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Mayflower: The Story of an American Icon

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Upon hearing “Mayflower” everyone congers up imagery of the story of the Pilgrims we learned about in school.  The Mayflower will forever hold a place in our casual knowledge of history for bringing its passengers to this foreign land seeking a new life.  What, though, is the back story of the ship itself? Though books have been written about the Mayflower, it may be a surprise to learn that there are only seven or so scant paragraphs in primary sources that reference “the ship” that landed in Plymouth Rock in December 1620.  The name “Mayflower” was not in the documents of William Bradford nor that written by Bradford and Edward Winslow. It was only ever referenced as “the ship.”

This was Peter Ansoff’s introduction to his recent online presentation on the Mayflower, jointly sponsored by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of George Mason University (OLLI George Mason) and AARP Virginia. It would be later in 1623 in a document, Plymouth Division of Land, that “the ship” was identified as the May-floure.  But which one?  When historians sought to identify the ship, they learned that May-floure/Mayflower was a name given to some forty to fifty ships of the day.  It was in finally tracking down the master of the ship, Christopher Jones, that the identity of the specific ship was known.

Indeed, it was the story of “the ship” on which Ansoff focused, detailing its square rigging that differentiated it from other vessels with fore-and-aft rigging. It is speculated that the 1620 voyage was likely the only one the ship made to the New World. After its captain and part owner, Christopher Jones died in 1622, the ship was appraised for purposes of probate, and in a document, The High Court of Admiralty, in May 1624, the ship was deemed not fit to sail. Some historians speculate that it may have run aground in the Thames before likely being stripped of its salvageable lumber and then left to otherwise deteriorate. 

While the evidence is considered by some as unconvincing, Rendle Harris in his Finding the Mayflower, tells the story that the salvaged lumber was believed to have been used to build a barn in Jordans, England. Despite the lack of clear evidence that the barn was indeed built of wood from the ship, the Mayflower Barn as it is called became quite a tourist attraction.

Multiple attempts have been made to create replicas of the original vessel.  In 1926 R. C. Anderson was commissioned to make a model of the Mayflower but confessed that anything he could create would only be an approximation of the original but would be much like the ships of the day.  Then entered Warwick Charlton, the man without whom Mayflower II would never have happened.  (Click here to view brief video.) As a journalist who had a passion for history, he was very well connected and so he began trying to raise funds in the post WWII era (1956) when nations were trying to rebuild their infrastructure.   Many considered his proposed venture of building a replica of the Mayflower as historically accurate as possible, to be a frivolous endeavor.  As it turns out the venture would go a long way to repairing strained relations of that time between England and the United States.  After some negotiations Charlton was able to convince the proprietors of what was then Plymouth Plantation to berth the vessel after its completion.  While the goal was to build it as historically accurate as possible, some modifications including increased head space in lower decks, were made to accommodate the tourists that were expected.

In April 1957, Mayflower II set sail from England.  The first Mayflower is believed to have sailed the more dangerous northern route facing head winds and taking sixty-seven days to get to its destination.  Mayflower II with Alan Villiers, an Australian author, adventurer, photographer, and mariner at the helm, took the safer and faster southern route using the natural ocean and wind direction to help propel the ship, a trip that took only 53 days. It arrived in Plymouth Massachusetts on June 13, 1957.  Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy greeted the ship along with fifteen thousand others gathered to drink in the experience of seeing Mayflower II arrive as its predecessor had done nearly three and a half centuries before.

After decades of standing as a symbol of the connection between two Anglo friends, it was decided that Mayflower II should be renovated in preparation for the 400th Anniversary of the landing at Plymouth Rock to be celebrated in 2020 and the expected onslaught of visitors. The Covid-19 pandemic put a damper on the festivities the planners of the celebration had hoped for, but on August 10, 2020, Mayflower II arrived back in Plymouth.  The renovation was done in a fashion that can hopefully at some point in the future incorporate plans to keep her sailing………with passengers.  Today the renovated Mayflower II is part of the Plimouth Patuxet Museum exhibits. Should sailing on a replica of the iconic ship that brought some of our ancestors to these shores more than 400 years ago be on your bucket list, stand by to prepare to board.  Bon voyage!

Below is a recording of Peter Ansoff’s lecture.

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