Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mayflower and Speedwell

Note: this post originally appeared November 24, 2009.

On August 15, 1620 two ships departed Southampton, England with more than 100 colonists -- Separatists resistant to the Church of England -- bound for an area near the Hudson River in North America. The two ships were Mayflower and Speedwell, and the colonists would come to be known as the Pilgrims.

The earliest records of Mayflower date to 1607. At that time the vessel was captained (and partly owned) by Christopher Jones, who would serve as captain on the Pilgrims' voyage, and was engaged mainly in wine trade between England and France, with frequent trips into the Baltic Sea to Norway. Mayflower, 100 feet long and 25 wide, and was a typical merchant ship of her day.

Speedwell had a somewhat more colorful history. Originally named Swiftsure, she was built in 1577 and took part in the English defeat of the Spanish Armada. She was renamed Speedwell in 1605. At sixty tons she was only a third the size of Mayflower.

The Speedwell developed a leak shortly after the Pilgrims' departure in August 1620 and both ships returned to England for repairs. More leaks developed on their second attempt two weeks later, so the ships returned again. All the colonists crowded onto Mayflower, which departed for the last time September 16th. Soon after, and suspected by the colonists all along, it was discovered the Speedwell's own crew had caused the leaks to escape fulfilling their one-year contracts.

Sixty days after leaving England, Mayflower arrived not at the Hudson River, but at Cape Cod. The incoming winter weather had made precise navigation difficult. Jones has been mocked for missing "Virginia" by hundreds of miles, but the term Virginia at that time applied to most of the British-claimed area of the eastern seaboard, not just to the US state we know today.

Two people died along the way, including Dorothy Bradford, wife of colony leader William, who fell overboard accidentally. A legend that she committed suicide dates from the mid-1860s. Two were also born, one en route, and one that winter as the colonists waited out the winter aboard ship. It was during this winter that more than half the remaining passengers died, leaving only 53 to go ashore in March to begin setting up their colony, called Plymouth (this was not the first active European settlement in North America; St. Augustine, Florida had been founded more than fifty years before). Mayflower left for England the following month, arriving back there in May.

Capt. Jones died in 1622. Records indicate that Mayflower was probably broken up for her wood around 1624, although some records suggest she was still afloat as late as 1629. This may be confusing two ships of the same name, as a second ship named Mayflower sailed back to Plymouth colony that year. A replica, Mayflower II, was built and sailed to the US in the mid-1950s, captained by Australian mariner and writer Alan Villiers.

A 1920 claim by a barn owner in Jordans, England that his barn was made with wood from Mayflower has been disproved, but has occasionally been cited as fact by some media, including National Geographic and the TV quiz show Jeopardy!

Perhaps the most accessible account of the Pilgrims early history in North America is humorist Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates. Vowell also has better scholarship than many high school history textbook writers: the Mayflower Pilgrims were Separatists, not Puritans. For a firsthand account see William Bradford's own Of Plymouth Plantation.

For more on the early exploration and settlement of North America, see my post on Amerigo Vespucci.

For more on the defeat of the Spanish Armada, see my review of The Pirate Queen.


  1. I would like to know the source of the above photo of the Mayflower replica. I want to get permission to use it in a publication.

    P. Stewart

  2. Not sure on this particular image, I never found a photo credit. Find similar images at Also, you might try Plimoth Plantation at

  3. Alan Villiers! We San Diegans have him to thank for our pride and joy, The Star of India. It's interesting that both stories intersect in 1957 -- Wikipedia says in April 1957 Villiers sailed the Mayflower II from England to America (and was greeted with a ticker tape parade in New York City), and in October 1957 Villiers' "epic tirade" in San Diego over the Star of India rotting away was what prompted her restoration.

  4. Thanks, Anonymous. I've been thinking of doing a post about Villiers.

    1. Capt. Earle, I'll have to bookmark you to read it, he sounds like an amazing man. Also, I wish youtube had been around in 1976, I'm sure I could find then what I can't now -- footage of the Star of India's first sail as a restored ship, on the Bicentennial, July 4, 1976, when it seems like all of San Diego turned out in total joy. My mom and sisters and I watched from Point Loma, and it was like every boat in the harbor sailed with her, a huge flotilla of celebration. I can remember it, but I can't show it to you! Even from Point Loma we could barely see her in the hazy distance -- we took pictures of our fingers pointing to where she was. Best I can do, there's a thumbnail on the ship's Timeline (click into it) at Love your blog!

  5. Capt. Rob Earle,
    I am trying to find information on the later sailings of the "Speedwell" Im tracing my family history and have found we sailed on it...""Giles Rickard came on the "Speedwell" in 1637 and listed with him were his wife, three children, one boy and one maid (all unnamed) Ref: NGSQ 71:176).All i can find is about the voyage w/ the Mayflower.. have you any info on this voyage???? plz E-mail me Thank You in advance for your time...

  6. Brandirae: Speedwell leaves the stage in most histories once she and the Mayflower part company. This is probably not the same ship you are referring to, though: she was most likely lost at sea in 1624. A ship called Speedwell brought a group of Quakers to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1656. Some sources say these are the same ship, but as the original was built in 1577, this would mean the ship was nearly eighty years old in an era when working vessels rarely lasted more than 20 years. More likely, this is confusing two vessels of the same name. A Royal Navy vessel launched under another name in 1656 was re-christened Speedwell in 1660, and wrecked in 1720. The name was used by several vessels over the next two centuries; the latest HMS Speedwell was a WWII-era minesweeper.

  7. I have a really old cotton picture art piece of the Mayflower dated 1620 in New Zealand found many years ago.

  8. Tania ur such a liar.
    Everything inside of new Zealand dates back to 1983.
    New Zealand HahahHahahHahaHa.
    U guys had to borrow the flag of another country

  9. Capitan. Permitame presentame, soy carolina, hija de un modelista naval que fallecio hace mas de 10 años. Tengo en mi casa varios barcos hechos por mi papa. Antes de morir, él limpio y volvio a armar casi todos los barcos, pero la muerte llego anttes de que terminara de desarmar para limpiar el barco mas hermoso llamado MAYFLOWER. Me gustaria poder limpiarlo y devolverselo a mi madre armado. Usted conoce o tiene planos. Tengo todo, Las velas, los mastiles, cañones, anclas... todo Ojala y responda.

  10. Carolina: Miré a mi alrededor, pero no pude encontrar ningún plan gratis para el Mayflower. Varios están disponibles para su compra. Prueba este de Plimouth Plantation si usted está interesado. An please excuse my terrible Spanish!

  11. greet you helped me finish my school report . i wood like a copy of the pic

  12. hi Braden Plath and Colby bright