History: August 5, 1620: What Kind of Ship was the Mayflower?

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A Brief History

On August 5, 1620, the Mayflower set out from England with another ship, the Speedwell, on its first attempt to take Puritans to the New World.  When the Speedwell started leaking, the ships turned back for repair.  Setting off again, the Speedwell again leaked and the ships returned, this time to for the Mayflower to take on Speedwell passengers and continue the Trans-Atlantic voyage alone.

Digging Deeper

Mayflower finally set sail for America on September 6 with 102 Pilgrims aboard (instead of the intended 65), and a crew of perhaps 25 to 30 men.  Not a big ship, Mayflower had been built around the early 17th Century and was only about 80-90 feet long at the main deck (perhaps 100 feet overall).  The 180 ton ship was of the Dutch “fluyt” variety (3 masts, 3 main areas or decks), a cargo ship meant to maximize efficiency in carrying cargo and not worthy of conversion to a warship in time of war.  Still, the small ship carried some guns, probably 8 “minion” cannons capable of projecting a 3 ½ pound ball a mile and 4 smaller “saker” cannon which fired up to a 5 ounce ball, usually with multiple balls like a shotgun.  As fairly heavy armament for a small cargo ship, the Mayflower could be used in combat if needed.  Some of the cannon, probably 4 of them, were offloaded with the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock for defense against possibly hostile natives.

The square rigged, beak brow ship had a gun deck (right below the main deck)  where the passengers lived during the voyage, a cramped space of 25 X 50 feet with a 5 foot high ceiling!  As the ship had no “heads” (toilets), passengers and crew alike had to improvise, using buckets as chamber pots.  Conditions during the rough voyage were not comfortable, to say the least.  Only 2 passengers died on the journey, but half the total of the Pilgrims plus half the crew died the first winter in America, which was spent aboard the ship, as the weather was too cold to begin a settlement.

Mayflower returned to England the following Spring, assisted by the West winds that made the voyage faster and more pleasant than the trip Westward.  The aging Mayflower was in poor repair, and was probably scrapped in 1624.

Exact details about the Mayflower such as who built her and where, her detailed dimensions, and others are unknown.  Size and layout given here is based on educated estimates by historians that studied the era.  The so called Pilgrims that traveled to America to find “religious freedom” as the myth goes, were really quite intolerant and were of the opinion that all people should be forced to live and pray as they did.  Their intent was to start a colony of theocratic principles.

Although these Pilgrims were ill prepared and perhaps religiously bigoted, their courage is undeniable and they persevered through horrible privations.  Whatever the faults of the Mayflower, this little ship carried it passengers and crew across the Atlantic and back at a time when the prospect was still quite dangerous.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.