Five Mayflower Myths Debunked

On the 6th of September, 1620  the Mayflower embarked on its harrowing, 66-day voyage across the ocean, each of its passengers headed for a new life in the New World. To mark the anniversary of this historic event, we present:

Five Mayflower Myths Debunked

Aka five things that popular history has been lying about to your face

Currier & Ives. "The landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass. Dec. 22nd 1620." Lithograph, ca. 1876.
Currier & Ives. “The landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass. Dec. 22nd 1620.” Lithograph, ca. 1876.

#5. The Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock.

Actually, the sea-battered Mayflower first landed at the tip of Cape Cod (known today as Provincetown). The ship was anchored there for about six weeks while groups of men explored the area in search of a suitable place to build a permanent settlement. Eventually they found just the spot, and sailed across the bay to their new home.

As for Plymouth Rock, no rock of any significance is mentioned in contemporary accounts of the events, including William Bradford’s detailed telling of the entire affair. In fact, the Rock isn’t mentioned in any writings until 1835, over 200 years after the fact.

#4. The Mayflower was full of Pilgrims.

Today’s historians generally agree that the Mayflower carried 102 passengers and about 30 crew members (including the captain) when it departed Plymouth, England, on September 6, 1620. Out of these 102 passengers, the religious term “Pilgrim” only applies to a subset of the larger group. These were devout religious Separatists who rejected the Church of England for being, in a nutshell, too Catholic—that is, not reformed enough from the “corrupt ways” of the Catholic Church under King James I. The other passengers were not seeking religious freedom, but hoping to start a new life and gain wealth in the New World. These merchant adventurers are also referred to as “Strangers,” and will be featured in the upcoming two-night movie event, Saints & Strangers.

Robert W. Weir, "Embarkation of the Pilgrims." Oil on canvas, 1843.
Robert W. Weir, “Embarkation of the Pilgrims.” Oil on canvas, 1843.

#3. Before the Mayflower showed up, Plymouth was untouched by Europeans.

The people who came on the Mayflower in 1620 were far from the first Europeans to explore this area. The region had been visited repeatedly over the previous century by explorers, traders, and fishermen from France, England, and the Netherlands. Plymouth, which was called “Patuxet” by the Natives, seemed like an ideal place to settle because the whole village, as well as the corn fields, appeared to have been completely “abandoned” by the Natives. The truth, however, is that many of the Native Americans living on these very lands had recently been decimated by a mysterious disease brought by European ships. The Wampanoag refer to this time in their history as “the Great Dying.” The plague lasted for about three years, killing 70-90% of the population.

"Interview of Samoset with the Pilgrims." Book engraving, 1853. Courtesy of Wikimedia.
“Interview of Samoset with the Pilgrims.” Book engraving, 1853. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

#2. Plymouth was named after the place the Mayflower came fromPlymouth, England.

Surviving-Plymouth
They came in search of freedom to choose their own path. What will you choose? Play “Surviving Plymouth” now at saintsandstrangers.com

Actually, the name “Plymouth” was already associated with the area before the Pilgrims ever set foot there. The New England coast had been mapped in 1614 by John Smith (of Pocahontas fame), and Prince Charles took it upon himself to give English names to various spots on Smith’s map.

The fact that Plymouth, England, was the last town the Mayflower departed from is merely a coincidence. The ship had already been on its way to America when it was forced to stop at Plymouth after its companion ship, the Speedwell, started leaking irreparably and was ultimately left behind.

"The Channel Courses of the May-flower and Speedwell" from "The Mayflower and Her Log," by Azel Ames, M.D. 1907. Courtesy of Project Gutenberg.
“The Channel Courses of the May-flower and Speedwell” from “The Mayflower and Her Log,” by Azel Ames, M.D. 1907. Courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

#1. The Mayflower was turned into scrap and made into a barn that you can visit in England.

The surviving crew sailed the Mayflower back to England in the spring of 1621, and she never saw America again. Nobody knows for sure what happened to the Mayflower. The last recorded reference to the ship is from 1624, when its value was appraised after the death of its captain and part-owner, Christopher Jones. It was declared to be “in ruinis.” There’s no proof to support any claims that pieces of the original ship exist.

The "Mayflower Barn" in Jordans, England. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
The “Mayflower Barn” in Jordans, England. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

For more Mayflower, don’t miss National Geographic Channel’s epic two-night movie event, Saints & Strangers, premiering Sunday November 22 at 9/8c. The four-hour docudrama features a legendary cast, including Anna Camp (“Pitch Perfect”, “True Blood”) as Dorothy Bradford; Vincent Kartheiser (“Mad Men”) as William Bradford; Ron Livingston (“Band of Brothers,” “Office Space”) as John Carver; Natascha McElhone (“Californication”) as Elizabeth Hopkins; and many more.

[PHOTOS: Get a first look at Saints & Strangers]

Comments

  1. Maureen McGee
    Prince George, BC
    September 7, 2015, 12:36 pm

    Re Sept 6, 1620 – 395 years ago today.

    You have not taken into account the change from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar in 1752.

  2. Lara Carter
    Richmond, Kentucky, USA
    November 15, 2015, 7:01 am

    You’re absolutely right. And that was an issue that was always up for debate when I worked aboard the Mayflower Ii portraying Separatist passenger Desire Minter in the mid-1980s. The consensus at the time was to reflect the dates as the passengers and crew would have lived them.

    I am more disappointed in the article about the women of Plymouth, which begins by noting that only four (adult) women survived the first winter. Desire Minter was one of those four, but her name is not included in the article. That’s a shame as she’s a fascinating figure. She was around 20 years old when she joined the party. She was of age and unmarried, and remained so when the pressure to marry one of the widowers in the spring or summer was likely very strong. I don’t know how – or why – she did not, as she had travelled with John and Catherine Carver, both of whom died that first winter. One has to wonder about her circumstances during her time in Plimoth.

    Perhaps the answer would also explain why she chose to return to England after two years, and where she was planning to go when she got there. She died shortly after her arrival; the few sources I have found say she was 24 years old. I suppose when one inhabits the persona of a real person, personal attachment is natural. I feel very protective of her to this day.

  3. Donald Sico
    Riverton New Jersey
    November 16, 2015, 11:33 am

    When I saw the headline, I was getting worried. I thought you were going to tell me that the Pilgrims did not have green bean casserole with crispy onions on top or sweet potatoes with marshmallows.

  4. Brian Keith O'Hara
    Atlanta, Georgia
    November 16, 2015, 1:03 pm

    One thing too many people forget, the Pilgrims were fleeing England after the Cromwell’s were overthrown. Richard Cromwell was a dissenter, as Lord Protector he is estimated to have killed 50,000 English and Welsh, then moved to Ireland where he exterminated 1,000,000 Irish. His army would use Catholic babies for target practice. Any Irishman in London goes by his statue next to Parliament and spits on it.

  5. Brad Filippone
    November 18, 2015, 10:32 am

    I’m going to make a perhaps not-so-bold guess that the name “Patuxet” survives as Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

  6. Adriano Ataide
    Portugal
    November 18, 2015, 2:46 pm

    A Maioria dos relatos cartas ou qualquer História relatando o Novo Mundo de grande Maioria são Falsas .
    A Igreja católica falsificou todos os Documentos ,Os Ingleses só chegaram nos USA nas Américas no seculo 18 e de lá para cá as perspectiva Históricas são estas ai, A Igreja católica destruiu a História da América e encheu as Bibliotecas de livros com conteúdos falsos para manter este continente ligado culturalmente a Europa

  7. Evi. L. Bloggerlady
    Madison, WI
    November 18, 2015, 3:14 pm

    So how did the Pilgrims follow football without televisions?

  8. Ashley
    Pennsylvania
    November 18, 2015, 11:18 pm

    I was hoping the Fuller family would be a part of this show. I am a descendant of the Fuller family and was eager for my children to watch the show and see them!

  9. casey swanson
    San Francisco
    November 19, 2015, 1:06 am

    Cromwell did not exterminate 1 million in Ireland. At that time that would have been about 60% of the entire population. He did introduce the first large scale introduction of protestants to Ireland.
    As far as the rest of the articled, nothing new here. Learned all of this in high school in the 70’s. But I guess myths (if you call them that) live on.

  10. Simon Morecroft
    London, England
    November 19, 2015, 7:43 am

    Re The Cromwells – Richard Cromwell wasn’t born until 1626 and the entire population of Ireland in 1600 was estimated to be not much more than 1mill so I take the comments above wth a large pinch of salt !!

  11. Greg
    November 19, 2015, 10:00 am

    And the pilgrims did not wear hats with buckles on them!

  12. Derek Leath
    St.Louis, Missouri
    November 19, 2015, 10:37 am

    Looking forward to the show. My 10th Great Grandparents,
    Deacon John Dunham and Abiigail Billiou came over after the Mayflower before 1630.
    John’s Father, Thomas Dunham was marrierd to Jane Bromely. He sister Elizabeth was married to Oliver Cromwell sr.

  13. Joe B
    November 19, 2015, 1:46 pm

    I believe the first known Europeans to arrive in the area were led by the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold. He named both Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, the latter of which was named after his late daughter. He later was instrumental in obtaining a charter from King James I to establish a colony in North America for the Virginia Company. He captained the “Godspeed”, one of three ships that would make the voyage from England to Virginia eventually culminating in the founding of the Jamestown settlement in 1607. He was actually opposed to the location of the settlement, advice that was mistakenly ignored. Gosnold would serve on the first governing council at before later succumbing to disease less than four months after arriving.

  14. Ginger G
    November 20, 2015, 12:06 pm

    Looking forward to the show. Hope information on the crew is included. My relative, John Clark was the ship’s Pilot. Clark Island, where the ship was almost destroyed (unless that was a myth too!) is named for him. He also made many trips supplying Jamestown, was captured by the Spanish and eventually settled in Jamestown where he died.

  15. Joseph Toomey
    Baltimore, MD
    November 20, 2015, 3:09 pm

    5 incontestable truths about the Mayflower:

    1. It landed on Thanksgiving Day
    2. The Pilgrims played football in the morning (they named it the Turkey Bowl)
    3. Everyone showered and then jumped into their cars and drove over to Grandma’s house
    4. They ate a huge Turkey dinner with all the trimmings
    5. After eating, they turned on TVs and watched the Detroit Lions in the early game and the Dallas Cowboys in the later game

  16. Lilly Birch
    NC
    November 22, 2015, 9:48 am

    #5 and #2 seem to tell a different story about why they landed at Plymoth. Can anyone shed more light on this? (I’m not accusing the writer of inaccuracy, I’d just like to understand it better.)

  17. Takanashi D
    Indonesian
    November 22, 2015, 1:59 pm

    I don’t know what they think but it’s not true if the bartolomew is the first.

  18. Lynda JH
    Kāneʻohe, HI
    November 22, 2015, 8:45 pm

    Lara Carter, I am a descendant of Elizabeth Tilley & John Howland thru their first child, Desire. While visiting the Jabez Howland last month I was told that daughter Desire was named after her motherʻs friend, Desire Minter. Loved reading your comment…

  19. Arthur S
    Alaska
    November 22, 2015, 10:01 pm

    I moved to the area from Yorktown/ Williamsburg. As most school kids of that time we visited Plymouth Plantation and I was stunned at what they told us. Later, I think in the 1970’s, there was a huge change and those studying Plymouth decided that all that they had been teaching for so many years was truly garbage. They had to go back and start telling a more complete story and it was much different from what they used to tell about those first settlers.

  20. Hopkins & Brewster descendant
    November 22, 2015, 11:33 pm

    Where is William Brewster? he is not on the show! He was BIG reason they came over on Mayflower!

  21. Susan H.
    Pleasant Gap, PA
    November 23, 2015, 7:53 am

    What about debunking another myth, proven with official records & acknowledged by JFK on Nov 5, 1963? That the first English Thanksgiving really took place at Berkley Plantation in Virginia on Dec 6, 1619, a year & 17 days before the Thanksgiving at Plymouth. http://virginiathanksgivingfestival.com/history/

  22. […] Some Thanksgiving trivia: Five Mayflower Myths Debunked. […]

  23. Mike B
    November 23, 2015, 12:46 pm

    I’m a direct descendant of the Billingtons, John having the distinction of being the first person executed in the colony (1630).

  24. Majaliwa Bass
    Dallas, TX
    November 23, 2015, 11:54 pm

    True and… West Africans also visited America long before the pilgrims. More specifically, Pathe Diagne (a Political Scientist, linguist, historian of civilizations, and Professor for Cornell University), notes there is evidence that a West African mariner prince led an expedition of 2,000 boats to the New World and settled there.

  25. Sally
    United States
    November 24, 2015, 4:35 pm

    As a William Brewster descendant, I’m really surprised he didn’t show up at all! However, I was impressed by the production overall, especially the amount of native languages used.

  26. Mason Scantlin
    The North Pole
    November 25, 2015, 12:57 pm

    your mom did this to you

  27. Jay Shaw
    Wauwatosa,WI
    November 25, 2015, 2:43 pm

    I too was disappointed that there was no mention of the Fuller family.

  28. […] engraving depicts the Mayflower pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620. In reality, the pilgrims never wrote of any such rock. The first written mention of Plymouth Rock was in […]

  29. Alann Petersen
    Bloomingdale, Illinois, USA
    March 3, 12:39 pm

    I’ve recently been researching my family history and have pretty much confirmed I am a direct descendant of Christopher Jones the Captain and part owner of the Mayflower. I also believe his son Teague Jones married the daughter of Samoset from Wampanoag Indian Tribe, and the first Indian to speak with the settlers. I’m interested in finding out more about my connection to these individuals if anyone has it.

  30. Julian Whybra
    Billericay, England (home of Christopher Martin)
    September 28, 9:42 am

    Brian Keith O’Hara has his history wrong. The Pilgrims were not fleeing England AFTER the Cromwells were overthrown. The Commonwealth collapsed in 1660. The Mayflower voyage was in 1620!!!
    Also re Maureen McGee’s desire to switch all the dates to the Gregorian Calendar, What on earth for? In the United Kingdom all British historical dates pre-2nd September1752 are commemorated according to the Julian calendar and post-14th September 1752 to the Gregorian, i.e. they are recorded on the date of the event not to comply with the bizarre precepts of astronomical chronometry. When else would we have Guy Fawkes’ Night but on ‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November’? The 15th????

  31. Julian Whybra
    Billericay, England
    October 19, 11:54 am

    Majaliwa Bass
    From what I’ve read Pathe Diagne’s works are somewhat short on historical evidence and fact but long on unproven and highly contentious statements. I think you would do well to probe deeper.