Based on Ernest Gebler’s historical novel, pilgrims sail on the Mayflower, and a cynical captain is paid to take them to cold New England.
In August 1920 pilgrims board the Mayflower in England indentured to work for seven years for the investors. Mr. Weston (Rhys Williams) pays Captain Christopher Jones (Spencer Tracy) £200 to take them to New England instead of Virginia. John Alden (Van Johnson) signs on as a carpenter and finds wanted William Brewster (Barry Jones) hiding below. Weston tells them to sign the agreement, but William Bradford (Leo Genn) and the others refuse. Weston rips it up and leaves the ship. That night drunk Jones grabs Dorothy Bradford (Gene Tierney), but her husband pushes him away.
In the morning Jones orders Coppin (Lloyd Bridges) to have the crew sail the ship. The other ship is damaged, and Jones says they are going back too. In port Bradford tells Jones that they will go in one ship even though it will leave them. Jones says that Brewster is his hostage so that they will obey him. John gives Priscilla Mullins (Dawn Addams) fresh water for washing. Coppin finds out and tells Jones, who lectures Dorothy.
Miles Standish (Noel Drayton) trains the men and shows them how to fire a musket. Jones warns them that it will be cold. During a storm Bradford goes on deck to look for a boy and falls overboard and is rescued by Jones. The ship nearly capsizes, and they use a printing press to repair a damaged mast. Dorothy thanks Jones for saving her husband. A child is born. The adults suffer hunger, and John catches Coppin stealing food. Jones stops the fight.
In November some get scurvy. On deck Jones is bitter, but Dorothy sees the love in him. William Button (Tommy Ivo) wants to see land first, but he dies of illness. Land is seen, and the pilgrims sing. A sailor tells them it is Cape Cod. Jones says he is leaving them there. Bradford says they have decided to stay there, and they realize they are free. Bradford urges them to sign the “Mayflower Compact” so they can work together. They sign their names.
Some men go exploring for a place to settle. Bradford forgives Dorothy and goes with them. Women fear that Jones will leave them without shelter. Dorothy appeals to Jones, who asks her to go back to England with him and kisses her. She says her love for her husband is much deeper. The men return, and Bradford describes the good place they found. Then he learns that Dorothy drowned.
Coppin tells Jones that the crew wants to sail, and he says he is taking over the ship; but Jones beats him. In April their homes are built; 56 of 102 have survived. They thank Jones, who offers to take any back. Privately Jones confesses to Bradford that he loved Dorothy, but she never betrayed him. None go back with the crew and Captain Jones.
Other than the fictionalized romance and some intrigues, this drama tells the extraordinary story of the first successful English colonists in New England who found religious freedom and created their own democratic society.