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Settling at Plymouth
The Mayflower Voyage
The group that set out from Plymouth, in southwestern England, in September 1620 included 35 members of a radical Puritan faction known as the English Separatist Church. In 1607, after illegally breaking from the Church of England, the Separatists settled in the Netherlands, first in Amsterdam and later in the town of Leiden, where they remained for the next decade under the relatively lenient Dutch laws. Due to economic difficulties, as well as fears that they would lose their English language and heritage, they began to make plans to settle in the New World. Their intended destination was a region near the Hudson River, which at the time was thought to be part of the already established colony of Virginia. In 1620, the would-be settlers joined a London stock company that would finance their trip aboard the Mayflower, a three-masted merchant ship, in 1620. A smaller vessel, the Speedwell, had initially accompanied the Mayflower and carried some of the travelers, but it proved unseaworthy and was forced to return to port by September.
Some of the most notable passengers on the Mayflower included Myles Standish, a professional soldier who would become the military leader of the new colony; and William Bradford, a leader of the Separatist congregation who wrote the still-classic account of the Mayflower voyage and the founding of Plymouth Colony. While still on board the ship, a group of 41 men signed the so-called Mayflower Compact, in which they agreed to join together in a "civil body politic." This document would become the foundation of the new colony's government.
Settling at Plymouth
Rough seas and storms prevented the Mayflower from reaching their initial destination, and after a voyage of 65 days the ship reached the shores of Cape Cod, anchoring on the site of Provincetown Harbor in mid-November. After sending an exploring party ashore, the Mayflower landed at what they would call Plymouth Harbor, on the western side of Cape Cod Bay, in mid-December. During the next several months, the settlers lived mostly on the Mayflower and ferried back and forth from shore to build their new storage and living quarters. The settlement's first fort and watchtower was built on what is now known as Burial Hill (the area contains the graves of Bradford and other original settlers).
More than half of the English settlers died during that first winter, as a result of poor nutrition and housing that proved inadequate in the harsh weather. Leaders such as Bradford, Standish, John Carver, William Brewster and Edward Winslow played important roles in keeping the remaining settlers together. In April 1621, after the death of the settlement's first governor, John Carver, Bradford was unanimously chosen to hold that position; he would be reelected 30 times and served as governor of Plymouth for all but five years until 1656.
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