On September 6, 1620, 132 passengers and 30 crew departed from Plymouth, England on the Mayflower for the New World. Among them were a small group of Separatists, or Pilgrims, who had rejected the state church and "divine rule" of King James I, and were seeking a place where they "could live more comfortably, yet still enjoy freedom of religion." Others taking the journey included Miles Standish and John Alden, recruited to sail as part of the newly organized Council for New England, who continued to support the Church of England.
Storms tore at the vessel, ice-cold water leaked continuously into the crowded deck, and, at one point, the Mayflower threatened to break in two. One man died on the journey; one baby was born. "After a long beating at sea, they fell with that land which is called Cape Cod... they were not a little joyful." (Of Plymouth Plantation)
Walker's mural depicts the weary voyagers as they catch their first glimpse of the New World. The likeness of only one person, Edward Winslow, is known; the other passengers are the artist's invention. Above their heads, occupying half the canvas, hover two angels floating a banner which reads: "For the Lord is our Defence [sic], and the Holy One of Israel our King," (Book of Psalms 89:18), a reference to their relationship to God as the source of their strength and safety.
Although the Mayflower landed considerably farther north than its destination of northern Virginia, Captain Christopher Jones dropped anchor in Provincetown Harbor. With no patent to govern their party in New England, forty-one passengers signed the Mayflower Compact, the sole authority by which they would maintain law and order until a new patent arrived the following year. After exploring the outer cape and bay, the Pilgrims eventually settled at Plymouth. December 22 was named Forefathers Day, in honor of the first permanent landing.
The mural is painted with monumentality and breadth which attempts to communicate the climactic importance of the event and the heroic quality of its characters. The marble plaque below the frame is inscribed: "God sifted a whole nation that He might send choice green over into this wilderness," a quote from Governor William Stoughton, 1688.