Who Were the Pilgrims?

(Last Updated On: November 12, 2019)
Who Were the Pilgrims?

You might have heard about the Pilgrims in seventh-grade history. In any case, many people can’t actually identify who they were, what they believed in, or why they came to America. Throughout this post, we’re going to cover all of those questions and provide you with the answers you’ve forgotten—or if your history teacher was lazy, maybe you never learned at all. 

Who Were the Pilgrims?

In simple terms, the Pilgrims were characterized as a group of English travelers who came to America during the reign of King James I. Due to discord with  the current regime of that time, they came to America (via Holland) with the hopes of finding a better life for themselves and their families. They arrived in the year 1620, aboard a ship called the Mayflower, and would establish the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.

But what made them want to seek a better life? The answer is religious freedom and economic benefit. They did not believe in the religious principles that were being perpetuated by the English people and were being threatened for not following religious practices alongside the other citizens. But they refused to cave in and follow the religious practices they didn’t agree with. Their goal was to find a way to escape the feelings of disharmony they were experiencing and to be able to practice their religion in peace.

What Did They Believe In?

So, what exactly made them want to seek religious freedom in the first place? The Pilgrims believed that the present-day religious beliefs that spread through England were very inconsistent with the teachings from the Bible, so they wanted to find independence to practice their own religion. They followed a group known as the Separatists, as they went against the teachings of the Church of England.

It’s worth noting here a key difference between the Pilgrims and Puritans. As Separatists, the Pilgrims wanted to separate themselves from the Church of England and practice their own religion. Puritans, conversely, sought to reform the church to become more Protestant.

Why Did They Come to America?

Originally, they didn’t. The Pilgrims initially traveled to the Netherlands, but were unable to fit in with the culture or support themselves financially. They found it difficult to raise their children as Dutch people were considered to be too permissive, and the work was long and intense. The homes were also small and the cities, extremely busy. Although they settled there for a few years enjoying the religious freedom that they originally sought, they eventually found themselves dissatisfied with the way of life and made their way to America. 

In the end, the reason why they came to America was in search of a better life for themselves from a financial standpoint.

Why Were They Called “the Pilgrims”?

While there are many definitions for the word “pilgrim,” one of the most popular is: “a person who journeys, especially a long distance, to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion.” Judging by this definition, it’s safe to say that it’s clear why the English citizens left in the first place — in search of religious independence. They stuck to their beliefs and refused to go against them, despite the controversies and threats that were subjected to at the time.  

The first use of the word “Pilgrims” to describe the Mayflower passengers comes from William Bradford, former Governor of the Plymouth Colony. In his work, Of Plymouth Plantation, he invokes Biblical imagery to recount his group’s departure from Holland in 1620:

“So they lefte [that] goodly & pleasante citie, which had been ther resting place, nere 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on these things; but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits.”

Interestingly, no one would really call them “the Pilgrims” until much later in the 19th century, when their story became more popular.

The Pilgrims and Thanksgiving

Upon arriving in America, the Pilgrims eventually settled in and grew accustomed to their new land. In October 1621 they had their first harvest, and it was around this time that they came into contact with the neighboring Wampanoag. The two groups were able to get along without incident, working out a land deal as they feasted on the fruits of their labor. This celebration lasted for three days, and later became widely recognized as a national tradition that spread throughout the country. Nowadays, we call this widely celebrated holiday “Thanksgiving.” 

But it’s important to realize that, despite the nice story, this isn’t the origin of Thanksgiving. The idea of “giving thanks” to ones creator for a bountiful harvest was nothing new. The Algonquian people, for example, participated in regular ceremonies linked to the crop cycle. 

The Pilgrims were already familiar with the idea of Thanksgiving when they arrived in the New World. And they would have not considered their raucous harvest celebration a “Thanksgiving”. Thanksgivings were to be holy, solemn affairs, and this gathering was not that. 

Why Are the Pilgrims Important?

The Pilgrims came to represent (whether fairly, or unfairly) many of the ideals that would become ingrained in American culture—courage, faith, and devotion. They were courageous enough to stand up for their beliefs and leave their homes in search of a place where they could be free and independent. They stayed devoted to their beliefs and refused to give them up when things got tough. The Pilgrims also had an incredible amount of faith to have believed that they would find land with greater independence and prosperity. They refused to settle until they found what they were looking for, and their search ended up taking them all the way across the Atlantic.


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