire group of colonies that declared their independence just 150 years later. 

All of these things are true – except maybe the part about the rock – but they once loomed very large in the way children were taught their nation’s history. The terrible suffering of the first winter, the generosity of the Indigenous People toward their new neighbors, the feast of Thanksgiving – which was originally intended to be a one-time event, even the personal relationships of individual colonists, were learned by every schoolchild. 

The 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower is something of a big deal, but not as much as the 300th was in 1920. These days, children learn their nation’s history differently – and unfortunately not as much of it. Even so, the anniversary is a big enough deal that the 65-year-old Mayflower II, a 1950s ship which was the best guess at what the original ship was like, has been the subject of a three-year restoration project, rendering it seaworthy for, you guessed it, a trip from Leiden, the Netherlands, to Plymouth, Massachusetts, the first time this has been attempted since 1957. After the voyage, the ship will be returned to its home at the historic theme park Plymouth Plantation.  

By John M. Burt