5 Forgotten Facts About the Pilgrims

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Think about everything you know — or think you know — about the Pilgrims. Chances are, much of it is wrong. These early American settlers did not call themselves Pilgrims. They didn’t land at a chunk of granite known as Plymouth Rock. And they certainly weren’t the first to hold a Thanksgiving-type event on American soil. Read on as we bust a couple of myths and dish out some strange facts about these hardy settlers.


5. They Did Not Call Themselves Pilgrims

Painting of the Pilgrims signing the Mayflower Compact. The Pilgrims referred to themselves as either "Saints" or "Strangers."

The Pilgrims sign the Mayflower Compact. The Pilgrims referred to themselves as either “Saints” or “Strangers.”

The men and women we today know as the “Pilgrims” referred to themselves as either “Saints” or “Strangers.” The Saints were separatists who left the Church of England to pursue religious freedom. After leaving the church, the group moved to Holland. But after almost a dozen years there, they missed their old English customs and lifestyle and decided to make the risky voyage to America to help establish a new colony. Only 44 of these Saints made the journey aboard the Mayflower. The other 58 passengers were known as “Strangers,” who traveled to the New World in a bid for profit. (By the way, both terms came from a line in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: “They confessed that they were saints and strangers on Earth.”)

The first reference to these settlers as Pilgrims did not appear until sometime in the 1790s, and did not come into common usage until the 1840s.


4. Some 10 Million in U.S. Are Descendants of Pilgrims

The U.S. president's salary of $400,000 is modest by modern standards.

Presidents George H.W. Bush (left) and George W. Bush are two of seven U.S. presidents descended from Mayflower passengers. Credit: White House/Eric Draper

The perils the Pilgrims faced (starvation, disease, etc.) were not exactly conditions that would make a man and woman look at each other and say, “Let’s have a baby!” But of those 102 original passengers, 29 are known to have had children. According to The Mayflower Society, an organization dedicated to preserving Pilgrim history, an estimated 10 million Americans today are descendants of those 29 Pilgrims. Among famous descendants of the Pilgrims are seven U.S. presidents, Winston Churchill and celebrities including Marilyn Monroe. Here’s an interesting link to the Massachusetts State Archives original handwritten list of the Mayflower passengers.


3. Mayflower’s Voyage Started With a Second Ship

This painting, Landing of the Pilgrims by Michele Felice Cornè (circa 1805) is displayed in the White House.

This painting, Landing of the Pilgrims by Michele Felice Cornè (circa 1805) is displayed in the White House.

The Mayflower’s journey to the Plymouth Colony started out with a sister ship, the Speedwell. Both ships originally set sail for America in August 1620, but twice they had to return to port because the Speedwell was leaking. On the second attempt, the two vessels were some 300 nautical miles out in the Atlantic before returning to England. After that mishap, about a dozen separatists left the Speedwell to board the Mayflower; the ship’s third attempt to reach the New World proved successful. Pilgrim leader William Bradford later speculated that crew members aboard the Speedwell sabotaged the ship because they were worried about making the dangerous trans-Atlantic voyage.


2. Pilgrims Were Not the First to Celebrate Thanksgiving

There may be as many as 35 million Americans descended from passengers aboard the Mayflower.

Painting of The First Thanksgiving, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

Every year around Thanksgiving, schoolchildren learn the story of the Pilgrims and Native Americans sitting down to the “first Thanksgiving.” That three-day feast in 1621 is often hailed as the first Thanksgiving on American soil, but there were prior celebrations. According to the Smithsonian Institution, settlers in Jamestown held several Thanksgiving religious services at least a decade before the Pilgrims’ first observance. Colonists in the Popham Colony in Maine are believed to have done the same in 1607.

A 2014 book, America’s First Real Thanksgiving: St. Augustine, Florida, September 8, 1565, makes a compelling case that the first Thanksgiving on that date featured a celebration between the Spanish and the local Timucua Native Americans. (Likely menu items: alligator, tortoise and Garbanzo beans.) In 1959, the Texas Historical Society staked an even earlier claim for the first American Thanksgiving feast. The society contended that a Spanish padre proclaimed a day of feasting for Coronado and his troops, at a site near Amarillo. While these earlier commemorations of Thanksgiving may have predated the Pilgrims’ observance, most historians agree that celebration has most influenced the holiday as it’s celebrated today in the U.S.


1. Did Mayflower Wood Build Barn That Still Stands?

Mayflower Barn

The Mayflower Barn, in Jordans, Buckinghamshire, England, is said to have been built with wood from the Mayflower. © David Squire

At the time of the Pilgrims’ voyage to America, their story certainly did not hold the mystique it has today. They were just ordinary settlers, trying to scratch out an existence on a wild continent. Likewise, people of that era regarded the Mayflower as just another sailing vessel. Although there is some uncertainty on the ship’s ultimate fate, historians widely believe a salvage company broke up the Mayflower three years later.

Here’s where the story takes a strange turn. In 1920, historian J. Rendel Harris wrote a book, The Finding of the Mayflower, contending timbers from the Mayflower were used to build a barn in Jordans, Buckinghamshire, England. No evidence has ever been found to back that account, but the so-called Mayflower Barn still stands, and has become a popular tourist site, especially for American visitors.


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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.