For me, knowing how the Pilgrims traveled to North America is just as important as knowing how they survived in the New World.
As an American school kid, I was once made to dress up in paper hats that designated me either as a 17th-century English Dissenter or a non-hostile member of the Wampanoag nation. For our parents and teachers, we reenacted the story of early Europeans settling in New England—we remembered their sacrifice, their struggles and courage, followed by the happy ending of a three-day feast. Alas, my elementary school’s austere set design reduced the voyage of the Mayflower to more a montage of the saga it actually was.
The first Thanksgiving travel began in July 1620 when members of the Leiden colony left Delfthaven, Holland, and sailed to England aboard the Speedwell, a ship that turned out to be neither speedy nor well. Sabotage by the crew caused severe leaks that eventually led to the vessel being returned and abandoned. The Pilgrims’ extended layover in England lasted until the Mayflower finally set sail in September, by which time many of the Pilgrims had already been living on ships for more than a month. Their cramped and uncomfortable lifestyle continued for two more months at sea, until they set anchor in Plymouth Bay on November 21, 1620.
According to a very rough guestimate on Googlemaps, the Pilgrims’ Mayflower voyage was approximately 3,219.77 miles long (as the crow flies). Divide that by 66 days and then 24 hours and you get a total of two miles per hour. That’s right: the Pilgrims traveled across the Atlantic at two miles per hour! That’s slower than a plane waiting to take off in Dallas.
View Plymouth, England to Plymouth, Massachusetts in a larger map
Meals aboard the Mayflower were comparable in tastiness to what you’d find in-flight today: hard tack (teeth-shattering biscuits), salted beef and pork, oats, barley, and dried peas. To drink there was water and beer.
Despite a fairly calm first few weeks, the Pilgrims experienced some serious at-sea turbulence as they sailed through what the historians refer to as “big Atlantic storms.” The Pilgrims did not yet realize the risks of traveling during hurricane season. (Expect delays.)
A child was born on the transatlantic trip (which is still known to happen), but two people also died on the Mayflower: a young boy who got sick and the other a “vile” crew member whom the Pilgrims disliked so much that their William Bradford described the man’s death as purely providential. Perhaps the most miserable part of the voyage (which often gets overlooked) is that even after arriving at their destination, the Pilgrims remained aboard the Mayflower through four months of Bostonian winter, during which time half of them died. (I reflect on this fact every time I am stuck on a parked airplane waiting for a gate to open up.)
Like so many Americans, the Pilgrims dreamed of settling in New York City, but they were blown off course (and perhaps wrongly navigated by a degree or so), delivering them instead to Massachusetts.
The more I travel, the greater respect I have for the travelers of old, especially the Pilgrims. Today we remember them as religious refugees and our founding fathers, but they were also America’s first transatlantic travelers.
All Americans are travelers because all of us traveled here from somewhere else (even the Native Americans). Our ancestral memories of migration to the American present are relived every third week in November as we gang-rush airport security checkpoints and fill up the interstates with minivans.
This most American of holidays celebrates the true blessings of travel: families reuniting in airports, on driveways, and in doorways, and time spent together with the people we love.
I am honestly thankful for the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony and the impressive voyage they achieved. I do not envy their long struggle but I am grateful for the tradition they established—that the destination is worth the journey.
Happy Thanksgiving to all, and safe travels.