PLYMOUTH — When the Mayflower II sailed from England to Plymouth in 1957, the crew of the replica 17th-century vessel tossed some bottles overboard into the Atlantic Ocean. Each bottle contained a message signed by everyone aboard the ship, including their mascot, a little kitten named Felix. As the men watched the bottles float away and disappear into the waves, many wondered where the notes would end up, or if they would ever reach the shore.
Somehow, two bottles survived. The first Mayflower II message turned up in 1961 on the coast of Norway, and a few years later, a second one was located in the Bahamas. Then the two documents disappeared from public view. Their fate remained unknown until January of this year, when one of the crew’s signed letters resurfaced at a flea market in Florida. It is now on display in the lobby of Plimoth Plantation.
And just last week, a Plimoth Plantation employee made a surprising new discovery: More bottled messages were dropped overboard the Mayflower II than previously thought.
Historians had believed that only two bottles containing messages were thrown overboard during the Mayflower II’s maiden voyage, but actually there were four, according to Marietta Mullen, the associate director of Plimoth Plantation’s Colonial Interpretation department. She made the discovery last week while studying detailed journal entries written by the crew on the Mayflower II’s trans-Atlantic voyage.
That means two bottles are still unaccounted for, according to Mullen. It is the latest development in the story of the Mayflower II, which is about to undergo an extensive restoration.
The wooden vessel has endured a lot in its 55 years of existence. Originally designed to be a full-scale replica of the Mayflower that carried the Pilgrims here in 1620, it was built in a shipyard in the town of Brixham, in Devon, England, between 1955 and 1957. The project was the brainchild of Warwick Charlton, an English journalist who raised the money to fund the ship’s construction, which he viewed as a tribute to the United States and a symbolic gesture of thanks to Americans for helping Britain during World War II.
In the spring of 1957, the replica 17th-century ship embarked on its trans-Atlantic voyage, which took nearly two months to complete.
Along the way, the crew signed four pieces of paper that were tucked into empty cider bottles. The tops were corked and sealed with candlewax, then tossed into the ocean.
Fast-forward to January 2012: John Varndell, a 63-year-old resident of Cocoa, Fla., was rummaging through antiques at a flea market with his friend Patrick McConnon when he came across a box containing old pictures and documents.
“I took them home and thought, you know, this may be important,” said Varndell.
He inspected the contents more closely at home. He picked up a frame from the box. Inside the frame was a weathered piece of lined paper. In typewritten letters, it said: “This document was dropped overboard in a sealed bottle from the barque MAYFLOWER II during her maiden voyage, which was from Plymouth England towards Plymouth Massachusetts.” The message was dated May 9, 1957, and included a typewritten list of all the crew members, from the captain to the ship’s mascot, Felix, along with their signatures (and the cat’s paw print). Another document in the box explained the origins of the Mayflower II letter, and how it had been found on the shore of Abaco Island, Bahamas, in 1965.
Intrigued, Varndell investigated further, hoping to track down one of the younger passengers who had signed the document in 1957.
“I got online and I found a gentleman who was on the ship and looked up his name in Massachusetts,” said Varndell.
Varndell said he successfully reached Joseph Meany, one of the Mayflower II cabin boys, by phone and asked, “Are you the gentleman who was on the Mayflower II?” And Meany replied: “Yes, I was.”
After Varndell explained what he had found at a flea market, Meany urged him to report his discovery to Plimoth Plantation, the museum that maintains the Mayflower II. Soon enough, Varndell was in touch with Mullen, who has worked at Plimoth Plantation for 31 years.
Mullen has extensive knowledge of the Mayflower II, and has interviewed surviving crew members and read their journals. Of the 33 crew members who were aboard the ship, only seven are still alive today, she said.
As soon as she saw Varndell’s document, she confirmed the signatures.
“I knew right away. . . . I knew this was the real thing,” said Mullen.
After she verified its authenticity, Varndell agreed to donate his find to Plimoth Plantation, so it could be put on display.
“It’s amazing that after all these years this man goes to a flea market” and finds a piece of missing history, said Mullen. “What are the chances?”
“It was amazing. It was really exciting,” she said.
Since Varndell’s discovery, Mullen has taken extra time to review journal entries from the Mayflower II’s 1957 voyage more closely. That’s how she found out that four messages were signed and bottled by the Mayflower II crew, so two more are out there, somewhere, waiting to be discovered.
“Are they at the bottom of the ocean somewhere? Are they buried on shore somewhere?” said Mullen, her eyes widening as she pondered the possibilities in her office at Plimoth Plantation.
“Is someone going to find one?”Emily Sweeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.