John Carver Mayflower Governor

Mayflower Governor John Carver

Before they sailed in 1620, English religious refugee passengers  appointed one of the deacons from the congregation they were leaving behind in Holland as their governor for the voyage. Mayflower Governor John Carver earned that role through his many efforts to make the trip possible.

They couldn’t just call a travel agent to book passage. The trip required years of planning and numerous trips back and forth across the English Channel to make arrangements. A group of about three dozen from the Separatist congregation in Leiden planned to establish a new religious community in the New World. They had already done that once when they fled from England to the Netherlands in 1608.  A decade later they started thinking seriously about establishing a plantation of their own across the Atlantic.

They faced two major challenges. First, they needed a charter – a patent – granting them permission to establish a new settlement in the territory previously claimed by the English Crown with the establishment of Jamestown in 1607. Next, they had to figure out how to finance the trip.

Carver the Negotiator

The Leiden congregation appointed John Carver and Robert Cushman their ambassadors to approach people back in England who could help them get the patent they needed. Given they’d fled England a few years earlier to escape King James’ searchers, they could not assume the English authorities would grant their request. It fell to Carver and Cushman to travel from Leiden to London to obtain the patent.

Carver was probably born in 1576, likely in Nottinghamshire in Northern England, and emigrated with others to establish the Separatist congregation in Leiden, Holland. He married Katherine White Leggett (Also spelled Catherine) in Leiden. Their exact wedding date is unknown, but was likely in 1616 or earlier, given Katherine gave birth to a stillborn infant in 1617. When Katherine’s sister, Bridgett, married Pastor John Robinson, John Carver and John Robinson became brothers-in-law. Carver was one of the deacons in the growing Leiden congregation.

Leiden Life

Life in Leiden was a great improvement over their last years in Northern England. They no longer lived in constant fear searchers from the Established Church of England would arrest them. However, jobs were hard to find. The jobs they did find were typically exhausting and low-paying. As new immigrants they didn’t speak the language, and weren’t part of a Guild system that helped Dutch citizens work their way up the local economic ladder. John Carver was an exception. Apparently, he was a successful businessman and brought considerable wealth with him when he emigrated from England to Holland.

Various members of the Leiden congregation had connections with people of influence back in England. Carver and Cushman pled their case to these people. Even four-hundred years ago, much of getting along and ahead in life depended on who you knew. Perhaps because the King wasn’t paying attention to what the Leiden refugees were doing, or perhaps because the crusty King was happy to send the annoying Separatists as far away from England and the Established Church of England as possible, their patent was granted.

Who’s Going to Pay for This Trip?

With that problem resolved, they now had to figure out how to fund the trip. Carver and Cushman negotiated a plan with potential financiers in which their group would work as indentured servants seven years. After seven years they would own the land they worked, along with the houses they built, and be free to work for themselves. The original plans worked out by Carver and Cushman with the Adventurer financiers gave the settlers two days a week to work for themselves and five to work for the Adventurers. Carver may even have used some of his own wealth to help finance the trip.

At the last-minute Thomas Western, the main spokesman for the Adventurers financiers, announced two disturbing new terms. First, they would work seven days a week for the Adventurers, or go find alternate funding. Additionally, they would accept a number of people to travel with them, bringing the  total number of passengers to 102 men, women and children. Plus two dogs. And a crew of probably a couple dozen sailors. The Leiden immigrants did not know these people recruited by the Adventurers. The additional passengers did not share their strong religious convictions against the Established Church, but traveled for other reasons. Now their fates and differing agendas were in the hands of a Captain Jones who was navigating his first cross-Atlantic trip. What could possibly go wrong?

Carver and Cushman did their best to negotiate a better deal for the Leiden group, but in the end, they had to acquiesce to the terms or abandon plans that had been unfolding for months. They’d already sold everything they weren’t taking with them, resigned their jobs, and said their tearful farewells to friends and family who weren’t coming on the trip. It was too late to turn back.

Yet Another Obstacle

They got their patent, secured funding, and rounded up all the provisions they’d need for the voyage and their new settlement. There was yet one more obstacle to overcome before finally sailing off to a new life in a new place. Initially Carver and Cushman arranged for two ships – the Speedwell and the Mayflower. The Speedwell had to return to port twice to repair leaks. The second time the Captain declared it unfit to sail across the Atlantic. Some of the passengers, including Robert Cushman, gave up on the plan and returned home. Everyone else, and all the cargo, crowded onto the Mayflower.

Governor John Carver

Before they sailed, the Leiden congregation passengers named John Carver as Governor for the duration of the voyage. Another man was appointed Governor of the non-Leiden passengers. Katherine Carver’s sister, Bridget, and her husband, Pastor John Robinson, stayed behind in Leiden, anticipating coming to the New World later. They never made the trip.

When Mayflower Captain Jones spotted land on November 9, 1620 he informed them they were many miles off course and the weather would not permit sailing the 400 miles south to the intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River. Disappointed, but desperate to have access to land again, they anchored in Provincetown Bay on November 11, 1620.

This meant they were north of the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company and without the familiar English rule of law to govern themselves. To avoid chaos and conflicts between the Leiden folks and those assigned to travel with them, Governor Carver and others drafted the Mayflower Compact. As Governor, John Carver was probably the first man to sign it. Every adult male signed it or marked it to indicate their consent to the terms. No women did. Women’s rights weren’t even a concept four hundred years ago. They then appointed Carver as Governor of their newly established settlement, even before they knew exactly where that settlement would be located.

Looking for a Place to Call Home

Carver went on three exploration trips over the next several weeks in search of the best location to build their new community. Carver was with the group that first saw and heard the Natives, though they did not meet them face to face until the following spring. Carver helped decide to establish Plimoth Plantation on the site of a deserted Patuxet village, across Cape Cod Bay from Provincetown. The Mayflower remained anchored off the cost of Provincetown a month while the men explored the area. When Carver and others reported what they found, the ship sailed across Cape Cod Bay to establish Plimoth Plantation,  changing the course of Native history and North America forever.

Carver’s term in office was short lived, though he did live to negotiate a peace treaty with leaders from the Wampanoag Nation in March. He died in April 1621, apparently from sunstroke. By then the Mayflower crew was preparing to sail back to England. His wife, Katherine, died a few weeks later. Perhaps she died from a broken heart, or the sickness that took the lives of half the passengers that winter, or from the utter despair she must have felt when she assessed her situation as a childless widow in a strange new place. The few living relatives she had remained behind in Holland. With the death of John, she was truly on her own.


Information for this blog comes in part from Pilgrim Hall, Plymouth MA and Mayflower History.

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also enjoy these blogs: The Mayflower and Peace Treaty


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