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(2021 - Spring/Summer Issue)


How I followed the Mayflower Trail to the New World

It must be karma that led me to this point. When I was born many decades ago in Southampton, England, a historic port on the south coast, I could not have known that I would be tripping over Mayflower connections for the rest of my life. The historically rich Southampton is one of the towns from which the English Pilgrim Fathers set sail on the Mayflower and her sister ship, the Speedwell, in 1620.

But caught in a storm in the challenging English Channel, the Speedwell sprang a leak. The English Pilgrims who were seeking religious freedom in a New World called America sought shelter along the U.K. coastal town of Plymouth. It turns out that only the Mayflower departed on the historic voyage across the Atlantic Ocean on September 16, 1620 with about 100 passengers and 35 crew members. This arrival of the first group of English Pilgrims signalled the start of the Protestant migration to America, which changed the course of history.

Last year for the 400th anniversary of the historic milestone, four nations—Britain, United States, the Netherlands, and the Wampanoag First Nation of Massachusetts, who cautiously welcomed and helped them settle in the New World—participated in events and celebrations albeit virtual, postponed or scaled back due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One day you too could follow in the footsteps of the Mayflower trail from the Old World in Southern England to the extraordinary coastal towns of New England in America. The migrants came mostly from East Anglia in Middle England, a vast rural landscape of dikes and marshland with a thriving wool industry in the Middle Ages. You can still find ancient wool houses and magnificent churches in towns and villages like Lavenham.

A Personal Mayflower Connection

My personal Mayflower history lesson came from my maternal grandfather, Arthur Pitts, who was born in east central England in East Anglia, which was the heartland of the Protestant migration. A dour man of Puritan leanings, he treasured his roots, often relating the story of his Puritan ancestors sailing to the New World with ancestors of Abraham Lincoln who came from the same village, Hingham, Norfolk. The family was dismissive, but one small girl never forgot.

Decades later while researching my memoir, A Wessex Girl Remembers, grandfather’s tale took me to Hingham, Massachusetts. In this lovely colonial town between Plymouth and Boston, I found old records of my ancestors Edmund and Leonard Pitts and the site of the family homestead, along with a Lincoln gravestone. I discovered also that Henry Wolcott, from a branch of my father’s family, landed on Cape Cod during the same migration. My roots are more established in North America than I realized.

In another strange coincidence, Scrooby and Babworth, Nottinghamshire which is part of the U.K.’s Pilgrim Roots itinerary, was the birthplace of church elder William Brewster, a rebel who had angered the Catholic king, James. Brewster secretly boarded the Mayflower in Southampton at the last minute and became a leader of the new American Colony. Two centuries later, his direct descendant, Andrew Brewster, was an early settler of New Hope, now Hespeler, part of Cambridge, Ontario where I now make my home.

The Mayflower

On November 11, 1620 after a long, arduous journey crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the Mayflower made landfall at Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod, sailing to Cape Cod Bay, and then later sailed to Patuxet, now Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was deemed the first English colonial settlement in New England. The settlers of the Plymouth Colony were helped by the Wampanoag Nation who were friendly and taught them to grow corn. The two groups came together for a feast of Thanks in 1621, believed to be the first Thanksgiving, a joyous U.S. holiday ever since.

The New World

Today, Plymouth is a pretty little New England coastal town with colonial architecture and gleaming white steeple churches, still preserving many connections to its forefathers with historic attractions and a lively harbourside. The town is easily walkable. Walk up Leyden Street to the Town Square, the site of the original Pilgrim settlement. You can see the restored reproduction of the Mayflower ship and the famous Plymouth Rock, the traditional site of their disembarkation.

The place I enjoy most is the Plimoth Patuxet Museums, formerly known as Plimoth Plantation. Renamed last year for the 400th anniversary to reflect the role of the Wampanoag people in the Puritan settlement, this reconstructed English Pilgrim settlement is a living history experience. You can walk down the main street of this 17th century New England colony, with its fort and tiny wooden and thatch shacks that line the streets with some homes signifying the community leaders’ residences.

During my visit, it is a hive of activity with costumed interpreters busy at work, tending to animals in a stockade and performing household duties. A tasty chicken cooks on the open fire and children play outside. It is easy to imagine I’m back in the past, but with much more to see I wander down a woodland path to a craft centre where artisans create replicas of items brought from England by the Pilgrims.

But I’m most interested in the Wampanoag home site, not a reconstruction but the real thing where descendants of the Wampanoag and other Indigenous nations are actively involved in interpreting their lifestyle of long ago. People gather around the fire pit for storytelling, drumming and demonstrations that leave us spellbound.

An Outing to Remember

My Mayflower link came full circle when my son and family settled in Plymouth a few years ago. Call it fate or karma but my American grandchildren are now growing up in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The Mayflower history that connects my family for another generation keeps me in touch with my roots with a nod to the future.

Tess Bridgwater is the author of A Wessex Girl Remembers: Memories of a War-time Childhood, a memoir about growing up in southern England, which is available at Chapters.Indigo.ca and Amazon.ca


Some Mayflower 400th anniversary events have been rescheduled throughout 2021.

See Plymouth 400 Commemoration, plymouth400inc.org

Plimoth Patuxet Museums, plimoth.org

In the U.K. discover the Pilgrim Roots pilgrimroots.co.uk, the Mayflower Trail mayflower400uk.org, Southampton mayflower400southampton.co.uk and

Visit Plymouth U.K. visitplymouth.co.uk/destination-plymouth

For self-guided tours of the U.K. towns and villages, download the free interactive

Plymouth Trails app on Android or iOS devices.

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