The Mayflower, a leaky 80-foot-long British cargo ship carrying 102 passengers who were determined to build a new society “for the glory of God,” departed from Plymouth, England on this day in history, Sept. 16, 1620.
“History records no nobler venture for faith and freedom than that of this Pilgrim band,” reads a monument above the settlers’ burial ground today in Plymouth, Mass., where the voyagers landed three months later on the cusp of a brutal New England winter.
“In hunger and cold they laid the foundations of a state wherein every man through countless ages should have liberty to worship God in his own way.”
Forty-eight of the settlers died that winter from exposure and disease, yet the grateful survivors celebrated their deliverance with a feast of thanksgiving the following autumn — and began the work of reshaping human history.
“For 65 days the Mayflower had blundered her way through storms and headwinds,” Massachusetts author Nathaniel Philbrick wrote in “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War,” his dramatic 2006 account of a voyage that changed the world.
The rickety ship’s bottom, he wrote, was “a shaggy pelt of seaweed and barnacles, her leaky decks spewing salt water on her passengers’ devoted heads.”
The Pilgrims first set foot on land in what’s now Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod in November before finally choosing a site for a permanent settlement on December 19.
The Mayflower twice miraculously survived near-disaster at sea that could have taken the lives of everyone on board.
A main timber “cracked like a chicken bone” after the Mayflower was struck by a giant wave in the middle of the Atlantic, Philbrick wrot.
The Pilgrims used a jack screw brought to build homes to secure the broken timber and render the ship seaworthy again.
The Mayflower also unknowingly almost sailed through the deadly Nantucket Shoals off the coast of Massachusetts — which might have destroyed the ship — before turning around and heading back to Cape Cod.
Only 41 of the 102 passengers were religious separatists, fleeing persecution by the Church of England.
The rest aboard were ship’s crew and hired hands.
Among them: captain Christopher Jones and military adviser Myles Standish, who remained with the Pilgrims after Jones and the Mayflower returned to England in April 1621.
Standish would prove a pivotal figure in the growth and success of the Pilgrim settlement.
Two dogs made the journey, too: “a spaniel and a giant, slobbery mastiff,” wrote Philibrick.
Two babies were born on the Mayflower: Oceanus was born to Stephen and Elizabeth Hopkins while the ship crossed the Atlantic, but died in 1627.
Peregrine White, son of William and Susanna, was born while the Mayflower lay at anchor off the Massachusetts coast. He became a prominent figure in the colony and lived until 1704.
The male passengers signed the Mayflower Compact off the coast of Cape Cod on Nov. 11.
“Having undertaken for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country … do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic,” the documented stated.
The Mayflower Compact is widely seen by historians as the first step in self rule by the consent of the governed, principles that would ultimately lead to American independence and its transformational constitutional republic.
Plymouth was not the first permanent European settlement in the New World.
St. Augustine was settled by Spain in 1565, more than half a century earlier. The English settled Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.
But Plymouth would prove the most consequential.
Pilgrim descendants turned the Plymouth Bay and then Massachusetts Bay colonies into prosperous economic powerhouse, while their spirit of self-rule and independence set the stage for the American Revolution.
Founding Father John Adams, who in 1776 encouraged the other colonies to join Massachusetts in its fight against Great Britain, was the great-great-grandson of Pilgrims John and Priscilla Alden.
The General Society of Mayflower Descendants estimates that 35 million Americans — better than 1 in 10 — can trace their lineage to the Mayflower