Small ships to New Plimoth (part two)

Willem Van De Velde II “Three Ships in a Gale” 1673
Wikimedia commons, Public Domain

It was clear to leadership on both sides of the Atlantic that Plymouth Colony’s continued survival relied on regular support from England. The Merchant Adventurers developed plans for sending ships, either built specifically for the colony or hired to carry provisions, equipment, and more settlers to the colony to capitalize on the labor, expense and human lives already expended on its founding. Bradford saw first-hand, the importance of provisions and healthy, virtuous settlers arriving regularly to shore up the tenuous toe hold the colony had established.  Sailing ships were the vital link.

In 1621, when Mayflower returned with news the colonist had settled in Plymouth, outside their previous permitted location, (the mouth of the Hudson River) John Pierce, one of the Merchant Adventurers went about the task of acquiring a new patent from the Council of New England. After a series of negotiations and some shady dealing on Pierce’s part, the patent was granted. Paragon a ship of some age was then engaged to carry sixty-seven passengers and at least thirty-eight tons of goods to Plymouth. The voyage did not go well.

            Paragon left London October 16, 1622 but began to leak before it even left the Thames. Despite the leak they continued sailing as far as the Downs on the southeast coast where in rising winds they attempted to anchor in shelter to ride out the storm. Despite this precaution the ship suffered enough that they decided to return to London where they found it would cost £100 and six to seven weeks of time to repair the damage.

            While in London, attempting to offset the unforeseen extra expenses Pierce took on more passengers. On January 1st Paragon departed London with 109 passengers. The second, mid-winter attempt to cross the Atlantic reads like a hair-raising nautical nightmare:

              It was the middle of February that the storm began, and it continued for the most part of fourteen days, but for two or three days and nights together in the most violent extremity: at the beginning of the storm, their boat being above-decks, was thrown overboard: they spent their main-mast, their round-house was beaten off with the storm, and all the upper works of their ship: he that stood to give direction, for the guiding of her before the sea, was made fast, to prevent his washing over-board, and the sea did so over-rake them, as that many times those upon the deck, knew not whether they were within-board or without, and by her extreme leaking, being a very rotten ship, and the storm increasing, she was once very near foundering in the sea, as they thought she would never rise again: Notwithstanding the Lord was pleased of his great mercy to preserve them; and after great weather-beating and extraordinary danger, they arrived safe at Portsmouth in Hampshire; to the wonderment of all that beheld in what condition they were, and heard what they had endured.[1]

                        Paragon stayed in Portsmouth while Pierce found himself entangled in legal proceedings with the other Merchant Adventurers related to his shady dealings while acquiring the patent for Plymouth Colony. Likely, Paragonwas scrapped and any timbers from the battered hull that survived the horrific winter storm were sold off at a huge loss.

            The Merchant Adventurers had not been idle while Pierce made his attempts to cross the Atlantic with Paragon. It was clear the colonists at Plymouth needed a vessel based in the colony that could carry out trading voyages, be used for fishing, and generally provide transportation all aimed at improving the economic and actual health of the colonist which in turn would enrich the Merchant Adventurers. Toward that end, they had a vessel built specifically for the colony. Nathaniel Morton referred to the ship as the James, others recorded the ship as Little James, and Bradford only wrote of “the pinnace, a fine new vessel, built to stay in the country.”[2] 
            Following the blueprint of a smaller vessel keeping in company with a larger oneto safely make the Atlantic crossing, (think:  Mayflower and Speedwell) The Little James, 44 tuns burden, sailed with the much larger vessel Anne, 140 tuns. Both carried passengers only the Little James had crew bent on mischief.

            The ship’s Master was John Bridges, he was responsible for sailing the ship, navigating and running the day-to-day operations aboard. The “Captain” was Emanuel Altham, a wealthy individual, who because he was the younger son of a well-to-do family and not likely to inherit any of their wealth he chose to make his own way in the world. As the captain he had control of military and mercantile affairs.[3] Altham had acquired a “letter of Marque,” that is, written permission from the crown permitting his ship to take foreign vessels for profit. The crew of the Little Jameswas given the expectations they would make their fortunes as legal pirates. In reality they worked for only a small percentage of the profits of the voyage, to be paid at the successful conclusion of the voyage.

            Master Bridges, in a letter to James Sherly after they arrived in Plymouth complained that, “no man shall make me venture to sea again with the men upon the same conditions for they care not which end went forwards.”[4]

            The following is a brief chronology of the brief but eventful life of the Little James:


April 26th – Little James leaves Portsmouth with 40 passengers

  • Fogged in for 7 days in channel off of Cowes, on Isle of Wight (10 miles from Portsmouth)
  • Took on more victuals at Cowes especially beer.
  • 400 leagues off Land’s End chased after French ship looking for news. Took some fish from them but did not seize the ship. (Start of grumbling by crew).
  • Trouble with the stores throughout the voyage. Jenney, part owner of the ship and responsible for the stores, spent much of his time taking care of his very pregnant wife.
  • Mistress Jenney gave birth to a son a month before the ship arrived in Plymouth.
  • Fog bound off the coast of Maine. They spent time fishing at Pemaquid on the Maine coast.

August 5th – Little James arrives in Plymouth, after a 102-day voyage.

There were mixed emotions on the arrival of the Little James at Plymouth. The crew complained continually that they were cozened into this voyage under false pretenses and refused to obey either Bridges or Altham. Bradford steps in a promises wages to the crew for their labor. Some of the passengers were distraught at the conditions in Plymouth. Bradford noted, “some wished themselves in England again; other some pitying the distress they saw their friends had been long in, and still were under. In a word, all were full of sadness.”[5]

September 11th – Little James sails for the Narragansetts on a trading voyage for corn and skins but they had limited success due to inferior trade goods.

  • Returning to Plymouth from Narragansetts, in a storm the ship nearly runs onto Brown’s Island, off the Long Beach peninsula protecting Plymouth. The crew must cut away the mast and rigging to save the ship.

Men from Francisco de Orellana’s expedition building a small brigantine, the “San Pedro”, to be used for searching for food. 1541


March     –     With a new mast and rigging they sail for Damariscove on a fishing voyage.
                 –     They catch 10,000 fish upon their arrival in Maine.

April 10th –     Another storm occurs, driving the Little James up onto the rocks at the harbor at Damariscove, bashing a whole in the ship big enough for a “horse and cart” to drive through. Little James sinks in the harbor. Bridges, and crewmembers John Vow, and Peter Morrett drown.

  • Carpenters attach large barrels to the ship, float it to shore to repair the damaged ship.

August 22nd – Little James departs Plymouth for England.

  • The ship is seized by two of the Adventures for debt of £250 upon its return to England.


Spring      – Little James left England again for Plymouth this time 
                  in company with White Angel.

  • They have a successful fishing voyage and depart for England again in company with White Angel.
  • The ships enjoy a fair-weather passage across the ocean, the Little James being towed all the way.
  • In sight of Plymouth, (England) Little James casts off its towline but is taken by Turkish pirates, the master and men are sold into slavery, and the cargo sold in French, Morocco. Little James sails out of the historical record.

The story of these two ships illustrates not only how dangerous sea travel was early in 17th century but also how fortunate the Pilgrims actually were in their crossing aboard Mayflower. When a decision was made to board a ship and take a chance on an Atlantic crossing, the outcome could not always be counted on to be poisitive.


Frans Huys engraving, 1565 
A Dutch Hulk and a Boeier

[1] Morton, Nathanial, New England’s Memorial, Andesite Press, Scholar Select, Pg. 61-62.

[2] Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, ed. by Samuel Eliot Morison. Knopf, New York. Pg. 127.

[3] Three Visitors to Early Plymouth, ed. by Sydney V. James, Jr. Plimoth Plantation Press, 1963. Pg. 21

[4] Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings, Vol XLIV Pg178

[5] Bradford, Pg. 130.

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

Dogs on the Mayflower

Often, as visitors to the Jabez Howland House look through our book selections and come upon my book, 
The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower ,seeing the handsome drawing on the cover, they often remark they had no idea there were dogs on the Mayflower. 

If I am nearby, I will let them know there were likely a number of animals on the ship including goats, pigs, and chickens – along with the Mastiff and Spaniel we know made the crossing.

I say “likely” as there is no detailed account for what the Pilgrims brought with them aboard the Mayflower. We do know, based on a letter Emmanuel Altham wrote to his brother, Sir Edward Altham about conditions at the Plymouth Colony when he visited in 1623 that there were already a number of farm animals prospering in the colony.

Emmanuel Altham, the younger brother of a wealthy English family and therefore not likely to inherit, hoped to make his fortune in the New World.  He arrived aboard the Little James, a vessel built for the colony by the Merchant Adventurers funding Plymouth’s start. The Little James was to stay in the colony and fulfill the role intended for the Speedwell, which, as Bradford noted, never made the Atlantic crossing in 1620.

Among the wealth of details about the fledgling colony in Altham’s letter he notes specifically … “here is belonging to the town six goats, about fifty hogs and pigs, also divers hens.”[1] The large numbers suggest the herds got their start with stock brought aboard the Mayflower just a few years earlier.

But to return to the dogs. Our primary source on the Mayflower voyage of course is William Bradford in his work, Of Plimoth Plantation. While he tantalizingly says he has omitted details in the name of brevity concerning the voyage, as Howland descendants we are all grateful he took up some space and time to relate John’s unintended fall into the sea. Unfortunately, he makes no mention of the dogs on the ship. We have to look to Mourt’s Relation, published in 1622, and thought to be a sort of enticement to future settlers considering taking part in the wonders of the New World to read about the Pilgrim’s dogs.

In Mourt’s it is only after we read about the ship anchoring in Provincetown, an exploration of Cape Cod, choosing Patuxet as a settlement site, and the start of work on the houses, do we learn there were dogs on the voyage from the story of John Goodman and Peter Brown getting lost in the woods with the mastiff and spaniel.

The two dogs that came on the Mayflower were not chosen by accident. For centuries, mastiffs were used in England as guard or fighting dogs. When Romans occupied England, sometimes the fierce fighters were sent to Rome where the dogs fought against bears, lions, tigers, bulls, other dogs or even gladiators for the entertainment of arena audiences.[2]

Spaniels, also an ancient breed in England, had been mentioned as far back as 300 C.E. in an ancient law of Wales and likely brought to England via Spain.

Spaniels were skilled at working in tandem with a human hunter. The dog would flush out game birds and, early on a hawk or falcon was dispatched to bring down the game bird. Later, hunters with wheel-lock firearms replaced the hunting birds.[3]

Having dogs for protection and to aid in hunting made perfect sense. And, at least for mastiffs, Mayflower was not the first ship to bring them to New England. In 1603 Martin Pring had two mastiffs along for protection. He was an explorer from Bristol, England, and under the patronage of the mayor, and merchants of Bristol, led a voyage to the northern parts of Virginia to assess the economic potential of the area. His primary interest was Sassafras, used at the time to fight various ills and fever. We get a sense of their size and disposition of his dogs when Pring writes of one dog that he, “would carrie a halfe-pike in his mouth.” (A half-pike was a stout pole shaped weapon, 6 or 7 feet long with a metal, trident like blade on its end.)[4]

In several situations the dogs are used by Pring and his men to keep the Natives, at bay. The dogs were named Gallantand Foole, perhaps reflecting their individual personalities.

We don’t know the name of the mastiff or spaniel aboard Mayflower but we have a detailed story related in Mourt’s relation concerning John Goodman and Peter Brown’s overnight in the forests surrounding the Colony.

Early in January of 1621, Goodman and Brown were two of four people cutting thatch for newly constructed houses in the colony. Bradford relates, that at noon, Goodman and Brown wandered away from the other two with the two dogs in company until they came upon a body of water. At some point the dogs spy a deer, and give chase. Neither returns when called so the two men chase after the dogs. After a while they collect them but have become lost. As night falls temperatures drop, and the pair realize they will have to spend the night in the forest. As stated in Mourt’s, the men “in frost and snow were forced to use the earth as their bed and the elements as their covering.[5]

At one point in the night they hear, what they call a lion’s roar and have all they can do to hold the mastiff by the neck to keep her from bounding away, going after the animal in the forest. Finally, the next day, after further walking the men saw the harbor at a distance, and made their way back to the colony. At their return John Goodman’s feet had swelled so much the cold that his shoes had to be cut away to allow him to warm his feet by the fire.

About a week after this John Goodman was out walking with the spaniel, exercising his lame feet, when two wolves ran after the dog. The dog, smartly for its own part, ran back and hid between John Goodman’s legs. Goodman was able to throw a stick at the wolves keeping it away briefly. When the wolves came back, John brandished a “pale-board” ( a fence board) which the gave the wolves pause and they, “sat on their tales, grinning at him a good while, and went on their way and left him.”[6]

It is not recorded how long the dogs lived beyond 1621. Perhaps more dogs came aboard future ships. Perhaps the mastiff and the spaniel had families of their own and perhaps there are dogs alive today that could trace their ancestry back to the mastiff and the spaniel that came on the Mayflower.  The question remains would they be eligible for membership in the Mayflower Society or should they start their own lineage society?


 1] Three Visitors to Early Plymouth, edited by Sydney V. James, Jr. Plimoth Plantation, Inc. 1963.
[5] Mourt’s Relation, Pg. 46
[6] Mourts, pg. 47.  

A Thread through History – Flax and the Pilgrims

A version of this article first appeared in the June 2021 Howland Quarterly

Mayflower II, early spring 2013. Drying the full suit of hand sewn linen-canvas sails.

During the season of fair weather the Pilgrims enjoyed after finally leaving England, one can image the passengers gazing up at what must have been an ordinary site for the time: A ship propelled by its sails made of Flax canvas. (The sails could also have been made of hemp canvas we don’t know for sure.) Flax it turns out is an extraordinary plant. Versatile and hardy, one species of the plant came to be known by the Latin name, Linum Usitatissium, or “of greater use” and has been in use for centuries.

The earliest evidence of spun, knotted and dyed flax fibers were discovered in a cave in the Republic of Georgia and date to 30,000 years ago during the upper paleolithic period. Ancient Egyptians cultivated flax plants, the fibers used to produce items ranging from ordinary Egyptian’s clothing to bolts of finely woven material, intombed in the pyramids for use by the Pharaohs in the afterlife. 5,000 years ago, the use of flax for textiles ranged from China to Germany and Switzerland.[i]

                      In 2003 Plimoth Plantation artisans soaking flax cloth imported from England, 
                                 to pre-shrink the canvas under tension in preparation for making 
                                        the sails of the Howland Society shallop, Elizabeth Tilley. 

Flax, wherever planted throughout Europe, required a laborious process to render the plant to its constituent parts, from which long lasting and strong cloth, thread, and line could be made. Its seeds can be pressed, to produce linseed oil, useful as a wood preservative, as a binder in paint, or as a vehicle in medicinal recipes. Even the mash, the crushed seed husks, left over from pressing can be fed to live-stock. It was a versatile plant making it valuable to grow and worth the effort expended.

Some of the clothing the pilgrims wore while gazing at the sails were made of linen. Undershirts, called shifts, were light-weight linen, and some men’s breeches and sailor’s cassocks were made of heavier linen canvas. Linen waistcoats and aprons were common. As long wearing and reliable a product linen clothing was it was not indestructible and required repair or replacement over time. In England, the importance of having flax on hand to process into thread for sewing or weaving into cloth, is reflected in the law created in the 16th century, requiring that a quarter of an acre (one rood) of flax be planted for every sixty acres under cultivation.[ii]

            In the early years after settling Plymouth, the colonist relied on ships coming out of England for nearly everything manufactured they needed including furnishings, tools, shoes, and clothing. As Bradford noted upon landing in his Of Plymouth Plantation, they had now no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather-beaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor.”[iii]

            Bradford knew that for the colony to be viable long term, they would have to become more self-reliant. Rather than wait for cloth, and clothing to come from ships out of England, the colonists would, in time, manufacture their own. In 1639 the Plymouth Colony passed a requirement that “every house holder, sow one rodd of ground square at least with hemp or flax yearly.”[iv] A rod is a measurement 16.5 feet in length so a square rod would equal 272.25 square feet.

In the Jabez Howland house, (the original structure was built in 1667) there are a number of spinning wheels exhibited reflecting the importance of textile production to the colonists. Presumably Jabez and his family grew flax in the back garden.
A distaff, treadle wheel used for spinning flax into linen thread

The inventory of John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley’s home at Rocky Nook at John’s death in 1672 records they had on hand “17 yards of flax” among the textiles and owned at least 3 wheels for spinning.
The above walking wheel is on display at the Jabez Howland House. 
It was used for wool or cotton spinning.

Like so much of life in Plymouth Colony, textile production was a laborious process that started with sowing the seeds for flax in early spring. The seeds are broadcast in prepared ground in the same manner as grass seed. The plants grow close together and once matured leave little room for weeds to take hold among them.

The plants grow to about 2-3 feet in height and mature in about 100 days. To harvest, the entire plant was pulled from the ground, roots and all and left to dry for a several weeks. When the stalks have dried the seeds are separated from the stalks by passing them through iron combs in a process called rippling, and saved for processing on their own. The multi-step process of separating the inner part of the plant, the bast, from the outer bark layer takes several weeks and is called retting.

Retting softens the outer bark with moisture, either the ambient moisture in the air if the stalks are left on the ground, in a pond of water, or in a running stream that carries away the decomposing plant matter. In general, a stagnant water source like a pond or a bog will ret the flax more quickly but results in the build-up of foul odors from biological break-down of the outer fiber.[v] In the Plymouth Colony records in 1641 land around the “Eel River swamps” was reserved for growing flax or hemp.[vi]

When thoroughly wet and partial decomposed the whole plant must be dried again which will take several more weeks.

Through another series of steps, the linen fiber is finally separated from the outer layer of the plant. The dried plant is first beaten against a brake, that is, a wooden board or a bench or something solid. Then a blunt wooden knife is used to skutch the flax, knocking off the outer bark. Then the fiber is drawn through a series of metal combs or spikes to remove any remaining bark, or outer fibers from the linen. It is estimated that over 85% of the plant is removed in producing the linen fibers for spinning.[vii]

From left to right: Dried flax, Scutching knife, brake, hackling comb, and finish flax ready for spinning.

Of course, this is only the first step to produce linen cloth. The fiber must be spun on a wheel, then soaked and dried to set the spin of the thread, before woven on a loom to produce bolts of cloth from which clothing can be made. These steps require more skilled labor but many people in the colony would be familiar with the process. Those who had lived in the Netherlands before coming to Plymouth would be familiar with, if not proficient in many textile producing techniques.

Commercial looms and spinners eventually took over from the householders for the production of linen in Plymouth colony but that was all in the future, a future those pilgrims gazing up at the white linen sails of Mayflower as they made their way across the sea could only dream about.

This is a fun video from the Monreagh Heritage Center in county Donigal, Ireland in which 
Colm Clarke explains how they produced linen in Ireland until the 1950’s starting with sowing the seeds in early spring.

The site, New England Flax & Linen is a great resource of 
online information about all things flax and linen

The start of our flax bed at the Jabez Howland House 
(The 3’x10′ bed is only about 10% the size of a square rod’s worth of flax plants)
The sail shaped marker was designed as inspiration for the young flax plants. 


[i] Wikipedia page:
[ii] National Park Services website:
[iii] Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation, Morison edition, pg. 61.
[iv] Plymouth Colony Records, XI part 1, pg. 32. June 4, 1639.
[v] Website:
[vi] Plymouth colony Court Records: July 6, 1641. Pg. 247.
[vii] National Park Service website:

Sailing a Square Rigged Ship

For my first blog post I thought I would start where Plymouth Colony started, with the Mayflower. Rather than dwell on common questions often asked of the voyage, “How many passengers were on the ship?” (102) and “Did they really land on Plymouth Rock?” (It’s complicated, likely no, but maybe yes.) or “What ever happened to the Mayflower?” (The ship returned to England in the spring of 1621 and after the death of master Jones it was declared “in ruins” in 1624), I thought I would focus on the ship itself and the mechanics of sailing what was, in the 17thcentury, one of the most complicated machines as yet devised.            

There is a whole dictionary of terms one could learn in order to discuss a ship’s rigging and sailing in general. (A very early one and especial good for the sailor historian is John Smith’s “Sea Grammar” first published in 1627.) Spend just a few minutes with a sailor and you are likely to come away puzzled at what they are saying. To understand this blog post you need only know the basics.  The basics include these terms:

Spars – The masts (vertical poles) and yards (horizontal or angled poles)

              Mayflower has three masts, from front to back, foremast, mainmast and mizzen mast. 
              Also, the bowsprit with its spritsail yard. Think of the bowsprit as a sharply angled 
              over mast.
              A square-rigged ship refers to the direction of the sails, hanging square to the center
              line of the ship, rather than the square shape of the sails.                        

Rigging – Lines, blocks, fairleads, and belaying points

                        Lines – A rope with a specific function. (And yes, there are several “ropes” on a 
                        ship including, bolt rope, bell rope, etc.)
                        Blocks – pulleys
                        Fairleads – Shaped pieces of wood with smoothed holes through which a line’s
                        direction of travel can be controlled.
                        Belaying points – cleat, pin, or rail to which a line is secured
 Sails – Named in conjunction with the yad from which they hang in relation to a specific
            mast, i.e., the foresail hangs from the fore yard, maintop sail hangs from the maintop 
            sail yard, etc.

Image 1
A quick look at the rigging of the ship shows the network of lines, blocks and spars that together control the sails and hold the masts in place. In the case of merchant ship like Mayflower the function of all this stuff is to allow for the management of six sails so that for any given sea state and wind condition the ship, loaded with goods, will travel efficiently and safely to a desired destination. For the 1620 voyage Mayflower’s passengers occupied the lower deck where goods were normally stowed and the destination was the “northern parts of the Virginias.”            

The intended destination was in general, the mouth of the Hudson River on the East Coast of the North American continent. This is not a discussion of the Pilgrim’s motives and whether they intended to deceive or mislead their backers or the King, but rather to say generally the direction of travel for the ship was from the western side of the Atlantic to the eastern side.

Travelling across the Atlantic at any time of the year is a challenge, but going from west to east adds the complication of traveling against the prevailing winds of the North Atlantic. The winds, in general, travel in a clockwise fashion in the northern hemisphere. That is, the wind blows up along the east coast of the United States, across the Atlantic towards England then curves south toward Africa then west across the ocean again toward the Caribbean.

Because of the shape of the sails, and the shape of hulls in the 17th century, the most efficient way to sail the ship is with the wind coming from behind. A quick look at a map of the Atlantic would show that a ship taking advantage of the wind pattern leaving England would turn south, travels along the coast to Africa, before plunging across the Atlantic to make landfall on the east coast then travel along that coast before reaching their intended destination. A long voyage indeed. For Mayflower’s Master Jones, given that it was so late in the year, (September 6th, the very height of the hurricane season), the ship was overcrowded and likely undersupplied, and the southern round-about route would be so long, it is no wonder he likely chose the northern, shorter route in order to make his way across the Atlantic as quickly as possible. This decision, however, would require a great deal of tacking in order to travel against the prevailing winds.            

What is “tacking” you ask? Well aside from being the point of this blog post, it is the process by which any sailing vessel makes headway in a direction toward which the wind is blowing. In a small sunfish sailboat for example, moving the tiller, shifting the sail and hopping from one side of the boat to the other will allow the sailor to zig-zag their way up wind. In a vessel like Mayflower the process is slightly more complicated. As stated at the start, a square-rigged ship is a complicated machine requiring a well-choregraphed and the timely execution of specific actions to get the beamy, bluff bowed vessel to travel up wind.

Here’s how it happens:
We start the process with the ship sailing close-hauled. (1 in image 3) All that means is that the ship’s yards are braced over sharply so that the sails catch the wind and the ship is pointed as close to the eye of the wind as possible. Now, another commonly asked question about Mayflower is “How close to the eye of the wind can the ship sail?” Well, not very is the answer. In terms of degrees Mayflower sails at most 65° off the wind. So, if 0° is where the wind is coming from (the destination), and 90° is directly abeam, Mayflower will sail only 35° toward the destination.                                                                                  Image 2
The zig-zag track on image 2 is drawn to scale, more or less, with each arrow 65° off the wind. If the length of each arrow is a mile, the ship, tacking its way from start to end would travel five miles to cover about two miles of actual distance to the destination. This is a hypothetical track with no account for wave height (which would push a ship sideways) or leeway of the ship (drift of the ship sideways do to wind or current) so the actually distance traveled is likely greater. You can start to see what the Mayflower is up against in making it across the Atlantic.

Image 3
Now, back to tacking: With the ship close hauled Master Jones decides it is time to tack. He will give the command, likely to the mate who will be the one who actually yells out to the crew:
“Ready About” – This is a command akin to “heads-up,” but with more authority. It means the sailors, who will know what is coming, are to get to their positions throughout the ship and make sure the lines they are responsible for are ready as well. The helmsman should pay attention here, too for the next command.

“Helms alee” – (2 in image 3.) The helmsman puts the helm down, (doesn’t me he lets it go). It means the tiller is pushed to leeward, that is the side away from which the wind is coming. The mechanics of this is different for ships with wheels, or in the case of the Mayflower the whipstaff (perhaps the subject of a future blog post) but the result is the same. In its simplest terms, push the tiller to the right, the ship will turn left and vice-versa. At helms-alee the ship will start to head up into the wind.

A good way to think of the ship is as a weather vane shaped like an arrow. The feathers in the back will feel the wind evenly on both sides as the tip is pointing directly into the wind. If you look at Mayflower from the side you would see two things right away, the very tall aft castle (the whole back end of the ship) and the huge cloud of sails all over the ship. That aft castle acts like the feathers of the arrow on our weather vane. The sails can add or subtract surface area anywhere along the length of the ship.

So, at “helms alee,” the crew knows the ship is going to point up into the wind. The aft castle will do this on its own but by taking the forward most sail away, (in this case the spritsail) and centering the after most sail (the mizzen sail) will help get the ship to point up into the wind more quickly. (3 in image 2)When that has happened, the next command is given:
“Mainsail Haul” – (3 in image 3) There are lines that control all parts of the sail and help shape it to catch wind. These lines are in pairs, one on each side of the ship, often referred in the moment as the “windward or leeward” lift, brace, sheet, or tack. When “mainsail haul” is called, sailors haul on braces, that move the main yard, and sheets and tacks that control the lower corner of the sail, loosening the windward line and taking in the leeward line. The Maintopsail is treated the same.

Now the wind is backwinding the mainsail so that the sail is actually causing the ship to continue to pivot. The sails on the foremast are still not catching any wind. 

Also, at this time the mizzen sail is brailed up, (pulled up to its yard with, you guessed it, “brails”) If it were left set amidships it would want to keep the ship pointed up into the wind like a weather vane. The mizzen yard is dipped from one side of the mizzen mast to the other in preparation for the new tack. The helm is also shifted over now as well.

At this point, the ship is slowly heading away from the eye of the wind but still not far enough off the wind so all sails will draw. It is at this point the foremast comes into its own in the process. These forward sails are starting to backwind, the sail is catching the wind on the front of the sails causing the sail to billow out backwards. Given that these sails are still braced around for the previous tack, backwinding these forward sails has the effect of pushing the bow away from the eye of the wind (a good thing). When the ship has pivoted off the wind enough that the master judges all the sails will catch the wind on the new tack the next command is given.
“Let go and haul” – (5, image 3) The same process happens with the fore mast sails that happened with the main mast sails. Braces, sheets and tacks are “let go” on one side and “hauled” on the other. There are other lines, bowlines, that help control the vertical edges of the sails and lifts that control the horizontal angle of the yards that need attention. The helm is steadied on the new course and the last command is given:
“Reset All” – (6 in image 3Now the mizzen sail can be reset and the spritsail is reset and the sailors can coil all the lines keeping them neat and ready for the next tack while they enjoy some hard tack and beer.

With calm seas and moderate wind this tacking process can happen in minutes. As the wind increases and wave heights grow the ability to tack becomes more difficult. There is a process for going around the other way, so that the wind crosses the stern of the ship rather than the bow, when the waves are too great or there are other reasons tacking won’t or doesn’t work. It is called wearing around. Let’s save that for another time.

We can see from the above description that getting a ship like Mayflower to sail against the wind over the course of a months-long voyage is time consuming, prone to danger to crew, and requires a master and crew well practiced in the process. This description also illustrates yet another reason we can only marvel that making it safely across the stormy North Atlantic was not a straightforward proposition nor a guaranteed success for those who sailed aboard the Mayflower.