The unsung female heroes of the Mayflower

The story of the Pilgrim Fathers is well documented – so why do we rarely hear about the women and their significant contribution?

Priscilla Alden (née Mullins) with her husband and fellow colonist John
Priscilla Alden (née Mullins) with her husband and fellow colonist John

Everyone has heard of the Pilgrim Fathers. Doughty, God-fearing souls who sailed to America on the Mayflower to create a world where they could follow their religious beliefs without fear of persecution.

But what makes the voyage remarkable are the mothers: the unsung heroes who sailed alongside their men on the momentous enterprise, which after an inauspicious start left from Plymouth 400 years ago today.

There were 18 women and of those, 10 took their children with them. Incredibly, given the tumultuous adventure they were about to undertake, three were pregnant and another breastfeeding her infant. Just as startling, there were more than 30 children and youngsters under 21 on the ship.

As for the men – the husbands, single men and servants – they totalled 50 and were actually outnumbered by the women and their offspring.

That the role of women in the story is scarcely acknowledged is perhaps unsurprising given that 17th century females invariably owed their status and identity to their menfolk. Unsurprising too, that the accounts of the historic voyage are by men about the men, not least by William Bradford, who became governor of the new settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

He did, however, acknowledge that the ‘weak bodies of women’ might not withstand the rigours of the journey – though he could not foresee just how deadly the undertaking would be.

The arrangement was for the self-styled pilgrims to sail on the Speedwell from the Netherlands, where they had lived in exile from English persecution for 12 years, and rendezvous with the Mayflower in Southampton. The Mayflower, meanwhile, left Rotherhithe, London in July 1620, carrying 65 fortune seekers who had financed the expedition and hoped to recoup their investment by making their riches from the flourishing New England beaver trade. The two groups were to sail in a convoy across the Atlantic but the Speedwell became as ‘leakie as a sieve’ and was abandoned in Plymouth, Devon, at which point many of the pilgrims joined the crowded Mayflower.

The ship, which had been used for the cross-Channel wine trade, now had 102 passengers thrust cheek by jowl in the stink of the hold, forced to endure the lack of hygiene, the smell of unwashed bodies and the grime of filthy clothes.

Privacy was impossible. To relieve themselves the voyagers had to balance precariously on the ship’s bowsprit but in storms they stayed below decks and used chamber pots, which were sent flying across the cabins when the waves hit and the winds rose.

Food consisted of a niggardly diet of salt meat, peas and hard tack biscuits – which became infested with weevils – and, to drink, beer. No wonder the hold became a breeding ground for lice and scurvy.

Not until the Mayflower dropped anchor off Cape Cod on November 11, 1620 – more than 100 days since leaving Southampton – were the women, at last, able to step on to land and wash their clothes ‘as they were in great need.’

Remarkably, only one of their number died on the voyage but two soon followed after making land, and a few weeks later Bradford’s wife Dorothy fell from the ship’s deck into the chill waters of the bay. Her body was never found. Strangely, Bradford records the death only in the appendix to his writings with a terse: ‘Mrs Bradford died soon after their arrival.’

Was he as indifferent as he seems? She was only 16 when they married and he 23, and she had been compelled to leave their three-year-old boy behind. Was she so desolate at being separated from him that she took her own life? In truth, no one knows what happened that bleak winter’s day.

Pilgrims boarding the Mayflower for their voyage to America

But what time could there be for private grief when cold, disease and hunger took away half the settlers in the first three months after landing? As they struggled to hew a settlement out in the wilderness they were too enfeebled to resist scurvy – first the symptoms of putrefying ulcers and bleeding gums, then diarrhoea, fever and death.

The women suffered a far higher percentage of fatalities than the men or children. Only four mothers survived the first winter, not so much because of their ‘weak bodies’ but because the men were out in the fresh – if freezing – air, building their new homes, while the women were confined on the Mayflower for a further four months. In those close confines disease spread quickly, especially as the women exposed themselves to danger by caring for the sick and dying.

The death toll was remorseless. Of the pregnant trio who set sail, Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth to a boy, Oceanus, in mid-Atlantic, adding to the three children who sailed with her. Mary Allerton, who already had three children under seven, suffered a stillborn birth and died within days. Sarah Eaton, who had been breastfeeding her son, also perished, leaving the infant to be brought up by her husband.

Meanwhile, Eleanor Billington, who had two rowdy boys and years later witnessed the execution of her husband for murder, became notorious for her sharp tongue and was found guilty of slander, strapped in the stocks and whipped.

Perhaps no survivor had a more harrowing experience than Susanna White. Soon after the arrival she ‘was brought a-bed of a son which called Peregrine’ – the first child to be born in the New World and a brother to her five-year-old son. Her happiness was short lived, for within weeks her husband, William, died. Yet on May 12, just 11 weeks later, she married fellow passenger Edward Winslow, a leading light in the movement, who himself had been widowed as recently as March 24.

Widowhood and remarriage were routine in those days of shortened life expectancy – of the 13 couples on the voyage four were second marriages – but this surely was no love match. Instead, they accepted that they had to sacrifice their own feelings for the good of the settlement, which needed children to survive. Susanna had three boys and a girl. Her duty was done.

Of the four mothers left alive Mary Brewster, who at 52 was the matriarch of the new community, brought two of her four children. She is fleetingly mentioned, however, while her husband William was – quite rightly – lionised as a pilgrim hero. But how much did he owe to the woman who supported him when they fled persecution in England in 1608 and through the years of exile in the Netherlands? We are not told.

It was the generation of younger women who helped ensure the colony lived on. Six girls were orphaned in the first deadly winter and two were to marry fellow passengers. Their names, Elizabeth Tilley and Priscilla Mullins, are unknown to all but the most familiar with the Mayflower story but they had 10 children each and their resilience and hard work were essential to the prospering of the settlement. Although there were other marriages and many more children, their legacy lives on in their descendants, which include six US presidents.

All told, 30 million US citizens can trace their heritage back to the Pilgrim Mothers.

Voices of the Mayflower by Richard Holledge (Troubador Publishing, £11.99) is out now