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Pilgrims and Puritans

Part One

The religious issues which motivated many English people to emigrate to New England did not cease to exist once those people reached the new world. Religion played a major role in the daily life of the colonists and continued to be a motivating factor in the settlement of new towns and colonies in New England. Whether or not religion was the reason for Thomas and Anne Brownell's emigration to America, it was a factor that was to have a great influence on their lives and the lives of their family.

Although the Brownells came to America near the end of the "Great Migration" of the 1630's, their lives became entwined with those of the colonists who settled at Plymouth and those who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony at Boston. To better understand how religion helped shape the Brownell Family, we must look at both these groups and the new societies that they established in New England.

Almost every American knows about the Pilgrims, the Mayflower and the founding of Plymouth in 1620, but their story actually begins much earlier. In the late 1500's and early 1600's, all those who were dissatisfied with the Established or Anglican Church of England were known as Puritans. But under this label was grouped a wide variety of sects and beliefs.

The majority of Puritans remained members of the established church and worked from within for a "second reformation" which would cleanse or purify the church by ridding it of its Catholic influences. Other Puritans broke away from the Church of England and formed churches of their own, a criminal act which made them the victims of arrests, fines, imprisonment and sometimes even death.

One such "separatist" church was in the area near Scrooby, in Nottinghamshire. (Scrooby is near to the area in Yorkshire where the Brownells lived.) Its leader was William Brewster, a Cambridge-educated, well-to-do man who had served as a diplomat during the reign of Elizabeth I. It was at Brewster's manor house that the Scrooby congregation gathered to worship in the early years of the seventeenth century. Most of the other members of this congregation were yeoman farmers and country artisans.

The separatists, being the most openly radical of the various Puritan groups, were the primary targets of persecution by the church and the state. It was this persecution that led the members of the Scrooby congregation to the decision to leave England, an act which itself was criminal. In 1607 and 1608 the majority (about one hundred men, women and children) of the Scrooby separatists secretly left England for Holland, where greater religious freedom existed. They settled in Amsterdam, but soon found themselves involved in religious conflicts with other English emigres and unable to adjust from the rural life they had known in England to the worldly and commercial life in that city.

In 1609 the congregation decided to move again, this time to Leyden, Holland, where they lived for over a decade. Leyden was much smaller than Amsterdam and its textile factories offered opportunities for employment. But life there was less than satisfactory for them. The language difference was a problem and most, being unskilled, found it difficult to compete in the job market. Having lost most of their possessions and what money they had when they left England, they now found themselves living in poverty which grew worse as the years went by.

The most distressing aspect of life in Holland was the fear of their children being assimilated into the Dutch culture. They would grow up speaking Dutch, with little or no memory of England and would probably marry Dutch citizens. This threat to their English heritage worried the congregation's leaders, as did the free and easy Dutch way of life. They disapproved of the lax Dutch observance of Sunday and saw the children "drawn away by evil examples into extravagant and dangerous courses, getting the reins off their necks and departing from their parents."

Poverty and the fear of the corruption of their youth were the chief motives for the restlessness of the separatists, but another factor also began to worry them. There was a growing fear that Spain would once again attack Holland and, if victorious, would reimpose the inquisition under which they had persecuted non-Catholics in Holland during the 1570's. The separatists expected to be among the first targets of such a persecution.

It was decided that the congregation would move once again, this time to an area "devoyd of all civill inhabitants," where they could keep their names, their faith and their nationality. With reports of progress in Virginia and the glowing accounts of the opportunities of the new world by men such as John Smith, the Scrooby separatists began to favor starting from scratch in the uncivilized world of America.

On 6 September 1620 the Mayflower set sail for America with 102 passengers. Of those, only about 40 were from the separatist community in Holland. Aside from a dozen servants and hired men, the rest were non-separatists recruited by the merchant company which financed the voyage. The differences between the two groups quickly became apparent as shown by the names given each. The separatists were called "saints" while the others were "strangers." The saints imposed a minority rule and created a good deal of outrage and dissension by insisting that their religious practices be followed by the whole company. They particularly annoyed the crew by being sanctimonious. At the same time, the strangers antagonized the saints with their intolerance of the separatists' beliefs.

After a long­sixty-six day­voyage which was extremely unpleasant because of the overcrowding of the ship, the shortage of supplies and the many heavy storms encountered, the Mayflower sighted land on 9 November 1620. They were about 300 miles north of their original destination­the Hudson River­near what is now Provincetown on Cape Cod. It was here that they first went ashore and quickly realized that the area was not suited for settlement. After further exploration, the company decided upon a more suitable spot with a fine harbor that had once been the site of an Indian village. They named their settlement Plymouth after the English city from which they had sailed.

Although the weather that year was quite mild, the Pilgrims were ill-prepared to survive the rigors of a New England winter. Nearly all were seriously weakened from the lack of adequate food, some had the beginnings of scurvy, and many were beginning to suffer from bronchial and related complaints. With the promise of continuing hunger, inadequate shelter and unremitting labor, they could not have been in a worse state. Before spring arrived, half of the company had died.

Because the Mayflower landed outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, some of the strangers questioned the authority of the company's leaders. They felt that this freed them from all authority, that they could now proceed to do exactly as they chose in the new land. To prevent this kind of self-serving independent action and subject these wayward tendencies to their own strict sense of what a community ought to be, the saints drew up a covenant called the Mayflower Compact which established a rudimentary legal authority for the colony.

This agreement was designed not only to provide a basis for law and order but to give the framers (the saints) the chance to run things. They agreed to form their own government, elect officers to pass and administer laws and be bound by the laws and ordinances thus enacted. The signatures of enough non-saints to validate the Compact were obtained and the company proceeded to elect John Carver as the first new world governor chosen by free people in a free election.

The Mayflower Compact served as an example for the establishment of governments by settlers in later colonies in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. It helped establish the American tradition of government resting upon the consent of the governed and was the first milestone on the road to independence.

Despite the many deaths that first winter and continuing hardships, Plymouth Colony survived and slowly began to prosper in a modest way. During the summer of 1623 two ships, the Anne and the Little James, arrived with eighty-seven more settlers. Twenty-nine were from the Leyden congregation. Among the passengers was Alice Southworth who within a few weeks married William Bradford and whose great-granddaughter married Aaron Brownell.


As the years passed still more settlers came to Plymouth until in 1630 the population was around 300. The last of the Leyden congregation arrived in May 1630 on the ship Handmaid.

Plymouth did not, however, have the essentials for growth that other colonies would have. Its farm land was not good and the colony was poorly located for the fur trade and fishing. It remained small and was soon overshadowed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony which it had inspired.

Governor Bradford many years later summed up the significance of Plymouth Colony when he wrote, "as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shown unto many, yea, in some sort, to our whole nation."

Descendents of four men who came to America on the Mayflower--John Alden, Francis Cooke, William Mullins and George Soule--married into the Brownell Family. At least three Brownell lines are thus Mayflower lines.

(Continued)

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Copyright 1999 Bill Brownell

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