They were less religious refugees than economic migrants.
When the Pilgrims set sail from Europe in 1620, several powerful reasons propelled them across the Atlantic Ocean to make new lives in America—but religious liberty was not their most pressing concern.
While it’s popularly thought that the Pilgrims fled England in search of religious freedom, the separatists’ quest had ended more than a decade before they boarded the Mayflower. After departing England in 1608, the Pilgrims found sanctuary in the Dutch city of Leiden, where they were free to worship and enjoyed “much peace and liberty,” according to Pilgrim Edward Winslow.
“The Pilgrims actually had no reason to leave the Dutch Republic in order to go to America to seek religious toleration—because they already had it,” says Simon Targett, co-author of New World, Inc.: The Making of America by England’s Merchant Adventurers. “Therefore, you have to look for other reasons as to why they might have risked the dangers of going across to the New World—and one of the big reasons was commercial.”