As the spouse of a 13th generation descendant of Mayflower passengers William and Mary Brewster, I receive regular doses of Pilgrim history through the efforts of our state “colony” of The General Society of Mayflower Descendants. With excitement building around the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s transatlantic journey, I began to explore what philatelic material existed that would help in the telling of this important history. I learned that Mayflower-related postal items are readily available, relatively inexpensive and can make for a timely, enjoyable topical collection.
Images of the Mayflower ship pop up in some surprising places and it begged the question: Why has a common coastal trading boat of the early 17th century become such a globally recognized symbol of the United States of America? The answer lies not in the ship itself but in how the passengers and crew dealt with unplanned events and hardships during their travels, their novel governance agreement aptly called the Mayflower Compact, and their faithful persistence that set key values for a future nation.
The first postal issue commemorating Mayflower history was the “Pilgrim Tercentenary” set of three finely engraved stamps (Scott 548-550) released by the US Post Office on December 21, 1920. Interestingly, there is no indication on these stamps of the issuing country; I believe a first for US postal releases.
The most recognizable of these and indeed of any Mayflower postal material would be the 1c green stamp showing the ship in full sail on the ocean.
Despite the small size of the stamp, the rendering of the ship is accurate with an artistic sense of motion and the green color providing a crisp clean contrast.
Such cannot be said for the 2c and 5c stamps where the complexity of the images for “Landing of the Pilgrims” and “Signing of the Compact” on such small stamps requires close examination to appreciate their meaning and the fine work of the engraver.
In 1970, the United States issued another commemorative stamp on the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage (Scott 1420) as did Great Britain (Scott 615). Since then at least ten other postal administrations have issued stamps featuring the Mayflower or the Pilgrims with more expected during the 400th anniversary year. Included among these is the desolate winter beauty of the Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor US Forever stamp issued on September 17, 2020 (Scott 5524).
Who Were the Pilgrims?
Those who inspired the Mayflower voyage (later named “Pilgrims”) originated as a Christian religious sect of the Puritan Movement in England that followed the teachings of French theologian, pastor and Protestant reformer, John Calvin, a disciple of Martin Luther. Calvin resided in Geneva, Switzerland where he founded the University of Geneva and led the effort to translate the Bible into French. The printed version known as the “Geneva Bible” was distributed where possible throughout Europe. The Geneva Bible was the foundation text for Congregational Churches at Scrooby and Gainsborough in central England that were led by Reverends Richard Clifton and John Robinson.
Several countries have issued stamps honoring Martin Luther and his disciples but an appropriate one to illustrate this story would be the 2009 Swiss issue (Scott 1335) commemorating 500th anniversary of the birth of Jehan Cauvin in Noyon, France.
Influence of King James I
When King James I ascended to the throne of England in 1603 he also became the Head of the Church of England and initiated a major translation of the Bible into English (today known as the King James version). When completed in 1609, King James mandated that it would replace other versions including the Geneva Bible, the spiritual reference text for the Calvinists and the Congregationalists. Puritans had long been a pain in the royal backside for James and his predecessor, Elizabeth I, primarily because they firmly believed that a head of state should not also be the head of the church. As such they were called “Separatists”. Now their choice of Bible subjected them to fines, arrests and harassment by English authorities and they chose to resettle as a congregation in Holland, a country more tolerant of different religious beliefs.
While there are many images of King James I on stamps from a number of countries to choose from, it is very hard to find stamps where the Bible is the theme. So far the most relevant stamp for this discussion is the one created as part of Great Britain’s 1999 millennial series showing a cartoonish picture of King James I with his English translation of the Bible (Scott 1881).
Life in Leiden
After spending a year in Amsterdam, Reverend Robinson broke with Reverend Clifton and chose to establish his congregation in Leiden, a trading and university town. Leiden’s citizens were exposed to many cultures through trade and scholarly influence by the university. The Leiden experience of religious freedom and thought influenced the laws and governance of the future Pilgrims and by extension the future United States.
As the 1620s approached, Holland was facing a possible war and an economic recession loomed. Reverend Robinson also feared that his congregation was losing their English heritage and culture plus its Congregationalist Christian lifestyle. Hearing that the Virginia Company was successful in establishing a permanent presence in the New World, it was agreed that a small group of the Leiden congregation would emigrate to Virginia with others following later. Robinson negotiated a deal with a group of London investors to form the core of a new settlement. Settlers would work as indentured servants to their investors for seven years sending all wealth acquired back to London to pay off the debt of their passage. Importantly, they needed a Royal Charter from King James to settle in lands claimed earlier by England.
I did find a pane of personal postage issue from 2009 issued in the Netherlands that commemorate the time the Pilgrim Fathers spent in Leiden. It also shows the familiar image of the Mayflower ship despite the fact that the Pilgrims did not meet the Mayflower in Holland, but in England.
Early Colonization of the New World
Permanent colonies of European powers had already been established in the tropical regions of the New World in the 16th century. While regular trips to the northern areas for fishing and fur trading occurred, the harsh winters discouraged most travelers from attempting to live permanently in such a wilderness. This changed in the early 17th century. The French were the first to establish a viable settlement in Acadia (part of present day Nova Scotia) named Port Royal in 1605 and later in Quebec in 1608. The Dutch hired Englishman Henry Hudson to explore possible settlement sites in the New World. He discovered the Hudson River and established several Dutch trading posts along the river that bears his name as far north as present day Albany, New York. England’s King James wanted to build on the success of his Jamestown, Virginia colony (1607) by encouraging more colonization of territory before the other European powers claimed the land. John Guy established the colony of Cupids in Newfoundland in 1610 under a Royal Charter from King James. Sir George Sommers was headed to Virginia in 1609 when his ship, Sea Venture, wrecked on the reefs surrounding Bermuda. He decided to stay and established these islands as an English colony. One can assume that King James was happy to grant the troublesome Separatists a royal charter in exchange for their loyalty and contribution to English colonization. At the time, England’s Virginia included all lands south of the Hudson River to the Carolinas. The proposed site for the colony was near the mouth of the Hudson River in present day New Jersey.
Stamps issued by US, Canada, Bermuda, France, and Newfoundland nicely commemorate the early colonization of North America before the Mayflower’s arrival.
Voyage to the New World
In May, 1620, the London investors purchased one ship, Speedwell, and contracted with a larger coastal trading vessel, Mayflower, to take the first group of settlers to Virginia. In July, Speedwell under command of military Captain Myles Standish picked up 30 passengers from Reverend Robinson’s congregation at Delfshaven, Holland and sailed to Southampton, England where it met up with the Mayflower. Reverend Robinson chose to stay behind to pastor the Leiden congregation with plans to travel to the colony with others in subsequent years. John Robinson never joined his New World congregation, dying in Leiden in 1625.
Myles Standish was from the Isle of Man who have been particularly prolific in issuing Mayflower-themed stamps featuring their native son including a four stamp series showing the departure of the Pilgrim Fathers on the Speedwell from Delfshaven and the two boats anchored in Dartmouth, England based on paintings by Maritime artist, Leslie Wilcox. Captain Standish was in Holland as part of an English army posting and joined Reverend Robinson’s congregation in Leiden. He volunteered to be the military leader for the expedition.
The ship, Mayflower, was a Caravel type coastal trading vessel that was purchased in 1607 by its Master (non-military captain of a boat), Christopher Jones, and several business partners. Mayflower could carry about 180 tons of cargo, was 110 feet long and sailed with a crew of 25-30 men. She made several trips to Bordeaux, France bringing wine, vinegar and salt to England as well as travelling as far as Malaga, Spain; Trondheim, Norway; and Hamburg, Germany. While this would be the first trans-Atlantic journey for her Master, Christopher Jones had several crew members, including Pilot John Clarke and Master’s Mate Robert Coppin who had been to the New World before.
As stated above, there are several stamps bearing an image of the Mayflower from a variety of countries including those from small states seeking revenue from collectors and Mayflower enthusiasts.
Arriving in Southampton ahead of Speedwell, Mayflower began to take on supplies and other skilled workers needed for the colony such as carpenters. Over 100 settlers joined with the 30 Separatists on the Speedwell including other Congregationalists residing in England. The two ships set sail for the New World on August 15. However, leaks in the Speedwell required them to pull into Dartmouth for repairs. Departing again the two ships sailed about 300 miles into the Atlantic Ocean before it became apparent that the Speedwell was too leaky to handle an ocean voyage. Reluctantly, they returned to the nearest English port, Plymouth, where the Speedwell’s cargo and passengers were transferred to the already crowded Mayflower. Several passengers had enough of false starts and decided to leave the group. Finally, on September 6 (September 16 by today’s calendar) the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth Harbor. A monument called the Mayflower Steps exists today to mark the spot where the Pilgrims last left English soil. Picture postcards of this popular tourist site exist at least as early as 1902 to present day and it has been carefully restored for the 400th anniversary celebration.
For the first half of the voyage, the weather was quite peaceful. October brought on the North Atlantic storms of early winter. Progress slowed and the ship was tossed about on very rough seas as depicted on some of the Mayflower stamps shown above.
Finally, after sixty six days at sea, a coastline appeared. Blown off course, they had arrived at Cape Cod in mid-November.
Attempting to head south to their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River they again ran into severe weather and nearly shipwrecked. Turning north they rounded Cape Cod and anchored near present day Provincetown. This event was reflected in a first day cover of the 8.5c non-profit US postal stationary issued on December 4, 1986.
It was too late in the season and with misery, sickness and death persisting from the long voyage, William Bradford and other Pilgrim leaders decided they would establish their colony in what was known as New England.
Without a royal charter and hence whatever protection from the Crown that offered, they wrote and all 43 men signed a statement while still on board Mayflower that formed the initial governance document for the new colony.
Known as the Mayflower Compact it became an early foundation for constitutional rights in the future United States of America. This important event is the theme of the 1920 5c stamp (SC 550).
Establishing a Colony
The Pilgrims spent the next month exploring possible locations along Cape Cod and adjoining coastline. It was now winter and Myles Standish and William Bradford led explorations ashore through snow and ice while women and children stayed in the relative protection of the ship.
Again the Isle of Man produced a nice souvenir sheet of two stamps for the Ameripex Exhibition in Chicago in 1986 featuring their local hero Myles Standish assisting the Pilgrims in exploring a snowy coastline with the Mayflower standing off shore (SC 310-311).
The Nauset and Patuxet tribes of the Wampanoag nation in the region were initially hostile to the Pilgrim settlers and for good reason. In 1614 an Englishman from John Smith’s Virginia Company who was exploring and mapping the coastline of New England, illegally kidnapped about 20 braves and was later caught selling them at the slave market in Malaga, Spain.
Some were rescued by Catholic friars and educated in Europe. One named Tisquantum (Sqanto) was returned to Patuxet lands in 1619 by an English sea captain.
However, in his absence, the Wampanoag were decimated by a plague that had spread through their lands in 1617 and 1618. Squanto spoke English and soon brokered a peace through his translations between the local Patuxet tribes and the colonists.
Another of Great Britain’s 1999 millennium series features Pilgrims interacting with Patuxet natives (SC 1852).
The Pilgrims chose a former Patuxet village site for their settlement along a mainland harbor with a river that provided fresh drinking water.
They referred to themselves as “Plymouth Colony” after their last port in England. Plymouth Rock marks the site today and was the theme of the 1920 2c Mayflower Tercentenary stamp.
While shelters were being built on what became Plimouth Plantation, the Mayflower served as a dormitory. Starvation and illness persisted throughout the winter with several casualties among settlers and the crew of Mayflower. In early April, 1621 with all passengers now housed ashore, Master Jones took his remaining crew and some mail and sailed the Mayflower back to England, arriving in early May.
In 1975, Liberia issued a souvenir sheet featuring a stamp on stamp illustration of the Mayflower and a somewhat fanciful drawing of the Plymouth Colony Village to honor the US Bicentennial.
The Mayflower made a few more coastal trading runs before being sold for scrap in 1624, an ignominious end for a now historic ship.
Mayflower’s legacy did not die with the ship. Instead, its image speaks to many around the world of freedom from religious persecution, governance that established constitutional rights, perseverance in the face of great danger, trust in befriending the indigenous people, and great faith that God would guide and provide. Getting to the New World was only the first chapter in history of the settlement of New England and today it is an integral part of America’s Thanksgiving Day tradition.
Of philatelic interest, The Mayflower is the name of the Journal of the American Stamp Club of Great Britain and their crest features an image of the Mayflower taken from the 1c 1920 US stamp. An image of this same stamp appears on hastily printed Cinderella stamps that were affixed to mail bound for the US from Europe through Britain during a national postal strike that lasted for 2-3 months In 1971. This short-lived “Mayflower Post” was a forerunner of the thriving private courier industry today. Finally, a replica of the Mayflower was built in Brixham, England in 1957 as a gift from the people of Great Britain to the people of the United States as a gesture of Anglo-American friendship. Captain Villiers sailed the Mayflower II to Plymouth MA where it resides permanently at the Plimouth Plantation Eel River Site. Postal covers with “Maiden Voyage Mayflower II” cancel and autograph of the captain can be readily obtained as can period postcards depicting the ship in full sail.
Of the more than 130 passengers that embarked on Mayflower in Plymouth, England, only 102 survived to step ashore in the New World including two babies born during the voyage. The General Society of Mayflower Descendants was formed in 1897 to accurately identify descendants of the Mayflower passengers. Included in this listing are many famous people that are found on postage stamps including US Presidents (John Adams, John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and George H.W. Bush), foreign leaders (British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Canadian Prime Minister Charles Tupper), actors (Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby Katherine Hepburn, Christopher Reeves), literary figures (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Noah Webster, Ernest Hemingway) and other notable people (aviator Amelia Aerhart, astronaut Alan Shepard, inventor George Eastman, US diplomat Adlai Stevenson II). A significant topical collection could be built around ancestors of Mayflower passengers alone.
Marcoux, J. Michel. “Godly Ignition circa 1607: Robinson’s & Brewster’s Nottinghamshire Courages’” The Mayflower Quarterly 86 (Spring 2020) 24-31.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower, A Story of Courage, Community and War (New York, NY; Penguin Group, 2006).