Visiting Plymouth:

And 10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Pilgrims:

Mayflower II Wheat family

Visiting the Mayflower II in Plymouth, Massachusetts

Share with Friends & Pin it for Later!

Our family was thrilled to be visiting Plymouth , Massachusetts to explore the Pilgrims, the Mayflower & Plymouth colony back in 2014. I discussed the sites & provided our Itinerary in my Plymouth in a Day  post here. By the end of the day, what we learned surprised & fascinated us. Walking the same land where they lived, seeing it with our own eyes helped give us a deeper glimpse & reminded us that they weren’t just caricatures in a play or a painting, they were real people in a harsh world that makes many of ours look quite delicate.  We learn tidbits about this US history staple in school.  But, here are 10 things about them you probably didn’t know:

1. The Pilgrims were the minority- both on the Mayflower & at the 1st Thanksgiving

King Massassoit statue

‘King’ Massassoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe had an alliance with Plymouth colony & attended the 1st Thanksgiving with them.  

2. Plymouth was not the intended destination

Massachusetts wasn’t even in their plan.  They had a contract for a charter with the Virginia Company of London and intended to land at the northernmost part of their land of Virginia, which was in the vicinity of today’s New York City.  They were blown over 200 miles off course by stormy seas, becoming the 1st permanent settlement in all of New England. The contract & charter they had were only good for Virginia. The ‘strangers’ said the rules no longer applied & threatened to go off on their own.  The Mayflower Compact was written, a governor voted in, and the colonists stuck together under this self-governing document.  Because of the unforeseen need to create this self-rule, the fundamentals of their legacy influenced democratic traditions in other colonies, even impacting America today.  The Revolutionary founding fathers referred to those principles in drafting the Declaration of Independence & the U.S. Constitution. England, however, was not impressed & the king did not recognize this unofficial plan and a more permanent agreement was approved the following year. 


Landing in Plymouth also had disastrous consequences.  Their expectations wrong, they paid a heavy price.  With 2 false starts, a 2 month delay and stormy seas, the trip took longer and used more food & water than planned.  Shortages & poor diet left them weak. Farther North than they expected, they were unprepared for the Massachusetts winter.  The heavier winter & frigid cold, and the necessity to stay bundled together on ship till homes could be built led to shared germs & exposure.  They lost 1/2 the colony within the 1st few months of landing.  

William Bradford statue

(Plymouth Governor) William Bradford- wrote the journals & manuscript that we have much of our info from

3.  They didn’t land in Plymouth 1st   

They 1st landed on the Northern tip of Cape Cod in Provincetown, Massachusetts.  The Mayflower Compact was signed just offshore.  They had nearly run out of food, firewood & water after the delays.  They found and took a cache of corn buried by the Native Americans and used it to barely stay alive (& later repaid).  After exploring the bay area & finding Native Americans already occupying Cape Cod, they settled on Plymouth, just across the bay, a month later.  It had a good harbor, freshwater stream abundant in fish, and land abundant in game with ‘the greatest amount of fowl they’d ever seen’.  There was land already cleared & abandoned.  Unbeknownst to them, it was because nearly 90% of the local tribes had died off from ‘Indian fever’ the few years before.  There was a large hill near the shore to watch for dangers inland & out at sea.  Supplies were thin & winter was worsening and the colonists stayed put & began their settlement in Plymouth.   

4.  Two babies were born on the (crowded, unsanitary) Mayflower

They left England with 102 people, 2 died on the voyage, 2 were born & they arrived with still 102.  Oceanus Hopkins was the 1st, & was born at & named for the sea.  Sadly, he died as a little boy.  Another baby boy, Peregrine White, the 2nd baby, was born on the Mayflower while it was anchored outside Provincetown & the men were out exploring for a good place to settle.  The Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth has Peregrine’s little wicker baby cradle exhibited, today.  Peregrine means ‘traveler’ or ‘pilgrim’.  Baby Peregrine’s father died within a couple months, that 1st winter.  Peregrine’s mother, then, married another colonist who lost his wife to the winter.  They married 2 months later, in May of that spring.  The remarriage is shockingly quick in today’s mindset, but marrying quickly was not unusual for the times.  Not only as a help within the household, but for the Pilgrims, it was essential to maintain population growth for the future of their community.   She already had baby Peregrine & a 5 year old child and went on to have 4+ more after.  Theirs was the 1st marriage in Plymouth.  Peregrine lived to a ripe age of 83 & fathered 7 children.   For a look into the conditions these babies were born into on the Mayflower, see my article Plymouth in a Day– Itinerary.

Plymouth Rock & Cape Cod Bay

Plymouth Rock Portico with view of Cape Cod Bay where the Mayflower sailed in

5. They probably didn’t step out onto Plymouth Rock

In the known Plymouth documents found so far, the Pilgrims didn’t mention the rock.  It was only identified 121 years later in 1741. A 94 year old man whose father arrived in Plymouth a couple years after the Mayflower & who knew some of the Pilgrims, himself, said he had been told by them & his family that the boulder was their actual landing spot. As for stepping onto it, it’s unclear. His emotional account is the only ‘evidence’ to the story.  However, it was in the immediate area at the time, just down from their homes & fort, and at very least nearby the landing.  For more on our visit & Plymouth Rock through the years, see my article Plymouth, Massachusetts in a Day- Itinerary

6.  They didn’t call themselves ‘Pilgrims’

They called themselves ‘Saints’ coming from the term being used throughout the Bible to refer to God’s people, Jesus’s followers. The term ‘Pilgrim’ was used over 150 years later after a casual mention was found in (Plymouth governor) William Bradford’s letters, published as ‘Of Plimoth Plantation‘.  He was referring to the Bible’s use of ‘pilgrims’ as visitors & strangers in a land who long for their citizenship in Heaven. Bradford’s manuscript was stolen from the tower of the Old South Meeting House in Boston during the Revolutionary War when British soldiers occupied the church.  It was rediscovered in the 1850s & England brought it back into print.  They returned it to the U.S. in 1897.    

Pilgrim sarcophagus on Cole's Hill

Sarcophagus on Cole’s Hill with the bones of Pilgrims who died in the 1st winter

7.  A mass grave of Pilgrims overlooks Plymouth Rock  

In Plymouth, today, you can visit the mass grave, bones of men, women & children of Plymouth colony, held in a sarcophagus.  As the colonists huddled on the Mayflower as homes were built, they died off that winter, often several a day.  William Bradford wrote that ‘the living were scarce able to keep up to bury the dead’ and ‘not sufficient to tend the sick’.  They buried their dead at night so that the natives wouldn’t know how many they’d lost, and they smoothed the ground & planted seed on top to disguise the graves.  They hadn’t met the nearby Native Americans, yet, and didn’t know if they would be friendly, or if they might attack.  This small hill between the future fort & the shore, Cole’s Hill, became their First Burying Ground.  Heavy spring rains over a century later exposed skulls & skeletons & washed out bones into the bay, in the 18th & 19th centuries.  They were collected & stored in the attic of the Plymouth Rock portico until 1920, when they were re-interred in the sarcophagus for the 300th anniversary of the landing.  These Mayflower Pilgrims never made it to the 1st Thanksgiving.  They died before homes were built & they got to see it succeed.  Others were later buried in their next cemetery by the fort at Burial Hill, visited in my Plymouth in a Day article.  The only remaining original gravestone of a Pilgrim is in Salem & is discussed in one of my Salem articles, here. 

8.  Kids were the majority

With 1/2 the colonists dying the 1st winter, 78% of the women had died, leaving just 4 grown women with 22 men, and about 27 kids & teens in Plymouth.  You can bet that those kids helped the 4 women prepare the Thanksgiving feast.  It was unusual that women & children were brought to settle the New World, from the beginning.  Settlements were usually started by men who were there to make their fortune, such as in Jamestown which saw no women for at least a year, or to ‘subdue’ a new land & explore.  The Pilgrims, however, came to build a society, so they brought their whole families in an act of faith.  It wasn’t an easy life for the kids, though.  There was hard, long work for everyone and plenty of it.  Even on Christmas.  The Pilgrims didn’t celebrate it, viewing it a Roman Catholic creation.

Wheat kids peeking out Mayflower II

Wheat kids peeking out of the Mayflower II in one of the few windows from the belly of the ship 

9.  Thanksgiving games were as prominent as the food 

Their games at the harvest celebration were much more lively than Thanksgiving football or the Macy’s parade.  They played various colonial games and shot off guns & conducted military exercises together.  They sang and danced and prayed.  Add this to #8 of this list and it was sure to be a lively Thanksgiving!  It was a great celebration of joy that took place over a 3 day period.  When visitors came, they stayed for quite awhile because it was a very long walk home.  There was much to be thankful for.  They were thrilled that not only were they alive having survived the 1st winter that took 1/2, but they had plenty of food to eat & the natives had shown them how to plant there & what to eat in this very different land.  They had not only peace, but an alliance & trade with their local Native American friends.  A peace that last for 55 years.  It wasn’t unusual for them to focus on gratitude.  It was the Pilgrim’s practice to give thanks to God, for everything they had, on a daily basis.  The Native Americans lived by gratitude, as well.

10.  Turkey Wasn’t the Centerpiece of the Thanksgiving Meal 

Turkey wasn’t the centerpiece on the Thanksgiving menu-  They had fowl, which may have included turkey, as well as duck, goose, pigeons & swans. They likely had an abundance of seafood, as well, being right on the ocean and having an abundance of freshwater herring from the local stream. The main show, however, was the 5 deer the Native Americans brought to serve.  Venison was likely roasted over an open fire and possibly used in stews.  No types of potatoes were in North America, yet.  The sugar was gone, by then, and they didn’t have butter nor flour, and not even ovens, yet, so no bread & pie. They may have flavored with herbs, onions, or nuts. Aside from meat, they dined on nuts and also vegetables, such as corn, beans, spinach, turnips, squash, leafy greens, carrots and peas. They had raw fruit, as well, such as berries, cranberries, plums & grapes. Some early settlers had hollowed out pumpkins with milk, honey and spices and roasted them to create a type of custard, and this may have been part of their meal, as well. Squanto of the Patuxet tribe had taught them how to farm the land, showed them the edible & poisonous plants, and where to fish and hunt, which almost certainly saved their lives.

There had been various national days of thanks declared for various reasons for over a century before it became a natioonal holiday in the U.S.  George Washington declared a day of thanks after independence was won in the American Revolution.  Both the Union and the Confederacy called for a day of thanks after Civil War battle wins.  Sarah Josepha Hale (journalist & author of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’) had been calling to have a national Thanksgiving declared.  She believed it might bring together the North & the South who were still steeped in the Civil War & the country divided.  Both sides were already separately celebrating an unofficial variation of it during the fall.  Finally, she wrote to President Lincoln asking him to declare a single, national Thanksgiving to give thanks.  Lincoln saw the potential to unify the people and he had the Secretary of State draft the proclamation within a week and we celebrate it, still today, 400 years later.  Visiting Plymouth should definitely be on your bucket list!



Pin Me!

For more information, visit: 

Leo Martin at Jenney Museum for a tour;  & also his book, Pilgrim Pursuit of Happiness”.  Both were helpful in offering me knowledge.

saints-  ;

Share with Friends & Pin it for Later!

Other Places You May Enjoy:


Leave a Reply

Visiting Plymouth: And 10 Things You Didn\'t Know About the Pilgrims