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According to Wikipedia, the Mayflower began its voyage in July of 1620, was delayed while waiting for the Speedwell, and then ultimately left for America in September.

This put them in America at the beginning of November and left the Pilgrims very vulnerable to the winter conditions in America without adequate shelter and supplies.

I understand that the delay caused by the Speedwell could not have been foreseen but even counting that, why plan to leave mid-late Summer and not in the Spring, so that they would arrive under better conditions?

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    The summertime trade winds are marginally better for East-West passage in the North Atlantic. Earlier in the year equates to stronger Easterlies to have to combat. Plus they basically had to wait on the Speedwell, there wasn't enough room aboard the Mayflower. It was only due to the majority of the passengers from the Speedwell giving up and going home that allowed the remainder to all fit aboard the Mayflower. – CGCampbell Nov 23 '15 at 17:36
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Short Answer:
The untimely process to receive royal permission for their proposed settlement (three years) and the uncertainty which went with it is probable the single greatest factor in the pilgrims late departure in July of 1620. This started the clock and all the delays which followed exasperated the problem. After permission was granted the Pilgrims had a number of formidable tasks to accomplish. Line up financial support. Recruit skilled workers to augment their labor force. Hire and provision ships. All of this could not occur until the King gave permission for the Pilgrims to settle in the Northern part of Virginia. As you alluded too. Problems with the Speedwell which ultimately did not make the trip, set them back to Sept 1620, and then navigation errors and looking for an more optimal location cost them additional months. They didn't actually get started on their winter dwellings in Plymouth until just after Christmas late December of 1620.

Detailed Answer:
The Pilgrims(separatists) were a group of protestants who objected to the Church of England as being too similar to the Catholic Church, and thus tried to seek out a life where they would be free to worship independent from other religions. The first refuge in their desire for freedom to practice their religion as they saw fit was Holland. They stayed in Holland for 10 years. Ultimately Holland had a few draw backs. It had a wide variety of competing religious and cosmopolitain belief structures which the Pilgrim children were attracted too. The secular trade craft system disallowed the immigrant Pilgrims from practicing their chosen vocations, and thus Pilgrims were relegated to lower paid labor jobs and had a difficult time earning a living. On this basis by 1617 the congregation of Pilgrims(separatists) started to plan a North American Settlement which would provide both religious and economic freedom they were seeking. Jamestown had been established in the territory of Virginia in 1607 and was an ongoing concern. Jamestown was their model and like Jamestown Virginia was their target for settlement.

  • 1617 The Pilgrims decide to leave Holland and on the Model of Jamestown settle in the territory of Northern Virginia in order to find religious and economic freedom. Jamestown was in Southern Virginia.

  • It took 3 years to negotiate with England (King James) for the right to settle in Virginia. This period involved long periods of waiting and several false starts. When they finally did receive permission to proceed, it was felt that they had to leave as soon as possible or risk seeing the permission rescinded as it had been on previous occasions over the 3 year period.

  • It took additional time to negotiate terms with their financial backers "The London Adventurers". "The London Adventurers" would pay for the Pilgrims transport and supplies in exchange for products which would be exported from the new colony once it had been established. How many hours a week the pilgrims in North America would labor for their financial backers and what percentage of production these supporters would require all had to be negotiated. Also which supplies would be needed and when these exports would begin were contentious topics for negotiations.

  • The 35 religious immigrants had to recruited 50 skilled vocational workers to assist with building the settlement.

  • In May of 1620 they negotiated transport with the captain and quarter-owner of the merchant ship Mayflower, Christopher Jones. The ship had to sail from London to Plymouth, England to be provisioned.

History of Massachusetts
In May of 1620, religious separatists known as pilgrims hired Jones and his ship to take them to the mouth of the Hudson River in North America where they had been granted permission to build a colony.

  • July 1620 The Pilgrims left for Virginia. Twice they had to return to England because one of the two ships they were employing (the Speedwell) was taking on water and ultimately deemed structurally unfit for the journey. The Mayflower finally left without the Speedwell, Sept 1620.

  • November 9th, Land was sighted, ending 66 days at sea.

  • November 11th, The social contract, the Mayflower Compact was written and signed.

  • December 8th, After skirmishes with local Indians, the Pilgrims decided to return to the Mayflower and look for a better settlement site.

Mayflower Departs England
- On December 21 the Mayflower came to anchor in what would become Plymouth harbor. Just after Christmas 1620, the pilgrims began work on dwellings that would shelter them through their difficult first winter in America.

Sources

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JMS's answer hits on the better reasons, this answer is mostly intended as an supplement to his.

I'm not 100% sure if the first Pilgrims truly knew how unforgiving the New World's weather would be. Much of Northern Europe and especially Britain benefit greatly from a system known as the North Atlantic Current (Or North Atlantic Drift). This pattern sees warm waters flow from the Caribbean towards northern Europe which does much to regulate its climate. Even the coldest times of winter are relatively mild all told and the temperature rarely dips below -10 Celsius (often staying above 0 for much of the year).

London's coldest month is apparently January averaging a decent 5 degrees...and it's important to note London lies around 51.5 degrees North.

North East North America actually sees the other end of this system, a cold Arctic current flowing south. New York, sitting around 40 degrees north and a significant distance south of London, sees its coldest month of January at around 2 degrees Celsius on average. St.John's Newfoundland (Canada) sits around 47.5 degrees North (still south of London) will see it's average winter temperatures drop to -8 pretty readily in January (with periods of much harsher temperatures). I would also venture a guess that the pattern now known as a Nor'Easter is a complete unknown to the Mayflower pilgrims.

So I would suggest, in addition to JMS's post, that the Pilgrims were likely unaware of how harsh a New England winter could actually be compared to their mild Northern Europe winters and as such, put less stress on arriving in the summer than they should have.

  • +1, I think they knew they were in trouble when they left. The journals I read say they were very conscious of the time they spent waiting on Spreewell. Spreewell was supposed to stay with the colony, so it was a bold decision to go without her. I agree with you though, they didn't expect how harsh the winter would be. I think this was due to their lack of experience and perhaps the navigation errors which left them significantly north of their intended target. – JMS Feb 7 '18 at 19:44
  • @JMS - I imagine the concern on the timing of the Spreewell was more to due with missing the harvest season rather than thinking the weather would be harsh. I'd imagine the most pre-warning they got on the weather was from tales/legends of far away Siberia at best. – Twelfth Feb 7 '18 at 20:34
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    Perhaps, but there were several attempts to colonize New England prior to the Pilgrims several had experienced a first harsh winter. In 1604 the French tried it on the Island of Saint Croix Maine and lost half their number during the first winter. In 1607 England had tried with the failed Popham Colony(present-day town of Phippsburg, Maine). Also the Dutch, starting point for many of the Pilgrims had landed a colony modern NY in 1613. Also in 1613 the French built Fort Pentagouet near Castine, Maine. Both to protect their interests and supply there fishing fleets. – JMS Feb 7 '18 at 21:02
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    Also of coarse, you can't be overly concerned about missing the harvest season if you had already missed the spring planting season. – JMS Feb 7 '18 at 22:31
  • ^ that's a rough, not smooth, point! – mallin24 May 31 '18 at 11:55

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