The story started when a group of religious dissidents decided to separate themselves from the Church of England. The group was persecuted for not conforming to the uniformity of religion practiced by the Church at the time.
Many of the Pilgrims came from villages in Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. They were then known as the Separatists. They moved to Holland in 1607/1608, looking for a safe place to raise their families and pursue their faith away from persecution. In 1609 they settled in Leiden, The Netherlands.
In the face of harsh labour conditions and their children becoming influenced by Dutch culture the Pilgrims then decided to emigrate to an English colony in the new world. They recruited other Separatists still in England to join them. In July 1620 they set sail on a small ship the Speedwell. They sailed to Southampton and met the Mayflower which was chartered by English investors. There, they were joined by other Separatists and colonists. Due to the Speedwell leaking they first pulled in to Dartmouth and then in to Plymouth for repairs.
The Mayflower alone set sail from Plymouth, England on 16 September 1620 with just 102 passengers and crew on board. The Speedwell and a number of passengers had to be left behind. The ship arrived some 66 days later, on 21 November, in Cape Cod on the US East Coast.
On that day the Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact later used by John Adams in 1780 as the basis for the Massachusetts State Constitution which, in turn, became the model for the American Constitution upon which modern day America is founded.
During the first winter more than half of the colonists died from malnutrition, disease and the harsh weather. An English-speaking Native American named Samoset helped the colonists. He also formed an alliance with the local Wampanoag. They taught them to hunt animals, gather fish and grow crops. In November 1621 the Plymouth colonists celebrated their first successful harvest. This was a three-day festival of thanksgiving with the Wampanoag. This was followed by a treaty of mutual protection that lasted for 50 years.
The Mayflower sailing is celebrated by many in the United States as the beginning of a national legacy and, in the United Kingdom, as the beginning of one of the most enduring alliances the world has ever known. No other date so embodies the centuries of shared cultural values and traditions that lie behind the Special Relationship. That relationship has seen these two nations stand shoulder to shoulder through two world wars and continue to do so against the current war on terror.