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By Stacy B. C. Wood, Jr.

The ships shown in this seascape are the approximate size of the Pilgrims' ill-fated ship, the Speedwell.  'Ships in Harbor (Dutch seascape)' By Abraham VerWer. Image: Pilgrim Hall

The title of this paper is from King Henry VI, Part 1, Act. III, Scene 2. A similar quote, “Delay always breeds danger,” is found in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Book IV, Chapter 2. (Motteux translation). Many of our Mayflower ancestors may have sensed the danger as their departure from England for the New World kept getting delayed in the summer of 1620.

How would you have reacted if you had been part of the group of Separatists who left Leiden, Holland, in late July? (Some had lived there for a dozen years and some had been born there.) At Delfshaven you would have boarded the ship purchased for the trip, the Speedwell. You would have waved goodbye to friends who would remain there knowing that you probably would never see them again.

The first stop was Hampton (Southampton), England, where you would join other Separatists and “strangers” recruited by the merchants who were funding the voyage and the initial settlement in America. A larger ship, the Mayflower, had been chartered to take on board some of those on the Speedwell and those waiting in Hampton. You might have wondered how what was intended to be a completely Separatist plantation transplanted from Leiden to America with its pastor John Robinson could possibly function with the addition of Puritans, Church of England members, and other “strangers.” Was the colony to be doomed?

A merchant “adventurer” Thomas Weston and Robert Cushman, one of the Leiden members, had obtained the all important patent from the Separatists’ nemesis, King James, permitting them to leave England and to settle in northern Virginia near the mouth of the Hudson River. This was far removed from the small settlement in Jamestown and hopefully far enough that the Church of England would not hound them again. Weston and Cushman had arranged for provisions consisting of food, drink, clothing, tools, etc., to be waiting to be loaded on the ships in Hampton for the journey.

All knew that there would be no welcoming party awaiting them on their arrival. They knew that the area would be inhabited by native people but they had no idea if they would be friendly or hostile. There would be no shelter except that which they could construct themselves. The only additional supplies that they might obtain would be from later ships that might happen to reach them.

Christopher Martin, a Puritan from Billericay (Great Burstead) in Essex, had been appointed governor of the Mayflower with Robert Cushman to be his assistant on the Speedwell.

In early August they were ready to begin their voyage. As the ships left the quay Separatist and strangers alike realized that this would likely be the last time that they laid eyes on those left behind and their homeland. But their voyage was to be short, for the master of the Speedwell reported that leaks had been discovered and both ships returned to Hampton. They would return to Hampton a second time for the same reason. Again the Speedwell’s watertight integrity failed and this time the ships put in at Dartmouth, slightly to the west. It was now the second week of August.

Writing from Dartmouth on August 17th, Robert Cushman vented his frustration and disgust. William Bradford includes the letter in his history Of Plymouth Plantation (Morison/Knopf modernized edition) and it is quoted here in part:

“Our pinnace [the Speedwell] will not cease leaking, else I think we had been half way at Virginia. Our voyage hither hath been as full of crosses as ourselves have been of crookedness. We put in here to trim her; and I think, as others also, if we had stayed at sea but three or four hours more, she would have sunk right down. And though she was twice trimmed at Hampton, yet now she is as open and leaky as a sieve; and there was a board a man [who] might have pulled off with his fingers, two foot long, where the water came in as at a mole hole. We lay at Hampton seven days in fair weather, waiting for her, and now we lie here waiting for her in as fair a wind as can blow, and so have done these four days, and are like to lie four more, and by that time the wind will happily turn as it did at Hampton. Our victuals will be half eaten up, I think, before we go from the coast of England, and if our voyage last long, we shall not have a month’s victuals when we come in the country.


Near £700 hath been bestowed at Hampton, upon I know not; Mr. Martin [governor of the Mayflower] saith he neither can nor will give any account of it, and if he be called upon for accounts, he crieth out of unthankfulness for his pains and care, that we are suspicious of him, and flings away, and will end nothing. Also he so insulteth over our poor people, with such scorn and contempt, as if they were not good enough to wipe his shoes. It would break your heart to see his dealing, and the mourning of our people; they complain to me, and alas! I can do nothing for them. If I speak to him, he flies in my face as mutinous, and saith no complaints shall be heard or received but by himself, and saith they are forward and waspish, discontented people, and I do ill to hear them. There are others that would lose all they have put in, or make satisfaction for what they have had, that they might depart; but he will not hear them, nor suffer them to go ashore, lest they should run away.”

Of course they soon left Dartmouth and had gone about 300 miles when they once again had to return, this time to Plymouth, Devonshire. There it was resolved that the Speedwell would go no farther. Goods for which there was space were transferred to the Mayflower and those individuals that were believed to be unfit for the voyage were left behind to come eventually on another ship. In many cases only the male heads of families and teenage boys went.

One-hundred-two passengers were taken aboard, and the ship finally set sail on Wednesday, September 6th. Neither Robert Cushman nor pastor John Robinson were among them. Cushman did come on the next ship, the Fortune, that arrived just after the 1621 harvest fest now known as the First Thanksgiving. It brought other family members and friends previously left behind but no supplies. His visit was short: he returned with the Fortune. Robinson died in 1625 before he could make the voyage.

“Governor” Christopher Martin and his family died the first winter.

As you know, the delays did have “dangerous ends”: The late departure placed them on the ocean during the stormy season making a sixty-six day voyage that took at least twice as long as it should have. It possibly caused them to make landfall at Cape Cod, north of their intended northern Virginia destination. It caused them to arrive in November instead of September, the worst of timing during the “little ice age” (c.1300-c.1850). They were constantly soaked by rain and frozen by snow and ice. Their only major shelter was the Mayflower until the following spring. Fifty of the 102 died the first winter leaving only twelve of the heads of families and four of the dozen unmarried men and boys. Bradford states that only seven individuals, including Myles Standish and their Elder, William Brewster, were unaffected by the sickness and had to care for the rest, “willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren.”

Those who have not read William Bradford’s history Of Plymouth Plantation, the 1622 journal Mourt’s Relation, and Edward Winslow’s 1624 Good News From New England are urged to do so. Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2006 Mayflower and 2007 The Mayflower Papers - Selected Writings of Colonial New England are excellent histories of the Plymouth Colony. All are in print and would make excellent Christmas gifts.