This is the time of year for school kids to dress up as Pilgrims and Indians and talk about the first Thanksgiving. The kids all look cute, and everyone learns a little bit about the first permanent European settlement on our shores.
I, too, recently learned more about those times as I shared an adventure on the Mayflower II with 16 other members of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. I learned new facts but more importantly, learned so much about the real grit required of our ancestors.
My adventure started out driving 20 mph on I-95 in horizontal rain. Thankfully the rain changed to a less violent vertical path and I finally made it to the “Plimoth Plantation” area. I assumed the boat was made here to be a part of the learning experience for visitors, but the idea for a “Mayflower II” came from some British soldiers at the end of World War II. They were so appreciative of their comrades in arms; they wanted to present the United States with a token of their appreciation. Long story short, the Mayflower II was constructed between 1955 and 1957 as a reproduction of a late 16th century English merchant ship the size of the original Mayflower. All work was done by hand in the same manner the first would have been built. The 136 foot 180 ton ship sailed from Plymouth England to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1957.
The length of the deck was 90 feet and the beam (width) was 25 feet. All 102 passengers and the animals were housed in the lower deck along with a shallop (sailing/rowing workboat). We toured the upper deck, poop deck, forecastle deck and then headed to the lower deck. I was struck by how small the space seemed.
We had 16 adults, the ship captain, 2 museum guides, (no children and no animals) and there was not much extra space. Their records show that though they began the voyage with mild weather, there was a period of huge storms, the main bean cracked and a man went overboard in a storm but was saved. As I stood there watching a puddle of water shift back and forth, I could hear the creak of the boat, and we were safely tied to a dock! There was a pungent aroma of tar, hemp and burnt wood.
It was noted in William Bradford’s diary and other primary sources that there were goats, pigs, chickens (because they mentioned chicken soup) and 2 dogs. The lower deck floor was covered with straw, which a friend of mine said, “effectively offered the passengers a close quarter’s litter box for the duration of the voyage.” All of the “crew” on the Mayflower II took us back to that time not just visually with their period clothing, but also with their language. The view point of all their comments was in character with the knowledge people had at that point in history.
As the rain continued, the floor was almost completely covered in water. There were a few small rough bunks that looked more like shelves. I felt lucky that I was small enough to be able fit into one of those spaces and therefore not have to sleep on the wet floor. We had planned a “row around the harbor” in the shallop but it looked like there would need to be a number of us bailing out water both before and during the trip because it was still raining steadily.
Soon, we received bad news from our captain that it would be unsafe to go out in the shallop. In addition, the lightning storm would last into the night, and as the Mayflower II was previously hit by lighting and caught fire, we would not be allowed to sleep overnight on the boat.
We wanted to spend more time with the captain, and finish the immersion into other parts of our ancestors’ life on board the ship. As a compromise, take-out pizza was ordered, and delivered by an amused delivery fellow who said this was a first for him. We tried on clothing of that period (itchy) and tried to imagine Elizabeth Hopkins giving birth in the gloom below deck. I pictured the boat pitching in the angry sea, torrents of water running down to the lower deck during storms, all the while breathing the pungent aroma of animals, waste and damp steamy wool blankets. Fortunately, we ate our pizza without the presence of farm animals, and there was general agreement that our experience was adequate without their aroma.
Twice the Speedwell and the Mayflower attempted to depart from England and twice the Speedwell had to return due to severe leaking. Luckily, our group gets a second chance at sleeping overnight on the Mayflower II this spring. Hopefully it will be more than a pizza party the next time.