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