Plymouth Rock stands as a significant landmark in the history of America; it was the place where the Pilgrims first disembarked after their nearly two month long voyage to the New World. But why did they land at that spot? One could assume it was strategic of course, that perhaps the spot had been planned before they had shoved off in Southampton. Not quite. The Pilgrims landed at the historic spot because their beers stocks had nearly run dry.
The voyage to the New World did not start well. It began on August 5, 1620, when the Mayflower set sail with its partner ship, the Speedwell. The Speedwell sprang a leak not long into the trip and had to dock for repairs. Afterwards, a new start was made. The travelers had made it a mere 200 miles beyond Land’s End at the southwestern tip of England when the Speedwell sprang another leak. The trip was now badly delayed, and the group had to make the decision to abandon the Speedwell and load all of the passengers onto the Mayflower.
(For those concerned about the welfare of the Speedwell, she was sold, refitted, and made many voyages to the great profit of her owners. However, she never achieved the fame of her counterpart.)
The English settlers had been at sea for nearly two months, destined for the colony in Virginia that had been established some 13 years prior, when they sighted land. They hadn’t made it as far south as they would have liked, but now they realized that they had a major problem: they were running out of beer.
Sound ridiculous? Not exactly. See, “ship’s beer” wasn’t what we drink today. The alcohol content was much lower, and it was required because there was no way to prevent normal water from spoiling during long-trips. It would become brackish, undrinkable, and even deadly, while the “ship’s beer” remained a good source of water. With the knowledge that the beer also needed to last for the crew’s return trip, captain Christopher Jones recommended a landing near the top of Cape Cod.
The Pilgrims didn’t love the change in plans. William Bradford complained that he and his companions “were hastened ashore and made to drink water, that the seamen might have the more beer.” After the Pilgrims were on land, having crossed the Plymouth Rock (probably), the sailors remained docked and on-board for the winter. After some time, the weather worsened, and the Pilgrims found the local water difficult to drink. Bradford tried to appeal to the captain for some of the remaining beer stock. He was told that he wouldn’t get it “not even if he were their own father.” But due to the infamously bad weather conditions, Jones’ heart softened and he allowed the Pilgrims back aboard, although it wouldn’t prevent half of the group from meeting their doom that winter.
So beer was the reason for the landing spot as well as a requirement to survive a long journey a sea – they just needed to make sure they had enough to go around.