The New Israel
The Puritans who left England were, logically enough, called Separatists. Most of them were farmers, poorly educated, and of lowly social status. One of the Separatist congregations was led by William Brewster and the Reverend Richard Clifton in the village of Scrooby, Nottinghamshire. This group left Scrooby for Amsterdam in 1608, then, the following year, moved to another Dutch town, Leyden, where they lived for 12 years. Although the Scrooby group had found religious freedom, they were plagued by economic hardship and were concerned that their children were growing up Dutch rather than English. In 1617, they decided on a radical course of action. They voted to immigrate to America.
Brewster knew Sir Edwin Sandys, treasurer of the Virginia Company of London, and, through him, the Scrooby congregation obtained a pair of patents authorizing them to settle in the northern part of the company’s American territory. With supplementary financial backing from a London iron merchant named Thomas Weston, somewhat less than half of the congregation finally chose to leave Leyden. They boarded the Speedwell, bound for the port of Southampton, England, where they were to unite with another group of Separatists and pick up a second ship. However, both groups were dogged by delays and disputes. Ultimately, 102 souls (fewer than half of whom were Separatists) piled into a single vessel, the Mayflower, and embarked from Plymouth on September 16, 1620.
After a grueling 65-day voyage, the Pilgrims (as their first historian, William Bradford, would later label them) sighted land on November 19. Apparently, rough seas off Nantucketforced the Mayflower’s skipper, Captain Christopher Jones, to steer away from the mouth of the Hudson River, where the Pilgrims were supposed to establish their “plantation,” to a landing at Cape Cod. This lay beyond the Virginia Company’s jurisdiction, and some historians believe that the Pilgrims actually bribed Captain Jones to alter course precisely in order to insure the group’s independence from external authority. Be that as it may, the Mayflower dropped anchor off present-day Provincetown, Massachusetts, on November 21.
There remained two problems. First, the settlers consisted of two distinct groups: the Separatists, united by their religious beliefs, and the others (whom the Separatists called “Strangers”) united by nothing more or less than a desire for commercial success. Second, neither group had a legal right to settle in the region, which was beyond the boundary of their charter. While riding at anchor, the two groups drew up the “Mayflower Compact”—in effect, the first constitution written in North America-in which they all agreed to create a “Civil Body Politic” and abide by laws created for the good of the colony.