American History Passenger Lists

Where Were the Pilgrims Really Going?

The Pilgrims were originally going to settle in Virginia. Why did they settle in Massachusetts instead? Here’s the real story of the Mayflower.

Listen and Subscribe: YouTube | iTunes | Google | Spotify

We all know the story of the Pilgrims landing in Massachusetts and coming ashore on Plymouth Rock to start a new colony based on religious freedom, and having Thanksgiving giving thanks to God for his bounty and blessings with the local Natives. Every American schoolchild is told this story early on in their educations. The story has some truths to it, but it leaves out a lot. It is basically the sanitized and simplified version of what really went on when the Pilgrims came to America… a story suitable for children and one that instills pride in one’s country, but leaving out the more harsh details of the tale. For example, the Pilgrims were coming here to practice religious freedom… their own; they were considered too radical in their interpretation of Christianity in England, but once in America, they would tolerate no other type of religious practice in their newly formed town. Further, the Pilgrims lost more than half the passengers of the Mayflower during the first hard winter in America and never would have made it through the cold months had it not been for the assistance of local Natives.

Another misconception taught to American children is that the Pilgrims were coming to Massachusetts on purpose. They were not. They were originally going to Virginia, which was already established as a thriving English colony and had English people ready and waiting there to assist them in getting started. Virginia was a commercial colony and was set up to operate as a corporation, sending back the riches they harvested from the New World in exchange for supplies sent regularly to them from England. As long as they were turning a profit for the crown, they were in good standing. To finance their trip to America, the Pilgrims had to form a for-profit corporation, too, and they knew the place for profit was Virginia.

So, why didn’t the Pilgrims go to Virginia, where there would have been fellow countrymen waiting for them, and where they would have had a much easier time getting established in their own community? Why risk the lives of the men women, and children on board the Mayflower by settling in an unsettled wilderness?

The answer is a combination of going off course and a change in the weather.

The shores of the eastern North American continent were still not extremely well known when the Pilgrims came in 1620. When they spotted land after two months of misery at sea in a boat that was really too small for everyone who came on it, they realized they were too far north. The ship’s captain and crew tried to find a way south but got caught up in the many small, rocky waterways along the shores of New England. The extra time it took them to try to get out of that maze and follow the coast to Virginia put them dangerously close to winter, and the ship’s captain wouldn’t waste any more time trying to get the Pilgrims there. This was because the captain and crew intended to go right back to England after dropping off the Pilgrims, and they couldn’t do that if they waited until winter was in full gear.

With no intention of wintering in the colonies, the captain dumped the Pilgrims off where they were, which was Massachusetts, then headed back home without them. The Pilgrims were left in a virtually empty wilderness where the local Native population was largely decimated by a plague that came through a few years previously. They made alliances with the few Natives who were left, and with their help, managed to get through the winter. In the spring, new ships from England came to find them and discovered they were already a blossoming town. To satisfy their corporate charter, the Pilgrims harvested resources, largely timber for the timber-poor England, and sent them back in exchange for a regular shipment of supplies.

Thus the Pilgrims became established in Massachusetts. It was a lot harder than it would have been if they’d gone to Virginia, and they lost more people than if they’d been farther south. But for the ones who made it through that first winter, it was the beginning of a whole new life in the New World, and the establishment of the New England we know today.



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