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Pilgrims, in American history, the group of separatists and other individuals who were the founders of Plymouth Colony. The name Pilgrim Fathers is given to those members who made the first crossing on the Mayflower.


The nucleus of the group came into being in the meetings of a group of Puritans (see Puritanism) at Scrooby, a village in Nottinghamshire, England. Opposed to the episcopal jurisdiction and the rites and discipline of the Church of England, the group had formed as a separatist church by 1606, with John Robinson eventually becoming their minister. The congregation was composed mainly of farmers and artisans, men of little education or position, although William Brewster, one of their leaders, was a man of some importance in the town and had spent some time at the Univ. of Cambridge. Although not actively persecuted, the group was subjected to ecclesiastical investigation and to the mockery, criticism, and disfavor of their neighbors.

Emigration to Holland

To avoid contamination of their strict beliefs and to escape the hated church from which they had separated, the sect decided to move to Holland, where other groups had found religious liberty, despite an English law that forbade emigration without royal permission. After several false starts, two of which were frustrated by the law, small groups made their way to the Netherlands in 1607, and by the middle of 1608 most of them had reached Amsterdam. They went from there to Leiden, where they established themselves as artisans and laborers.

Life in Holland was not easy, however, and the immigrants found the presence of radical religious groups there objectionable. Dutch influence also seemed to be altering their English ways, and the prospect of renewed war between the Netherlands and Spain threatened. For these reasons they considered moving to the New World.

To the New World

In 1617, John Carver and Robert Cushman went to London to make arrangements with the London Company (see Virginia Company), cautiously negotiating the pledges necessary to satisfy the company, king, and bishops and still keep the religion of the dissenters pure. In 1619 a charter was secured from the company in the name of one John Wincob, but it was never used. The matter lapsed until early in 1620, when Thomas Weston, speaking for a group of London merchants, offered them support and the use of a charter already obtained from the London Company. A joint-stock company to last for seven years was arranged. The congregation voted in favor of the voyage, but only about half of the members decided to go.

A small vessel, the Speedwell, was obtained to carry the Pilgrims to England, where that vessel joined the Mayflower for the trip to America. Difficulties arose, however, over restrictive arrangements included by Weston in the agreement in order to guarantee more strongly the investment by the merchants, and the Pilgrims, unwilling to accept the revised agreement, sailed without reaching a settlement. The Speedwell proved unseaworthy and returned to port; many of the passengers and much of her cargo were crowded on the Mayflower, which set out alone.

The Leiden group constituted only 35 of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower; many of the English group gathered for the trip were not even separatists (they were thus called “Strangers”). Nonetheless, the Leiden group (the “Saints”) retained control and were the moving force behind the emigration. While most of the Leiden Pilgrims were English, modern scholars have found that several were French-speaking Walloons and one was a Pole. Before landing, an agreement providing for a government by the will of the majority was drawn up and called the Mayflower Compact. In Dec., 1620, the Mayflower entered Plymouth harbor, where the settlers established the Plymouth Colony.


See W. Bradford, History of Plimouth Plantation (first pub. 1856); H. M. Dexter, The England and Holland of the Pilgrims (1905); R. G. Usher, The Pilgrims and Their History (1918); G. F. Willison, Saints and Strangers (1945, rev. ed. 1965) and The Pilgrim Reader (1953); S. E. Morison, The Story of the Old Colony of New Plymouth (1956); J. Demos, Little Commonwealth (1970); N. Philbrick, Mayflower (2008); N. Bunker, Making Haste from Babylon (2010).

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