The Pilgrims and Pilgrim Fathers in Colonial America


A guide to the Pilgrims and Pilgrim Fathers in Colonial America, covering the Founding Fathers of New England, their travels in Europe, the voyage of the Mayflower, and the establishment of Plymouth Colony.

Embarkation of the Pilgrims, Weir

This painting by Robert Weir depicts the Pilgrims on the Speedwell as they prepare to leave Delfshaven, Netherlands for England. Image Source: Brooklyn Museum.

Pilgrims in Colonial America, a Quick Summary of New England’s Founding Fathers

The Pilgrims were a group of English colonists who emigrated to New England and established Plymouth Plantation — or Plymouth Colony — in 1620. Many of the Pilgrims were Puritan Separatists, who sought religious freedom. They were joined on their journey to New England by others who simply sought the opportunity for a new life.

Their story is well-known and legendary — they sailed to America on the Mayflower, survived with the help of local Native American Indians, and celebrated the First Thanksgiving.

However, the Pilgrims — or the Pilgrim Fathers — as they have come to be called, were much more important to the course of history than a famous voyage and a cherished American holiday.

What might be the most extraordinary aspect of the Pilgrims is the simple fact they survived — and by doing so they set in course a chain of events that ultimately changed the course of history.

10 Quick Facts About the Pilgrims

  1. The Pilgrims were a group of English colonists who emigrated from England to present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620.
  2. They sailed to the New World on a ship called the Mayflower.
  3. When the ship left Plymouth, England, there were 102 passengers. 49 of them were from the Puritan Separatist congregation in Leiden, Netherlands who sought religious freedom in America. The other 53 were men, women, and children who wanted to start a new life. The ship’s crew consisted of 20-30 men, including Captain Christopher Jones.
  4. The Separatists were responsible for setting up the voyage and received funding from a group called the “Merchant Adventurers.” The Adventurers decided to add more colonists to the trip, in order to increase the chances of making a profit from the new colony.
  5. The Separatists referred to themselves as “Saints” and the other passengers and crewmembers as “Strangers.”
  6. The Mayflower left Plymouth on September 6, 1620, and arrived off the coast of Cape Cod on November 9, 1620. The trip took 65 days.
  7. Prior to leaving the ship, the leaders of the Saints and Strangers agreed to a government, which was outlined in the Mayflower Compact. The document set up the first democratic government in American history that did not involve a monarch.
  8. Three expeditions were sent to the mainland to find a suitable place to build a settlement. 
  9. On December 20, 1620, they selected a site — present-day Cole’s Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts — as the place.
  10. They started construction on their first building on December 25, 1620.

The History of the Pilgrims and the Founding of Plymouth Colony

Note: The dates used in this timeline are “Old Style” dates. The “New Style” date is the O.S. date, plus 10. So the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact on November 11 by their calendar, which is November 21 by today’s calendar.

The Church of England, Puritans, and Separatists

1534 — King Henry VIII breaks away from the Roman Catholic Church and establishes the Church of England. People in England are required to attend and participate in services for the Church of England. The Puritan movement starts in the late 16th century and leads to the establishment of the Separatists.

1606 — A Separatist church is established in Scrooby, England by William Brewster. Services are held in his home at Scrooby Manor. The pastor of the congregation is John Robinson.

Scrooby Manor House in 1907
Scrooby Manor House, where the Separatists held their religious meetings, in 1907. Image Source: The Pilgrims by Frederick Alonso Noble.

The Separatists Move to the Netherlands

1607–1608 — After intense persecution and harassment from English officials, the Scrooby Separatists decide to leave England. Since it was illegal to leave the country without the permission of the King, they have to escape. Over the course of two years, they make their way to Amsterdam.

1609 — In May, Robinson and his congregation decided to move to Leiden, which is southwest of Amsterdam.

1617 — The Separatists decide to leave the Netherlands and move to Virginia. John Carver and Robert Cushman are sent to England to acquire permission to settle in Virginia and financial support.

Preparations to Move to Virginia

June 9, 1619 — The Virginia Company of London grants the Separatists a charter, which gives them permission to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River, at the site of present-day New York City.

February 1620 — The Separatists join a joint-stock company to raise money to help pay for transportation and provisions. They work with a group of investors who called themselves the “Merchant Adventurers,” including Thomas Weston. In order to raise enough money, the Adventurers decided to send a group of their own settlers — also known as planters — on the voyage with the Separatists.

July 22, 1620 — 125 Separatists from Robinson’s congregation set sail from Delfshaven, Holland on a ship called the Speedwell. The Speedwell sails to England and joins the Mayflower at Southampton. Robinson stays in Leiden because of his age, along with the majority of the congregation.

The Mayflower Journey Begins

August 15, 1620 — The Speedwell and Mayflower sail out of Southampton, on their way to the New World. The Separatists are on the Speedwell. Unfortunately, the Speedwell leaks and needs repairs. The ships stop in Dartmouth, England, and repairs are made to the Speedwell. 

Embarkation of the Pilgrims from Southampton
This painting by Edward Moran depicts the Pilgrims preparing to leave Southampton on the Speedwell and Mayflower. Image Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum.

August 17, 1620 — The repairs to the Speedwell are completed, but stormy weather keeps the ships from leaving. When the weather cleared, the ships set sail again. However, the Speedwell continues to leak and the ships are forced to stop at Plymouth, England. At Plymouth, it is decided that Speedwell will not be able to make the voyage and everyone will need to go on the Mayflower. Around 20 of the Separatists decide to stay in England, including Robert Cushman.

September 6, 1620 — The Mayflower departs from Plymouth with 102 passengers. 49 of the passengers are Separatists, but only two of them — William Brewster and William Bradford — are from the original church at Scrooby. It is estimated there are 20-30 crewmen on the ship. The Separatists are joined by 35 colonists recruited by the Merchant Adventurers. There are also 18 servants on the ship. Two babies are born before they settle in America.

The Pilgrims Arrive in America

November 9, 1620 — After 65 days, the Mayflower arrives off the East Coast at Cape Cod. The ship is much further north than expected but was forced to change course due to violent storms. Captain Jones tries to sail south, but the rough seas force the Mayflower to turn back. That night, the ship drifts off of Cape Code, near present-day Chatham, Massachusetts.

The Pilgrims Write the Mayflower Compact

November 10 — There is dissension between the Separatists and the other passengers. There are concerns they do not have the authority to settle anywhere but at the mouth of the Hudson. However, they cannot make the journey south due to the weather. According to William Bradford’s account, “several strangers made discontented and mutinous speeches.” A decision needs to be made before anyone leaves the ship. The leaders of both sides worked together on an agreement that will hold the Pilgrims together and form a government for the new colony — the “Mayflower Compact.” Separatist John Carver is chosen as the first Governor of what will become Plymouth Colony.

Mayflower Compact, Ferris
This painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris depicts the signing of the Mayflower Compact. Image Source: Library of Congress.

November 11, 1620 — The Pilgrim’s First Landing. Early in the morning, most of the men on board — 41 total — either sign their name or make their mark on the Mayflower Compact. After 66 days at sea, the Mayflower anchors in present-day Provincetown Harbor. 16 men leave the Mayflower on a small boat and sail to the mainland. According to William Bradford, when they first set foot on land they “fell upon their knees…and blessed the God of Heaven…” Then they explored and gathered wood, which they burned that night on the Mayflower. The First Landing in New England is commemorated with a memorial at Pilgrim’s First Landing Park in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.

November 13, 1620 — The First Washing Day. The passengers go ashore for the first time. They wash their clothes properly for the first time since they left England. 

The Pilgrims Explore Cape Cod and Encounter Native American Indians

November 15, 1620 — The First Expedition. Miles Standish leads a group of 16 men on an expedition to the mainland. The group includes William Bradford, Stephen Hopkins, and Edward Tilley. They are armed and wearing light armor. They encounter a small group of Indians on the beach. The Indians run away, down the shore. The Pilgrims chase after them, but cannot catch up and spend the night on the beach.

November 16, 1620 — First Water at Pilgrim Spring. Standish and his men continue the search for the Indians and follow tracks into the forest. They come across a spring, now called Pilgrim Spring, where they take their first drink of fresh, New England water. The site is marked by Pilgrim Spring Memorial Plaque. They spend the night on the mainland.

November 17, 1620 — The Pilgrims Find Corn Hill. Standish and his men come across an old cornfield and Indian graves. They find some baskets of shelled and whole corn at a place called Corn Hill. The Pilgrims decided to take some of the corn with them because they are desperate. Afterward, they return to the harbor.

November 20, 1620 — Susanna White gives birth to a boy, Peregrine White, on board the Mayflower. Susanna and her husband, William, are believed to have been “Strangers,” not Separatists. However, the name “Peregrine” is derived from the Latin word “peregrinus,” which means “pilgrim.”

November 27, 1620 — The Second Expedition. Captain Jones leads an expedition of 34 men — 24 passengers and 10 crewmen — on an expedition to find a place for the settlement to be built. Their boat is blown to the east side of Provincetown Harbor and the strong wind will not allow them to return to the Mayflower. They camp for the night near what is called Pilgrim Lake. There is a heavy snowfall that night.

November 28, 1620 — The next morning, they sail south, but it is too cold. Jones decides to stop and make camp again. Some of the men are sick.

November 29, 1620 — Jones and his men return to Corn Hill where they find and take more corn. The corn and sick men are loaded onto the boat and sent to the Mayflower. Jones returns to the Mayflower and leaves Standish in charge of the remaining men.

November 30, 1620 — Standish leads a search for the Indians. They come across a grave that is covered with boards. The grave contains the skull of a man — with yellow hair and skin still present — and a bag with the bones of a child. The boards appear to be from a ship. Later that day, they find abandoned Indian wigwams. The boat arrives and they return to the Mayflower.

December 6, 1620 — The Third Expedition. An expedition sails in the small boat down along the coast of Cape Cod Bay. Near present-day Wellfleet, they see a group of Indians on the beach, butchering a dead, beached whale. When they see the Pilgrims coming, they run off. The Pilgrims camp on the shore that night.

December 7, 1620 — The group splits up to look for a place to build the settlement. Neither group finds anything. They spend the night near Herring River, on Wellfleet Harbor.

December 8, 1620 — The First Encounter. Early in the morning, the Pilgrims are ambushed by Indians The Indians hide in the woods and fire arrows at the camp. The Pilgrims fired a few shots into the darkness and then took defensive positions in their camp. It is estimated there were about 30 Indians on the attack. When the Pilgrims identified the leader of the attacking party, they fired on him and the Indians withdrew. The location of this brief fight is called First Encounter Point Beach. It is in present-day Eastham, Massachusetts.

The Pilgrims Start Plymouth Colony

December 8, 1620 — Arrival at Clark’s Island. The expedition sailed all the way around the south end of the Cape Cod Harbor and up the western shore to a place earlier explorers called “Thievish Harbor.” The wind is harsh and the water is rough. The boat suffers damage and they are forced to row with oars. They spend the night on what is now Clark’s Island in Duxbury Bay. It was named for the pilot, John Clark, who was the first to set foot on it.

December 11, 1620 — The Pilgrims explore the area of what is now Plymouth Bay. They find old fields, but no Indian settlements. They believe they have found the place to build their settlement.

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, 1620
This painting by William Halsall depicts the Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor. Image Source: Wikipedia.

December 12, 1620 — The expedition returns to the Mayflower.

December 15, 1620 — The Mayflower leaves Provincetown Harbor. Strong winds keep it from reaching Plymouth Harbor that day. The ship anchors at present-day Goose Point, near Duxbury, just north of Plymouth.

December 16, 1620 — The Mayflower Arrives at Plymouth Bay. Over the course of the next three days, they explore the area more and discuss the exact location to build their settlement. An old map, drawn by Samuel de Champlain, showed an Indian village on the banks of the harbor. However, by the time the Pilgrims arrived, nothing was left — except for the bones of the dead. Most of them likely died when an epidemic wiped out a significant portion of the Indians in New England from 1616 to 1619 in what is known as the “Great Dying.”

December 20, 1620 — Cole’s Hill is Chosen for Settlement. They decide to begin building on a hill, which is known today as Cole’s Hill. A small group stays on the mainland that night. They plan to begin work the next day, but bad weather keeps them from starting.

December 23, 1620 — Workers sail from the Mayflower to the mainland and start cutting down trees.

December 25, 1620 — The First Christmas in New England. The Pilgrims do not celebrate most holidays, so they spend Christmas Day working. They build the frame for the first building in Plymouth Colony.

December 31, 1620 — The Pilgrims name their new home New Plymouth, after the town they left from in England.

Plymouth Colony in 1622
This illustration depicts Plymouth Colony in 1622. The Pilgrims by Frederick Alonso Noble.

Important Dates in Pilgrim History After the Founding of Plymouth

March 16, 1621 — Samoset walks into Plymouth, and, according to legend, asks for bread and beer — in English. The Pilgrim leaders meet Massosiot and Squanto a few days later.

April 1, 1621 — Plymouth and the Wampanoag agree to the Pilgrim-Wampanoag Treaty.

Mid-Apil, 1621 — John Carver dies and William Bradford is elected Governor.

October 1621 — The First Thanksgiving.

November 1621 — A ship called the Fortune arrives, carrying 35 new settlers.

November 1622 — Squanto dies from an illness.

1623 — The shared system of living is abolished. Settlers are given one acre of land to plant their own crops. If they raise more than they need, they can trade the surplus.

Summer 1623 — Two ships, the Anne and Little James bring around 100 new settlers.

June 1630 — The Winthrop Fleet arrives in Massachusetts Bay. The Great Puritan Migration is accelerates.

May 1657 — William Bradford dies.

June 1660 — Massasoit dies. He is succeeded by his son, Wamsutta, who the English call Alexander.

1662 — Wamsutta dies after visiting Plymouth. He is succeeded by his brother, Metacomet, who the English call Philip. Philip blames the people of Plymouth for his brother’s death.

June 1675Wampanoag warriors attack Swansea, a settlement in Plymouth Colony. King Philips’ War begins.

December 1686 — Plymouth Colony becomes part of the Dominion of New England.

October 1691 — William and Mary issue a new charter for Massachusetts. Under the new charter, Plymouth and Maine become part of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Famous Pilgrims and Founders of Plymouth Colony

William Brewster

William Brewster founded the Separatist church in Scrooby, England, and moved with the group to Amsterdam, then Leiden, and then Plymouth. In Plymouth, he served as the pastor of the congregation and an advisor to the Governor. He left Plymouth in 1632 and moved to Duxbury. Brewster signed the Mayflower Compact.

John Carver

John Carver went to London with Thomas Cushman to help organize transportation and funding for the trip. Carver signed the Mayflower Compact and was chosen as the first Governor of Plymouth Colony. He was a Separatist and had joined the congregation in Leiden. Carver died in the spring of 1621.

William Bradford

William Bradford signed the Mayflower Compact and went on to serve as the Governor of Plymouth Colony for nearly 30 years between 1621 and 1657. He wrote a history of the Pilgrim journey and early years of Plymouth Colony called “Of Plymouth Plantation.” He was a Separatist and an original member of the Scrooby Congregation. He succeeded Carver as Governor in 1621.

John Alden

John Alden was a crew member on the Mayflower. He was hired in Southampton, England, as the ship’s cooper, and was responsible for maintaining the ship’s barrels. He signed the Mayflower Compact and stayed in Plymouth when the Mayflower left. He married fellow passenger, Priscilla Mullins. During his life, he played a prominent role in the government of the colony and was the last surviving signer of the Mayflower Compact.

Myles Standish

Myles Standish was an English soldier living in Leiden who accompanied the Separatists on their voyage to America. He signed the Mayflower Compact and participated in the Pilgrim expeditions to the mainland in search of a place to build their settlement. Standish was the military leader of Plymouth Colony.

Significance of the Pilgrims

The success of the Pilgrims had a significant impact on the course of not just the history of the United States, but of the entire world. Plymouth Colony helped shape the course of New England, led to the Great Puritan Migration, and ultimately the creation of the United States of America. Today, more than 30 million people can trace their ancestry to the Pilgrims and there are various historic sites dedicated to them in the Netherlands, England, and the United States.

Pilgrims, First Thanksgiving, 1621
This painting by Jennie A. Brownscombe depicts the First Thanksgiving in 1621. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Pilgrims

Who were the Pilgrims?

The Pilgrims were a small group of English colonists that emigrated from England to the New World in 1620 on the ship Mayflower. Some of them were Puritan Separatists who wanted to completely separate from the Church of England. The other passengers were servants, workers, and families that were sympathetic to the Separatist cause or wanted their own fresh start in the New World. The Separatists called themselves “Saints” and referred to everyone else on the Mayflower as “Strangers.”

Why are they called “Pilgrim Fathers?”

Over time, the entire group — Saints and Strangers — have come to be known as the Pilgrims. In 1820, Daniel Webster delivered a speech at the bicentennial celebration and referred to the entire group of colonists as the “Pilgrim Fathers.”

How many people were on the Mayflower?

There were about 102 passengers in total, along with 20-30 crewmembers. There were men, women, and children — entire families. There were unaccompanied children who were looked after by the other adults on the trip. Within the group were skilled tradesmen and men with military experience. A baby boy, Oceanus Hopkins, was born during the voyage. Another boy, Peregrine White, was born after the Mayflower reached Cape Cod.

Why did they emigrate to America?

In England, people were required to attend and participate in the services of the Church of England, however, the Separatists — who were part of the Puritan movement — wanted to separate from the Church of England. They first moved to the Netherlands but found they were losing their identity as Englishmen. They decided to emigrate to America, where they could have religious freedom and retain their English customs and way of life. The other passengers on the Mayflower were looking for a new life in the New World.

What did they do when they arrived in the New World?

They arrived at Cape Cod and established Plymouth Colony in 1620. It was the first successful English Colony in New England.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Pilgrims and Pilgrim Fathers in Colonial America
  • Date 1620–1691
  • Author
  • Keywords Pilgrims, Pilgrim Fathers, Puritans, Separatists, Scrooby Congregation, Mayflower Voyage, Plymouth Colony
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 20, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 11, 2024