What was it like for the Pilgrims who came across the ocean on the Mayflower? It’s impossible to know for sure since no one who was there is still around to answer our questions and tell us about it. But wondering what it must have been like is something I do often. What was it like to cross the prairies on the way to Oregon? What was it like to fight in the Civil War? What was it like to sail with the Pilgrims? What was it like???
One of the reasons I like to travel is that it allows me the opportunity to place myself in the environment of history. I can more easily imagine how miserable it must have been for the soldiers to be wearing wool uniforms in the summer in Virginia when I’m standing on the battlefield, sweating in my tshirt and shorts. It must have been way worse for them!
How rough it must have been to sail across the vast ocean, crowded into such a small ship. It’s small and dark and the waves in the ocean can be quite mighty. How cold it must have been when the pilgrims arrived on our shores in November. I’m wrapped in mulitple layers of gore-tex and wearing warm boots and freezing as I look down on Plymouth Rock. It must have been way worse for them!
Being in a place brings history to life more than just reading about it in a book. It doesn’t answer all my questions but it certainly makes it easier to imagine.
How big was the Mayflower?
The Mayflower was an older ship that was built to haul cargo, not passengers. It measured 90 feet long and 25 feet wide. I am terrible at visualizing size and distance but for imagining purposes I’m going to say that the main level of my house is approximately that size. I’m sure you can think of a similar visualization for yourself. There were 102 passengers and 25 crew onboard. The crew had a separate berthing area from the Pilgrims. Let’s look at a model of a typical 17th century merchant ship to get an idea of the crowded conditions.
How long was the voyage?
The voyage from Scrooby, England to Plymouth lasted 66 days. They left England on September 6 and landed here in November. When I teach about the Pilgrims, this timeline works nicely for my class. Being 5 years old, they don’t have a good concept of time yet so I always explain it as – they were sailing on the ship for as long as we have been coming to this class. They still don’t completely grasp it of course, but it emphasizes that the voyage was very long. An time reference for you, the reader… Here we are at Thanksgiving. Now think back to Labor Day and all the time that has passed since then. Would you want to be on that small wooden ship for all that time?
What would a typical day look like aboard the Mayflower?
The Pilgrims spent the majority of their time below deck. It was dark, damp, and cold. The low light made it hard to tell the difference between day and night so most passengers slept, on lumpy straw mattresses or the hard wooden floor, whenever they felt like it. Each family was responsible for cooking their own food. If the weather was nice, the pilgrims would cook food over a fire. That’s right – they were cooking over an open flame on a wooden ship. Sounds dangerous to me! Cooking was done on a bed of charcoal in a metal pan set on top of sand to protect the wood below. The smoke would fill the area further degrading the living conditions below deck. Unfortunately the voyage was storm-plagued so they rarely ate warm food. Their diet consisted primarily of hardtack, salted meat, dried fruits, and beer though many passengers were often too seasick to eat at all.
On calm days the men were allowed short walks outside on the main deck but had to stay out of the way of the crew. They spent most of their time in the living area. They played games such as chess and Nine Men’s Morris. They also spent a lot of time in prayer. 51 men were aboard the ship.
The women spent their time aboard the ship much the same way as they did on land. They cared for the children and prepared meals. They couldn’t do any laundry on the ship and it was so cold that most of the passengers were wearing all their clothes all the time. Any clothes that became ripped would be mended. Another common pastime – talking and fellowship with the other women. 20 women were aboard the ship.
Most children in the 1600s spent a lot of time helping with chores. Onboard the Mayflower, there weren’t many chores to do. Older children helped to care for younger children. They read the bible and sang psalms. The kids played quiet games such as I Spy, marbles, and cat’s cradle. 21 boys and 10 girls were aboard the ship.
What about personal hygiene?
As you can probably imagine, there wasn’t much opportunity for proper personal hygiene during the voyage. There was no running water aboard ship. While full-body baths were not in fashion during this time period, they did wash their hands and faces. On the Mayflower, they used salt water from the ocean to wash. The salt water will get you clean, but it also leaves you sticky. Just think back to how you felt afterwards the last time you ventured into the ocean. Not exactly squeaky clean, right?
No running water also means no toilets. The passengers and crew used chamber pots. Have you ever seen a chamber pot? Here’s one I found online that is from the time period of the Pilgrims. For reference, it’s about the size of a modern-day kitchen mixing bowl. Now imagine yourself on a ship that is rocking and rolling in the waves. Makes for a tricky proposition, don’t you think?
The chamber pots were kept in the living area (privacy, what’s that?!) and emptied into the sea. Just one more reason that the quality of life aboard the Mayflower wasn’t great.
Another issue contributing to poor hygiene on the ship was a lack of laundry capabilities. The pilgrims ate most meals with their fingers and depite having napkins, the clothes were easily soiled by spilled food. The pilgrims lived in the same clothes, night and day, for the entire voyage. I’m a bit of a slob so my clothes can be pretty messy after just one day’s use. Imagine how awful it must have been for the passengers of the Mayflower – living in the dark, damp, cramped, smoke-filled space – wearing the same clothes and not bathing or doing any laundry for 66 days! Stinky! Although, on the plus side, when everyone smells bad, the smell becomes normalized and doesn’t bother you as much. (just like at my NROTC freshman boot camp – we all smelled so bad we couldn’t tell after awhile. Think Febreeze nose-blind commercials.)
Also – lice. Head lice ran rampant among the passengers. If you’ve ever had to deal with lice, you know how hard it is to get rid of them and how easily they spread. It makes my head itch just thinking about it!
So, in a nutshell… Life onboard the Mayflower was-
Crowded. Dirty. Smelly. Seasick. Dark. Damp. Itchy. Lacking privacy. Hungry. Bored. Miserable.
After the long miserable voyage, you would think that finally reaching your destination would improve things. Unfortunately, the Mayflower ended up in Massachusetts after being blown far off course in the many storms rather than in Virginia as they had planned. November in Virginia isn’t super warm but it had the advantage of being an established colony (Jamestown) that the Mayflower’s passengers could easily join. November in Massachusetts is even colder and there was no established colony. It was the beginning of winter and the pilgrims were starting from scratch.
The passengers continued to live aboard the Mayflower while beginning to build houses on shore. The rolling waves of the open ocean were no longer an issue but the ship was very cold in winter. Wooden ship + fire = bad news.
After a few weeks spent exploring the area, construction began in December. The men were forced to wade through the icy water to get ashore from the ship. Cold and wet conditions with no way to get warm left many of the men sick. At times only 3 or 4 men were well enough to work.
The women and children stayed aboard the ship during construction. There is little good food remaining. Many of the women, children, and crew also got sick. The few that were well spent all of their time caring for the sick people.
Give up or carry on?
By March, the pilgrims were able to move from the ship to live on land. Unfortunately more than half of the original passengers and crew had died by this time. The ship was about to leave to return to England. At this point they had to decide whether to give up and go back to England or stay and try to survive. The Mayflower left in April and the remaining Pilgrims continued to work hard to sustain themselves in the new land. With the help of Samoset and Squanto, two local Native Americans who spoke English, they made friends with the other Native Americans already living in the area and learned how to survive and thrive in the new land.
When we talk about the Pilgrims and when we celebrate Thanksgiving every year we focus on the end of the story. Fourteen months after leaving England, the small group of remaining passengers were able to celebrate a successful harvest in their new homes. We rarely think much about what they endured along the way and what they faced each day to reach this happy occasion. What was a day in the life like for the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower?
Why do we care about the Pilgrims?
The Pilgrims are a symbol of determination, courage, and hard work. They were also the foundation of many good parts of our country. They had religious freedom. They elected their own leaders and believed that everyone had the right to be educated.
Pausing for a few moments to imagine what their everyday lives must have been like as they worked so hard to create a new life gives you deeper appreciation for all they accomplished in helping to get the country we know and love started. Today over 35 million people are direct descendants of the Mayflower’s passengers.
Visit the Mayflower
I have been lucky enough to visit Plymouth twice. I haven’t had a chance to tour the Mayflower itself yet but I’ve seen Plymouth Rock (it’s so small!) and the Pilgrim Hall Museum (a must see). I also haven’t made it yet to Plimouth Plantation. Clearly another visit to the area is in order! However, the Mayflower replica is currently undergoing extensive restoration in dry dock in advance of the 400-year anniversary celebration (November 2020!) so I’ll have to wait a bit.
I found this video of a virtual field trip to the Mayflower on the Scholastic website. A great way to check out the ship in the meantime. (video link)
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Cleary, Elaine Hansen. A Hands-on-History Look at the Pilgrims’ Journey to the New World. Teaching & Learning Company, 2003.