Women on the Mayflower
Image: The Ship Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor
By William Halsall
The passengers on the ship Mayflower were the earliest permanent European settlers in New England. They were referred to as the “First Comers” and they lived in perilous times. With their religion oppressed by the British government and the Church of England, the small party of Separatists who comprised almost half of the passengers on the ship sought a life where they could practice their religion freely.
Freedom We Seek
On September 6, 1620, the ship Mayflower set off from Plymouth, England on its journey to the New World. There were 102 passengers, which included 41 English Separatists (who would become known as the Pilgrims), who were seeking a new life of religious freedom in America. The Separatists had obtained a Patent from the London Company, which indentured them into service for the Company for seven years after they arrived.
The Mayflower was a merchant ship made for carrying cargo like barrels of food or cloth, large pieces of wood and casks of wine. This cargo was stored in the lower decks of the ship in one large, open area with very low ceilings and no windows. A little water always leaked in, making it cold, damp and dark. This is where the 102 passengers lived for 66 days.
Seas of Horror
In October the ship Mayflower encountered a number of Atlantic storms that made the voyage treacherous. Several times, the seas were so rough they had to drift wherever the winds took them. It was not safe to use the sails. Men, women and children were crowded together below deck.
After two months, the crew of the Mayflower saw the shores of America, but they had been driven far off their course. The crew determined that they were at Cape Cod, an area already granted to the Plymouth Company. They had no legal right to settle there, and decided to sail southward to find the Hudson River, where they intended to establish their plantation.
Soon they found themselves in dangerous seas. Fearing their ship would be destroyed, they turned back. When they reached the shelter of Cape Cod harbor, they vowed to settle there, hoping they could make things right with the Plymouth Company later. They entered Cape Cod in the early morning of November 11, 1620 and anchored in what is now Provincetown Harbor.
The Mayflower Compact
Before going ashore, the Pilgrims held a meeting in the little cabin of the Mayflower and drew up rules for the government of the colony. Forty-one men signed the Mayflower Compact, which was modeled after a Separatist church covenant, and agreed to be bound by its laws:
In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord, King James, by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, e&c.
Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.
In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini, 1620.
The Pilgrims decided to call their settlement Plymouth, the name of the last town they had seen in England. Then they all went ashore, choosing as a landing place a flat rock. Mary Chilton Winslow has the distinction of being the first woman to step foot on Plymouth Rock as the Pilgrims descended from the Mayflower.
Women on the Mayflower
Eighteen married adult women had crossed the stormy Atlantic with their husbands aboard the Mayflower. There were no single women on board. Three women – Susanna White, Mary Allerton and Elizabeth Hopkins – had boarded the Mayflower at least six months pregnant. Susanna gave birth to a son Peregrine; Elizabeth gave birth to a son Oceanus, who later died at the age of two; Mary gave birth to a stillborn son while the ship was anchored at Provincetown Harbor.
After the landing at Plymouth, the men spent several weeks exploring Cape Cod, trying to decide where to build their plantation. The women still lived on the Mayflower, wondering when or if the men would return. After two months, they finally found a place to settle.
During January anf February of 1621, the women and children stayed aboard ship while the men built storehouses and living quarters. Finally, in March 1621, there were enough houses that everyone could live on land. After a long, hard voyage, and an even harder winter, the Mayflower left Plymouth to return to England on April 5, 1621.
Lives of the Children
Of the ninety-nine people who landed at Plymouth, about thirty were children. Some were with their parents and others came with relatives. A few of the children came as servants, who were supposed to work for seven years for the family that brought them. Many of the Pilgrims thought their daughters were too weak to survive the hardships of the voyage and building a colony, but eleven girls made the trip, ranging in ages from 1 to 17.
Pilgrim parents were strict and taught their children to fear God, to respect the king and the governor, and to be proud of being English. The Pilgrim children learned simple arithmetic, to write their names and to read the Bible a little. They created their own amusements – whittled toys out of wood or made dolls out of rags, corn husks and pine cones.
Pilgrim children were up at sunrise. After breakfast, everyone went to work. The smaller children pulled weeds, gathered nuts and berries or picked up kindling wood for the fires. Girls cooked and baked, and made soap and candles. Boys learned to fell trees, to saw and split wood for building houses, to sow and reap crops, to fish and hunt.
The close living quarters on the Mayflower no doubt contributed to the spread of disease among the women and children. The extremely high mortality rate among the women might have been because the men were out in the fresh air, while the women were confined to the damp and crowded quarters on the Mayflower.
Many of the sick were no doubt cared for onboard the ship by the women, increasing their exposure to colds and pneumonias. In fact, 78% of the women would die the first winter, a far higher percentage than for men or children.
Females Who Survived
In Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford listed the Mayflower passengers and those who died during the winter and spring of 1620-21. The fifty-three Pilgrims who attended the harvest festival in 1621 were the last of the Mayflower survivors. Fourteen of them were females.
Four Married Women
Elizabeth Fisher Hopkins
Susanna White Winslow
Six Adolescent Girls
Dorothy, maidservant of John Carver
Four Little Girls
Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster and Susanna White – with the help of the older girls – took on the daunting tasks of cooking, cleaning and washing laundry for fifty people. Of course, they also cared for their own homes and families, as well as nursing the sick.