The Life and Legacy of William Brewster


As the Pilgrims made their way to America on the Mayflower in 1620, William Brewster served as a leader instrumental in establishing Plymouth Colony’s government and church services. In fact, were it not for William Brewster, the Pilgrims may not have even made the trip in the first place. Who was William Brewster, and how exactly did he influence the Pilgrims?

william brewster

William Brewster’s Early Life

William Brewster was born in Yorkshire, England, in the 1560s to William Brewster Sr. and Mary Smythe. In his young adult years, he studied at Peterhouse, Cambridge. While there, he became involved in efforts to reform the Church of England. It became a passion that would guide the rest of his life, eventually leading to the fateful Mayflower voyage. 

William Brewster married a woman named Mary (maiden name unknown) around 1592. The couple had six children—Jonathan, Patience, Fear, an unnamed child who died in infancy, Love, and Wrestling.

William Brewster and Religion

William Brewster and his family were part of the Scrooby Congregation, a group of about 50 Separatists who believed that the Church of England needed to change. Because of their beliefs, many of the Separatists were arrested (including Brewster), fined, or watched constantly.

Fearing for their safety, William Brewster and the rest of the Scrooby congregation decided to leave England illegally and move to the Netherlands. There, they could practice their religion more freely.

scrooby manor house

While in Holland, William became the congregation’s elder, an authority figure responsible for helping members lead a respectable life. He also taught English at a university and started a printing press with Thomas Brewer. The two of them smuggled illegal religious books into England, eventually leading to Thomas getting arrested and William going into hiding. 

Why Did William Brewster Journey on the Mayflower?

title page of religious pilgrim book

William Brewster and the Separatists enjoyed religious freedom in Holland, so why did they journey on the Mayflower? Simply put, the congregation wanted to maintain their English roots. By sailing to America, the Separatists could practice their religion freely while still living in a British colony, thus preserving their English cultural heritage.

In addition to preserving his English heritage, it’s also possible that William Brewster was motivated to sail to America to avoid the legal repercussions of printing and selling Puritan books in England, where they were currently banned.

William Brewster played an integral part making the journey to America possible. He, along with Robert Cushman and John Carver, secured the charter to settle in the British Virginia colony, paving the way for the group to make the monumental voyage.

Voyage and Arrival in America

The Mayflower’s journey, which occurred at the height of storm season, was certainly no picnic. But to make matters worse, when Brewster and the other Mayflower passengers finally reached shore, they were nowhere near their intended destination. 

By landing in Massachusetts instead of the Virginia Colony, the Mayflower passengers had no legal system. The passengers came up with a written agreement, known as the Mayflower Compact, to work together to establish the Plymouth Colony.

William Brewster, the only college-educated Pilgrim, most likely wrote the Mayflower Compact, and nearly all the men aboard the ship signed it. The document served as one of the first examples of self-governance in America.

Life in Plymouth for the Brewsters

The first winter in Plymouth devastated the Pilgrims. Disease, hunger, and lack of shelter wiped out half of the settlers by the end of winter. Miraculously, William Brewster, his wife, Mary, and their children all survived.

william brewster garden and land

As the only college-educated member of the community and the congregation’s elder, William Brewster served as a religious leader until a pastor arrived nine years later. Brewster continued his work in the church throughout the rest of his life, even after starting a farm in nearby Duxbury.

William Brewster’s Death

William died on April 18, 1644, at nearly 80 years old. He was buried in Burial Hill in Plymouth, where you can find a stone memorial honoring him as “Patriarch of the Pilgrims.” His wife, Mary, had died years earlier, in April 1627. At the time of William’s death, the pair had only two surviving sons, Jonathan and Love. 

william brewster

William Brewster and His Descendants

Many people today can trace their ancestors back to William and Mary Brewster, including Bing Crosby, Julia Child, Katharine Hepburn, Henry Longfellow, Seth Macfarlane, Sarah Palin, and Zachary Taylor. Discover other famous Mayflower descendantsyou may even be one of them!

Are You a Descendant of William Brewster?

See if you’re related to the famous William Brewster! Try diving into his genealogy for a deeper look at his family tree.

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