The Dutch Door To America


The pilgrims’ clandestine publishing activities were controversial from the start. Documents found their way across the Channel, and one, David Calderwood’s The Perth Assembly , enraged British authorities by criticizing King James’s imposition of Anglican bishops on the Presbyterian church of Scotland. After the British ambassador pressed reluctant Dutch authorities, Thomas Brewer was arrested and jailed. Pressure from the English finally succeeded in shutting down his press. Meanwhile, Brewster went underground in late 1618 and spent time in both Holland and England before sailing on the Mayflower in 1620.

The Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, at Beschuitsteeg 9, behind the Hooglandsekerk, where numerous Pilgrims who remained behind were buried, is run by Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, an American and a former curator of the Plimouth Plantation museum in Massachusetts. Bangs is an authority on Pilgrim life from the smallest details to the larger philosophical issues. The Pilgrim museum is housed in a period home—cramped or cozy, depending on your point of view. Over the mantel hangs a painting of Edward Winslow, the only known portrait of a Pilgrim. Winslow was Brewster’s printing assistant, and he championed the idea of a United Colonies of New England, modeled on Holland’s United Provinces.

Bangs can rattle off examples of Dutch influence in the New World, such as the ladder-back chair, wood-planked house construction, and perhaps even Thanksgiving, which some suggest is based on an annual October commemoration of the 1574 lifting of the Spanish siege of Leiden. Administrative strategies that the Pilgrims exported from Holland included the division of colonies into boroughs, care for the poor, civil marriages (which foreshadowed the American Constitution’s separation of church and state), and inheritance laws giving children the right to inherit equal shares of their parents’ estates.

The Pilgrims’ doctor, Samuel Fuller, most likely learned herbal medicine and botany while strolling through the university’s botanical gardens, said to be Europe’s oldest. This verdant patch still beckons pedestrians. Miles Standish, an English soldier who joined the Pilgrims while stationed in Leiden, probably learned military tactics and city planning from public lectures he attended at the university.


Life in Leiden was fairly agreeable, but Pilgrim parents worried about the effect of Dutch permissiveness on their children as well as about a lack of converts, loss of their English heritage, and continuing economic duress: even their children had to work hard. In 1619 one of their members, James Chilton, was stoned by locals. It was a case of mistaken identity, and he survived, but the gaze westward became more focused thereafter. The time had come.

John Robinson had gained some favor with the local burghers, and they persuaded the Dutch authorities to offer free transport to a plantation in Nieuw Amsterdam, but the Pilgrims preferred emigrating to British lands, where they might develop a society based on their own ideals. Ultimately an agreement was struck with England’s Plymouth Company, which had a charter to settle much of America’s eastern seaboard. On the day of their departure in 1620, the Pilgrims made their way down the Kloksteeg and the Rapenburg, a route they had often followed to their chapel in the Begijnhof. They climbed onto barges for the short canal journey to the port of Delfshaven in Rotterdam, where they would board the schooner Speedwell .

Delfshaven’s late Gothic, formerly Catholic, Oudekerk has been renamed the Pelgrimvaderskerk (Pilgrim Father Church). Legend has it that on their last night in Holland in 1620, the Pilgrims sought shelter there, but historians doubt it. The church still dominates the small, picturesque harbor, and to this day the Pilgrims are remembered there through special Thanksgiving Day services and an American gift of a stained-glass window depicting the Pilgrims’ departure.

John Robinson, who stayed behind, nonetheless published a “Long Letter” spelling out ideas for legal and social organization in the New World. John Quincy Adams, a Mayflower descendant and, with his parents, John and Abigail Adams, one of the first travelers back to Holland in pursuit of Pilgrim history, said that Robinson’s letter influenced the writing of the Constitution. The sixth President studied at Leiden University in his youth and later returned to the Netherlands as ambassador.