Small Ships to New Plimoth

(part one)

We know that Mayflower was not the first English ship to touch at New England when the Pilgrims arrived in 1620. Bartholomew Gosnold explored the coast from Maine to Cape Cod in 1602, assessing the area for settlement.

Martin Pring may have come to Plymouth, but was certainly on the shores of Cape Cod in 1603, collecting Sassafras for the London markets.

The Frenchman, Samuel de Champlain, on a cruise along the coast, stopped in the Plymouth area in 1605 long enough to make a map of the entrance to the harbor and surrounding area.

In 1614 John Smith and Thomas Hunt explored New England, Smith famously making a map of the area, giving English names to many Native locations and dubbing the entire region “New England” while Hunt, infamously kidnapped natives from Cape Cod, including Tisquantum or Squanto of Patuxet, setting up hostilities the Pilgrims still felt when they arrived in 1620. For many years prior to this period, hundreds of fishing vessel had been coming to the coast of New England, spending the season fishing, salting and packing fish for sale to European markets.

One ship that did not make the Atlantic crossing successfully in 1620 was Speedwell. The 60-ton ship was purchased in Holland with the intention of helping transport some of the Leiden congregation to South Dartmouth where they would meet Mayflower and her passengers, having come from London. The two would then cross the ocean in company. The plan was to keep Speedwell in the colony to serve as a trading, fishing and general transportation vessel.[1]

The first part of the plan worked well. Speedwell departed Delftshaven July 22nd and in a short time came to Southampton. After a joyful reunion among long separated members of the congregation and series of negotiations between the pilgrims and Thomas Weston, the lead investor in the Plymouth colony, Mayflower and Speedwell departed about August 5th.  

Bradford described what happened next: “Being thus put out to sea, they had not gone far but Mr. Reynolds, the master of the lesser ship, complained that he found his ship so leaky as he durst not put further to sea till she was mended.”[2]         

            After searching the ship from stem to stern, finding and fixing some leaks the two ships again set out and sailed more than 100 leagues from Lands End – some three hundred miles – when Master Reynolds, “complained his ship was so leaky as he must bear up or sink at sea, for they could scarce free her with much pumping.”[3]

            The two ships put into Plymouth where further investigation found no particular problem, and at the time the problem was attributed to a general weakness of the vessel. Ultimately, they resolved Speedwell would remain in England and Mayflower would continue on her own across the Atlantic. It was suggested by Bradford that somehow master Reynold had “overmasted” the Speedwell in preparation for the voyage, causing the ship to leak while under a large press of sail at sea, but would stop when the pressure was reduced in the calm winds near shore. This, Bradford claims was part of a plan Reynolds had concocted to get out of fulfilling his contract to sail the Atlantic and spend a year away from England, noting that “after she was sold and put into her old trim, she made many voyages and performed her service very sufficiently to the great profit of her owners.”[4]

            In a letter Robert Cushman wrote to a friend in London he described Speedwell at sea as leaky as a sieve and had they stayed at see a short while longer they would have likely sunk and later it was found that, “there was a board a man might have pulled off with is fingers two foot long, where the water came in as at a mole hole,” [5] suggesting the ship was not in the best repair and may not have been the best choice of vessel to begin with or more repairs should have been. undertaken prior to departure.

            Of course, Mayflower sailed on her own, finally leaving England in September, arriving on the coast of New England in November of 1620, staying through a harsh winter and departing in April, to arrive back in England in May of 1621.

The Fortune, relatively small at fifty-five tons, was the first ship to visit Plymouth Colony after Mayflower’sdeparture. Like Mayflower the vessel first anchored at Cape Cod in November when they came to the coast in 1621.

While glad to see the 35 or so passengers who could help with building the colony, in a slightly derisive tone Bradford says of them, “(They)were lusty young men and many of them were wild enough, who little considered whither or about what they went till they came into the harbor at Cape Cod and there saw nothing but a naked and barren place.”[6]

These lusty passengers, anchored at the tip of Cape Cod, far from home with no sign of the Plymouth colonists who came before them were concerned they would be left in the harsh wilderness. Some suggested the sailors remove the sails from the Fortune, lest the ship sail away and leave them abandoned and defenseless on the shore.          

It is interesting to note Bradford describes them as “lusty” in the same way he refers to John Howland as a “lusty young man” when relating John’s often told tale of his coming on deck during a storm while aboard Mayflower. The Oxford English dictionary defines “lusty,” when attributed to a person as one who is healthy, strong or vigorous but also the term is used in the sense of joyful, merry, jocund, cheerful or lively. Colonists in the former group Bradford would want to direct so their vigor is used for proper, useful work while the later would bear watching to avoid them tipping toward unseemly behavior.

Fortune’s master reassured the passengers, if the worst had happened to the Plymouth colonists, he would carry them to Virginia. In the end, he brought the passengers across the bay to Plymouth. Bradford remembers they were glad for the additional hands (though he wished they were in better physical condition and better provisioned) and noted they had “not so much as a biscuit-cake or any other victuals, neither had they any bedding but some sorry things they had in their cabins; nor pot, or pan to dress any meat in; nor overmany clothes.”[7]

Fortune only stayed at the colony for a few weeks, departing December 13, 1621 for England with a cargo of beaver pelts and timber to the sale of which would go towards paying down the colony’s debts. Unfortunately, when close to home the ship was captured by a French warship and its cargo and gear taken (amounting to some £450).  The French detained the passengers for two weeks before finally allowing them to take their empty ship home.[8]

The next vessel to visit Plymouth came in May of 1622. The colony was still low on provisions. They were learning to trade with and negotiate a meaningful peace with the Wampanoag and other Natives as well as keep a lookout for foreign vessels that might be a threat. The sight of vessel in Cape Cod Bay at first feared to be a French vessel, turned out to be a shallop sent to Plymouth by their backer, Thomas Weston. He had sent a ship, Sparrow, on a fishing voyage to Damariscove Island, (off the current town of Boothbay Harbor, Maine). While the crew of the Sparrow fished in Maine, the shallop sailed down the coast to Plymouth. The colonists were relieved it wasn’t an enemy ship, but disappointed the shallop carried seven more people (needing food and places to live) and brought “no victuals nor any hope of any.”[9]

            Soon after the shallop left two ships, Charity 100 tons, and Swan, 30 tons anchored in Plymouth around 30 June, 1622. The vessels were sent out by Thomas Weston with passengers for an independent colony he was starting at Wessagusset (Now Weymouth). The smaller vessel was to be used by Weston in the way the Speedwell was intended to be used, for trading and fishing and travel along the coast.

            Charity discharged sixty or so passengers at Plymouth then headed to Virginia with passengers destined for that colony. The passengers were in Plymouth only there temporarily as their destination was Weston’s new colony at Wessagusset. Bradford suggests the new colonist were all at a loss, and some were sick, though “they were given the best means the place could afford.”[10]

            Eventually Charity returned from Virginia in September of 1622, collected the passengers for Wessagussett (leaving those too sick at this point to travel at Plymouth) and brought the others to build the Weston’s new colony in what is now Weymouth. The failure of the colony at Wessagussett is a tale for another time.

            The ships continued to make the attempt to sail to Plymouth Colony. Paragon tried twice to cross the Atlantic and ultimately did not complete the voyage. The Anne and the Little James were successful in reaching Plymouth in the summer of 1623.

These vessels will be the subject of the next post.        


Albert Bierstadt 1848, painting “Gosnold at Cuttyhunk, 1602.”

Engraved illustration of Pring’s barricade in 1706 Dutch translation of the account in purchas.

Samuel de Champlain’s Map of Plymouth Harbor, 1605

Jeremy Bang, watercolor, Mayflower underway.

Jeremy Bang watercolor of 17th century small ship like Fortune or Swan

Shallop rowing up Jones River, Plimoth Plantation photo.


[1] Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison, Alfred A. Knopf, 1979. Pg. 47

[2] Bradford, Pg. 52

[3] Bradford, Pg. 53

[4] Bradford, Pg. 53

[5] Bradford, Pg. 55

[6] Bradford, Pg. 92

[7] Bradford, Pg. 92.

[8] Bradford, Pg. 107.

[9] Bradford. Pg. 100

[10] Bradford. Pg. 109

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