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Why Did the Pilgrims Come to America? We Tell You the Backstory

Why Did the Pilgrims Come to America?
In a quest to find religious tolerance and escape the harsh economic conditions of a drifting life, the 'pilgrims' or English settlers sort refuge in 'New England' to begin a new life. Historyplex explains the reason and history behind the Pilgrims sailing to America.
Mary Anthony
Last Updated: Jul 25, 2017
Did You Know?
The Native Americans had taught the English settlers how to grow wheat, barley, Indian corn, and peas. Soon, the Pilgrims celebrated an abundant harvest and decided to thank their Native American friends by organizing a harvest feast which came to be known as the first Thanksgiving (1621).
Pilgrimage often comes with a religious purpose and the English settlers or 'old comers' who arrived on 16th December, 1620 in Plymouth Harbor, Massachusetts aboard Mayflower where a religious group who sort to take shelter in a foreign land from the religious persecutions of the England church. There is an interesting story as to why they came to be known as 'pilgrims.'
Plymouth harbor
Plymouth Harbor
The first baby boy born after the arrival of the group was named Peregrine (traveling from far to a foreign land or pilgrim) by his parents William and Susannah White. Hence the passengers of the Mayflower came to known as 'Pilgrims', this term was also used by Edward Winslow in his book Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, and Governor William Bradford who wrote about the English settlers.
Daniel Webster
Daniel Webster
The term became popular only after the bicentennial celebration of the Plymouth colony during which orator Daniel Webster referred to the founding settlers as the "Pilgrim Fathers". Ironically the settlers never called themselves 'pilgrims' but they referred themselves as 'saints'.
Brief Historical Facts
King Henry VIII
King Henry VIII
England remained to be a nation subjected under the traditional practices of the Roman Catholic Church until 1534. In his quest to obtain an heir for the throne, King Henry VIII separated from the Catholic Church to obtain a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and married Anne Bolyen.
Anglican church
Anglican Church
To incur his royal bids he founded a new national church called the Church of England or the Anglican Church and declared himself as the head. It became compulsory for every citizen of England to belong to this new church in order to escape persecution.
Puritans embarking for colonies
During the 1600s a few radical individuals tried to go back to the simpler teachings of Christianity within this church organization and came to be known as the Puritans. Also, there emerged a revolutionary group of Christians who wanted to breakaway from the teachings of the Church of England and they came to be known as the Separatists.
The Separatist church congregation was centered around the town of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire, England and its prominent members included William Bradford and William Brewster. They refused to follow religious ethics of the Church of England and were persecuted by church as well as the Puritans, many were fined or even sent to jail. Wearied by the daily tortures and in order to obtain religious freedom, the Separatists congregation finally fled to Holland and sort refuge for 11-12 years.
Being farmers they had to learn new skills to survive in Holland and had to suffice their living with cloth trade, carpentry, print and sewing work due to which they faced numerous economic hardships. Young children were also forced into labor work whereas many joined the armed forces and immersed themselves into the Dutch culture. The fear that the younger generation were losing their foothold over their religion and the impending war between the Dutch and the Spanish, forced the congregation to leave the country in order to establish a new settlement.
Congregational leader William Bradford gained the permission of the Virginia Company to set up a new colony in Virginia and hence the Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower in September 1620 towards Virginia.
Facts about the Voyage
During that time the Virginia colony extended from Jamestown in the South to the mouth of the Hudson River in the North, the Pilgrims hoped to practice their faith and settle around that region. A company of financial investors known as the London Stock Company decided to fund their voyage in return for colony favors after their settlement.
The English colonists agreed to work for the company and trade natural resources such as fish, timber, and fur back to England. They agreed on a pact which stated that all their assets, including the land and the pilgrim's houses, would belong to the company till a period of seven years after which it would be divided equally among the investors and colonists.
Mayflower ship
Mayflower Ship
The pilgrims set out on their journey aboard two ships the Mayflower and the Speedwell from Southampton, England on 5th August, 1620. During their first voyage Speedwell experienced leaky conditions twice at sea and the group was forced to revert to England. Finally on 16th September, 1620, the Mayflower sailed alone for America carrying aboard 102 passengers.
The Pilgrims sailed through a long and perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean, many fell victim to sea sickness and the ship continuously faced severe storms. Due to bad weather and poor wind conditions, they docked near Cape Cod on 11th November, 1620 after 66 days at sea. Considering it a bad idea to sail further due to the impending winter season, the settlers looked out for land in the surrounding areas.
To preserve their heritage and govern their colony well, the elders drafted out the Mayflower Compact, an agreement that obligated the signatories into a 'civil body politic.'
The initial explorers sent out by the congregation found a land settlement abandoned by the Wampanoag community with enough water supply, good harbor, and cleared fields just off the Cape Cod Bay and named it Plymouth.
On 16th December, 1620 Mayflower arrived in Plymouth Harbor thus establishing the 'New England' Plymouth colony. This event is famously depicted in the painting,The Landing of the Pilgrims, by Henry Bacon, which shows Mary Chilton as the first woman to step out of the launch onto Plymouth Rock.
Significance & Impact
The first winter of the settlement proved difficult for the pilgrims as they braved the harsh weather to build homes while still abiding on Mayflower. Many of the colonists fell victim to scurvy and pneumonia caused by the cold, wet weather, and died leaving behind only 52 survivors during the first year in Plymouth.

The settlers soon came in contact with Tisquantum or Squanto, an English-speaking Native American. After several formal meetings with the Pokanoket Wampanoag leader, Ousamequin, a treaty of mutual protection was drafted between the two parties with the interpretation and mediating skills of Squanto in March 1621. Squanto also taught the pilgrims to grow corn, fish, and hunt beaver.

The rules of the treaty included: Neither party would harm each other. If anything got stolen, it would be returned and the offending person would receive punishment from their respective group. Both sides would conduct meetings without weaponry, and the two groups would assist as allies during the times of war. During the fall of 1621, the colonists observed their first harvest with a three-day celebration and invited Massasoit and 90 of his men for banqueting and entertainment thus giving birth to the First Thanksgiving.

By the mid 1640s, Plymouth's population increased to 3,000 people. The settlement thrived and grew with the passing years.
James I and Charles I
Religious turmoil in England under King James I and his successor, Charles I, drove more settlers to the 'New World'. Three more ships traveled to Plymouth after the Mayflower, which included the Fortune (1621), the Anne and the Little James (both 1623) carrying more pilgrims to significantly descend on the newly established colonies and institute their religious traditions without further interference from the Church of England.