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Whatever Happened to the Mayflower?
She has been a common part of the American Lexicon for the last century and a half. Her name is taught to every school child in the United States. Everyone knows the story of her passengers and the reasons they came to America. But what is never taught is her fate. What became of the ship that has become an indelible part of American Culture?
Since photography would not be invented for another two hundred years, no photographs exist of the Mayflower. In fact, so little information regarding the ship survives that there is no official account as to the appearance of the vessel, especially since there was no comprehension as to the historic significance of the voyage the vessel was about to embark.
Historians agree that the Mayflower likely looked like any other three masted cargo ship of the era. A carrack outfitted with square and lateen rigging with a length between 90 and 110 feet and a weight of 180 tons, the average. She was built in early 1600s. She changed masters twice, the original ending up in prison after a debt default. Between 1609 and 1622 under the command of Captain Christopher Jones, she was based in Rotherhithe as served as a merchant ship for the wine trade.
The Reality of the Voyage
The version told to American Schoolchildren is greatly under-dramatized and highly inaccurate. While some children's books made mention that the voyage was long and hard, it was an understatement. The voyage was nothing short of Hell on Earth.
The Puritans were an illegal religious organization in England. Therefore, little money was available to properly finance the expedition to the New World. As a result, they could only afford to charter two tiny cargo ships for the transatlantic voyage, the Speedwell and the Mayflower. The Speedwell, a rebuilt 60 ton freighter, already 30 years old by the time it was chartered for the Voyage, was plagued with leaks. Originally setting sail on August 5, 1620, the Speedwell's leaking caused the voyage to be delayed twice by over a month. During that time, twenty passengers left the expedition permanently, either out of frustration or financial hardship, nobody knows for sure. In fact, money problems became so bad, it forced the Puritans to sell off most of their whale oil and butter for the voyage. It would resume on September 6, 1620. This time only the Mayflower would make the crossing. She was overloaded with the remainder of the Speedwell's passengers and cargo.
The Mayflower was never intended for passenger travel. In total over 130 people were crammed into the cargo deck of the ship, some couldn't even lay down flat. In a modern analogy, imagine stuffing 75 people into the back of a semi tractor trailer and driving from Los Angeles to New York four times non stop with no air conditioning or heating all while dumping your waste off the back of the truck.
Storms nearly sank the ship several times during the crossing. The main base of the ship broke at one point and a couple crew members were washed overboard. Subsequently the ship was blown completely off course and rather then landing in Virginia, the Mayflower landed far to the north in what would become Massachusetts 66 days later. Scurvy and other diseases were a major problem during the voyage, ultimately claiming the lives of two people.
In 1621, the Mayflower returned to England with news of the Plimouth Colony's success and after the death of her master, Christopher Jones in 1622, information all but disappears. Some historians believe the Mayflower was retired to harbor duty, where it fell into disrepair. The Port of London, too busy transporting goods from America, did not see the need to preserve the Mayflower as something of historical importance. With a scrap value of 128 for its wood, anchors, sails and galley equipment, the ship was sold for scrap sometime in the late 1620s.
Mayflower was a very common name in the 1600s. A second Mayflower voyaged to Plimouth Colony eight years after the original returned. It brought 35 new passengers and provisions for the colony. This vessel made the crossing several times between 1630 and 1639. The vessel sank with all 142 passengers and crew lost in late 1641 on route for Virginia.
In 1920, 300 years after the original voyage, a book was published by J. Rendel Harris, an antiquarian, that describes the ship's ultimate fate. In 1624 the ship was broken up and its timbers sold as scrap. During that time Farmer Thomas Russell bought ship timbers to use in the construction of his barn in South Buckinghamshire. Harris calls this proof that the barn was in fact made from the timbers of the now legendary Mayflower. There is no concrete way to validate this claim.
In the 1950s a replica of the original Mayflower was built in collaboration between English millionaire Warwrick Harlton and The Plimoth Plantation Museum. Using reconstructed blueprints the ship was built in England using authentic materials and construction methods. The oak was carefully chosen, the nails were hand forged and the sails were hand sewn. She was launched in an authentic christening ceremony in 1956. In 1957 the Mayflower II recreated the original voyage, sailing from England to Plymouth The Museum of Plimoth Plantation maintains the ship to this day, the ship set sail in 2007 to commemorate it's 50th anniversary.