Why the Pilgrims left Holland

Posted on February 10, 2010. Filed under: 17th century America, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

The myth continues! A third-grader I know brought home a booklet her class had made on the Pilgrims not long ago. It was delightful in every way, as all children’s projects are, but I was sad to see yet another generation being taught a Pilgrim myth: on page 1 – Who are the Pilgrims? – the booklet reads “The Pilgrims were a group of people who wanted to worship God in their own way. So they sailed to Holland but they were not happy because they were going to be considered Dutch. The long trip to Massachusetts took place.”

I was taught the same thing. I learned back in the 70s that the Pilgrims left Holland because the children they had there were being raised as “Dutchmen,” and English patriotism balked.

In fact, the truth is that the Separatists who became the Pilgrims knew that in 1621 the long truce in the religious war between Spain and Holland would end, and if/when that war was renewed, radical Protestants like the future Pilgrims were in great danger. They would be hunted down and killed by victorious Catholic Inquisitioners. And that would come after they lost men in the war. 

The English Separatists had never intended to stay in Holland permanently; their brand of Protestantism was not really welcomed there, and there were few jobs to be had. Financial difficulty and religious coolness made Holland a temporary choice. The Separatists were working toward going to America, getting the money together for ships and the necessary permissions from England.

So it wasn’t about their Dutch children. It’s a small myth, of course, but the real story is so much more satisfying and makes so much more sense, why not get it out there?

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7 Responses to “Why the Pilgrims left Holland”

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The World of Captain John Smith By Genevieve Foster does a beautiful job of explaining this. Nice article. 🙂


Thanks for the recommendation, Kim!


You’re just lucky that that third grader learned that they went to Holland! I teach fifth grade social studies and even our textbook leaves the years in the Netherlands out – claiming that the Pilgrims left Scrooby, England for AMERICA! That is my constant myth battle!


Hello Brittany; the fight to make textbooks accurate goes on… I guess it’s an opportunity to teach students to be critical readers, but not really! Keep up the good work.


This from Bradford’s journal in his chapter on why the “Pilgrims” left Holland:

“But that which was more lamentable, and of all sorowes most heavie to be borne, was that many of their children, by these occasions, and ye great licentiousnes of youth in yt countrie, and ye manifold temptations of the place, were drawne away by evill examples into extravagante & dangerous courses, getting ye raines off their neks, & departing from their parents. Some became souldiers, others tooke upon them farr viages by sea, and other some worse courses, tending to dissolutnes & the danger of their soules, to ye great greefe of their parents and dishonour of God. So that they saw their posteritie would be in danger to degenerate & be corrupted.”

Certainly, concern for the spiritual lives of their children played a role in why they left. Granted, it is one of several reasons, but it is a listed reason, nonetheless. Why it became the only reason mentioned in schools is beyond me, but maybe it was because of Bradford’s comment about this cause being the “most heavie to be borne.” Strangely, there doesn’t seem to be anything written about the children becoming Dutch instead of English. The main concern seems to be the spiritual degeneracy of their children while in Holland.

Why the textbooks don’t list their final reason for leaving is interesting:

“Lastly, (and which was not least,) a great hope & inward zeall they had of laying some good foundation, or at least to make some way therunto, for ye propagating & advancing ye gospell of ye kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of ye world; yea, though they should be but even as stepping-stones unto others for ye performing of so great a work.”


Hello Geof; thanks for sharing this. It’s a great excerpt and it does explain one reason why the Separatists left Holland, though they suffered the same problem in England of their children being lured away from the difficult duty of reform into easier lives of religious conformity—or leaving religion behind altogether. So going to the New World was their chance to lay a good foundation not just for others, but for their own children.


[…] in what is now the Netherlands, but suffered financially and feared they would be in danger if the political winds in the continent started blowing in a different direction. The preceding and following years in European history present a litany of religious massacres and […]


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