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Pilgrims – Exhibition & History


There have not been any baptisms in the former baptistry of the Pieterskerk Leiden for a long time now, but this tranquil corner of the monument is still a very important place. That is because in this spot John Robinson was buried originally. This leader of the Pilgrim community, who brought the Pilgrims from England to Leiden, would eventually stay behind in Leiden to take care of those Pilgrims who were not yet able to travel to America. In 1625, five years after the departure of the Mayflower, Robinson died in one of the small homes opposite the baptistry which were located in the spot that in the present is occupied by the Jean Pesynhof, on the Pieterskerk Square.

That is why our American visitors walk by the baptistry to witness a piece of their history in the Pieterskerk Leiden. In cooperation with Erfgoed Leiden en Omstreken (the municipal heritage organisation), a small exhibition has been installed in this spot.

City of Refugees

A group of English separatists called ‘Pilgrims’ left for America on the Mayflower in 1620. Before the Pilgrims made the crossing, they lived, worked and prayed in Leiden for twelve years, free from the religious persecution of the English crown.

Their choice to travel to Leiden in 1609 was not a coincidence, as Leiden was known as an open and – for those days – a relatively tolerant city. Leiden welcomed religious refugees and invited many foreign academics to work at the newly founded university. In these days Clusius cultivated the first Dutch tulip in the Hortus Botanicus and the young Rembrandt attended the Latin School.

In the beginning of the 17th century the first refugees were brought to Leiden. People from the Southern Netherlands, Flemish and Walloon people and French Huguenots. Later an equal number of German refugees came to Leiden. The wool and textile industries in Leiden were thriving by then.

Leiden society

Some Pilgrims were actively involved in public life in Leiden: reverend John Robinson got involved in the debate about Arminianism and William Brewster taught English courses to Dutch students at the university. But both economically and socially it was not an easy life in Leiden for the Pilgrims.

When the freedom of the press and the openness for public debate became more restricted in the Dutch Republic, the separatists started making plans to make the crossing to America. In 1620 part of the Pilgrim community left Leiden. Some of them stayed behind, like their spiritual leader John Robinson, who was buried in the Pieterskerk Leiden in 1625.

Nine Presidents

The Pilgrims arrived in Cape Cod in 1620. They sailed along the coast to Patuxet (Plymouth), where they founded Plymouth Colony. Thanks to aid by the local population, who had lived there for thousands of years already, they started building a prosperous colony.

The story of the Mayflower is central to American history as a symbol of the first European colonisation in North America. It is estimated that today there are around 25 million American descendants of the Pilgrims, including nine American presidents: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Ulysses Grant, Calvin Coolidge, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George Bush sr, George Bush jr & Barack Obama.

The other perspective

The ‘success’ of this annexation of territory drew hundreds and later thousands of European colonists in the following decades. The impact that this flow of newcomers had on the native Americans was enormous. The original population dealt with diseases, war and practices of forceful cultural or religious assimilation. They thus suffered greatly from the forced adaptations to the new colonial situation.

Up until today the Native Nations in America, which includes the Wampanoag, are aware of their heritage and continue to honor their traditions.

Relief of Leiden

Certain aspects of American culture can be traced back to the years during which the Pilgrims lived in Leiden. Civil marriages, for example, were a Dutch legislative innovation, which forms the basis for the separation of church and state.

The Relief of Leiden in 1574, which is still commemorated in Leiden on 3 October every year, is widely seen as a possible inspiration for the American Thanksgiving Day celebrations.

On 3 October 1789 George Washington declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday and on 3 October 1863 Abraham Lincoln codified that Thanksgiving would always be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.

National Day of Mourning

Since 1970 on every fourth Thursday of November – the same day as Thanksgiving – the Native Nations of New England organize The National Day of Mourning.

The organizers view the national holiday of Thanksgiving as a memory of oppression and the continuing suffering of the Native Nations in America. Participants in the National Day of Mourning honor their Native ancestors and the struggle for survival faced by the Native Nations to the present day.

Thanksgiving in Leiden

Annually a Thanksgiving Day Service is held in the Pieterskerk Leiden for Americans living in the Netherlands (temporarily or permanently). It is a non-denominational service, on the morning of the fourth Thursday of November. For Americans Thanksgiving in the Pieterskerk Leiden is unique: dozens of Pilgrims were buried here, including their leader John Robinson.

Abigail Adams wrote a letter to a friend in 1786, saying: ‘I felt a respect and veneration upon entering the church at Leiden’.


1 commemoration, 4 nations, 1000 voices

Leiden400 is an alliance between Erfgoed Leiden en Omstreken, Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden Marketing and the Pieterskerk Leiden. These four organizations came together in 2016 to research whether Leiden could participate in the international commemorations in 2020. The international mission of Leiden400 is:

“In 2020, four hundred years after the sailing of the Mayflower, the USA, Wampanoag Nation, UK and the Netherlands will participate in an inclusive four-nation commemoration. We will commemorate the story of the pilgrims, the cultures and places with which they interacted and do so by focusing on themes that make this commemoration relevant and urgent in the here and now, such as migration, tolerance and oppression.”