American History Immigration Research

Mayflower Passengers: Not All Were There for Religious Reasons

Not everyone who traveled to the New World on the Mayflower was a Pilgrim. The non-religious passengers were called “strangers.” This is why they came.

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Though the Pilgrims (a separate group from the Puritans who came just after them) were all about establishing a religious community in the New World, they were forced to take on non-religious passengers to pay for the voyage. This was something they agreed to only very reluctantly, as they did not want their community corrupted. The elders of the church, who had led England some years previously to set up a community in the much more religiously accommodating Leyden, Holland, discussed at length whether they should allow passengers from outside their community on the ship. They were already concerned that the liberal, and what they considered hedonistic, atmosphere in Leyden was having a detrimental effect on their children. This is why they were so eager to go to the New World. They couldn’t go back to England, and Leyden was too permissive and secular in its nature, though it was more than willing to allow the Pilgrims to live there.

Why Did Non-Believers Join the Mayflower Voyage?

Ultimately, the Pilgrims decided that, as much as they were loathe to do it, they had to let non-believers board the Mayflower in order to raise enough money to finance the voyage. There were plenty of non-Pilgrims who were willing and eager to join the voyage, too. Non-believers wanted to get to the new world for a variety of reasons. Among these reasons were:

  • Access to new land, which was in short supply in England
  • A chance to build a better economic future for their families
  • Being out from under what they saw as repressive laws and gaining the individual freedom they craved
  • Escaping a criminal conviction
  • Starting over again after economic or personal setbacks in England, where no one knew them or had preconceived notions of who they were
  • The opportunity to earn money by working in the New World for a few years, then returning to England as rich people
  • Getting away from their families and familiar expectations
  • Adventure (this was especially true with young men)

So, just because your ancestor came over on the Mayflower does not mean that person was a Pilgrim. He or she could very well have been one of the many “strangers” (the Pilgrim word for non-Pilgrims on the Mayflower) who came along to the New World with them.

Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1899 (Wikipedia)

Some Famous “Stranger” Passengers on the Mayflower

Just as there are famous Pilgrims who came on the Mayflower, there are famous “strangers,” as well. Some of these include:

The Moore Children:

Ellen, Jasper, Richard, and Mary Moore, all aged between 8 and 4 years old, were sent away on the Mayflower by their legal (but likely not biological) father. Their mother was of the nobility, and she was forced into a marriage with her cousin to forge a monetary advantage between the two branches of the family. She and her cousin rarely lived together and generally kept separate residences. Yet, she somehow became pregnant four times during her marriage. The likely father of her children was her gardener, who was warned away from her by her husband several times.

Eventually, her husband could take the shame no longer and divorced her. As the legal father of the children, he had the right to do whatever he wanted with them. He took them from their mother and sent them away on the Mayflower, finding Pilgrim passengers willing to take on each child as an indentured servant. While their mother tried for years to get them back, even attempting to go to the New World herself once to retrieve them, she was never able to do so.

Ellen, Jasper, and Mary were all among the large group of Mayflower passengers who died the first winter. Only Richard survived. He became a mariner who went back to England many times, had contact with his family there, and even had a wife and children both in Plymouth Colony and in England at the same time. He is the only Mayflower passenger with a known headstone that can be visited today.

Stephen Hopkins:

This interesting person captured the attention of his countryman and contemporary, William Shakespeare, and became the inspiration for one of Shakespeare’s characters in his play, “The Tempest.” Hopkins first went to the New World in 1607 to help colonize Jamestown in Virginia. Conditions there were less than optimal, and he blamed this on the leadership. He instigated mutiny, and was put on the next ship back to England, where he was almost hanged for the attempted insurrection. Since his wife had died while he was away, leaving him with minor children to care for, he was given a pardon, so the Crown did not have to support the children. Stephen remarried and came over to the New World again with his second wife and children in 1620 on the Mayflower, where he became a successful merchant.

The Billington Family:

These were known as the troublemakers aboard the Mayflower, and once they got to land. One of the Billington sons fired a musket on board the ship, near a keg of gunpowder, and almost blew up the Mayflower. Another went exploring and got lost in the woods for several days while the colony was being built, causing work to have to stop to send out a search party (he was eventually found and returned by a group of local Natives). The patriarch of the family, John Billington, was cited many times for challenging the authority of the colony’s governor, and was eventually hanged in 1630 (the first Mayflower passenger to be treated thusly) for the murder of a neighbor who he saw as his enemy.

The stories of the “strangers” who came over on the Mayflower are just as fascinating as the stories of the Pilgrims with whom they traveled and lived. Because there were so few people aboard the Mayflower, they only had each other to rely on when they landed in the New World. Stranger and Pilgrim were forced to live and work together for the survival of the colony. It was not the ideal situation the Pilgrims wanted, but it was necessary.

Eventually, families intermarried, and it was forgotten who was a stranger and who was not. At the beginning, though, this distinction was important. The fact that the Pilgrims (they strongly believed that the Church of England, and the Catholic Church, had strayed beyond Christ’s teachings, and established religious rituals, and church hierarchies, that went against the teachings of the Bible*) and a bunch of strangers who did not share their beliefs were able to create such a successful colony together is a remarkable testament to human determination and our natural inclination to work together as one for a common cause, despite our differences.



Will founded Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has been assisting researchers for over 25 years to reunite them with their ancestors.