On 24 November 2016

The Mayflower and the Atocha: Ships that Passed in the Night?

On August 21st, 1620, a group we now call the “Pilgrims” set sail in two ships from England to found a church of their own and start a new life in the boundless potential of the New World. It’s a familiar story, especially around Thanksgiving. What many people don’t know is that the story of the most famous Spanish treasure galleon of all time, the Atocha, was unfolding at the exact same moment across the Atlantic.

Five days prior to the Pilgrims’ departure, on August 16th, 1620, the construction of a new 110 foot long galleon christened Nuestra Señora de Atocha was completed in a Havana shipyard. Named after the Virgin of a Catholic shrine in Madrid, a portrait of “Our Lady of Atocha” was painted on her sterncastle (the uppermost part on the back of the ship). The Atocha was commissioned to provide much needed protection against pirates for the critically important Spanish treasure fleet of 1622. Spain was involved in an expensive war in Europe, which they paid for on credit, and New World treasure could not fall into the hands of pirates if they were to pay their growing debts.

Meanwhile, only 300 miles into the Pilgrims’ journey, one of their two ships was leaking so badly that they returned to England. 102 passengers crowded onto their one remaining seaworthy ship, an 80 foot long merchant ship called the Mayflower, and set sail from Plymouth, England on September 6th.

After a storm-tossed and treacherous voyage, the Pilgrims sighted Cape Cod at sunrise on November 9th.  They made landfall after narrowly avoiding being shipwrecked in a storm off of Cape Cod, and began exploring. By the end of 1620, they had found a suitable site and had started construction on the first buildings at Plymouth settlement.

Late in 1620, the Atocha sailed from Havana for Spain where she would be outfitted for her return trip to the New World as a key component of the Spanish “Tierra Firma” Treasure Fleet of 1622. It's possible that the Mayflower and the Atocha were sailing across the Atlantic in opposite directions at the same moment.

In the latter months of 1621 (the exact date is not known), the surviving Pilgrims and members of the nearby Wampanoag tribe congregated in Plymouth for a three-day harvest feast consisting of venison, fish, fowl (including wild turkeys), and corn. This, of course, is considered the origin of our modern Thanksgiving tradition.

At the very same time, in Sanlúcar harbor near Cadíz, Spain, preparations were underway to supply the Atocha with necessary armaments and foodstores for the long journey. The sailors’ daily rations included a quart of wine, two pounds of biscuits, an ounce and a half of olive oil, half a quart of vinegar, and a small piece of cheese. Less frequently, meals were prepared from stores of dried peas and beans, rice, and salted pork. Already an inferior menu to the Pilgrims’ feast, these food items were made even less appetizing by poor preservation during the long ocean journey.

The Atocha was, however, eventually bestowed with a great bounty of treasure. She was carrying much of the material wealth exported from the Spanish Main (South America), including approximately $750 million dollars worth of silver bars, the silver coins called “pieces of eight,” Colombian emeralds, gold chains, and many other incredible artifacts when she sank in a hurricane off the Florida Keys on September 6th, 1622. 


66 lb silver bar from the Atocha, one of 900 silver bars listed on her manifest





Daley, R. (1977). Treasure. New York: Random House.

Lyon, E. (1979). The search for the Atocha. New York: Harper & Row.

(n.d.). Retrieved November 22, 2016, from http://mayflowerhistory.com/


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