Friday, 6 March 2015

John Howland: Mayflower Man Overboard (52 Ancestors #10) Theme: "Stormy Weather"

John Howland was, fortunately, my 10th great grandfather. I say "fortunately" because he almost didn't survive his crossing from England to America on the Mayflower in 1620. Had he drowned, I certainly wouldn't be here, nor would thousands of his other descendants scattered across North America and around the world.

Mayflower II replica ship in Plymouth Harbour 1999
Whenever my sailor husband has suggested that we sail across the Atlantic, I always demur, pointing out that my ancestors weathered many storms and difficulties to get me to North America and I don't intend to dishonour their memory by reversing the trip. That is undoubtedly an excuse to cover my trepidation at the prospect of a perilous voyage, partially because of what happened to John Howland on his crossing.

Born about 1591 in Fenstanton, Huntingdonshire, England, John was in his late 20's when he left for the new world. This is inland and I don't think John had grown up on the water. Although we don't know much more about his English background or motivation, John Howland accompanied Governor Carver as his manservant on the voyage.

The Mayflower's voyage had been planned for the balmy days of summer, but various problems had caused so many delays that they didn't actually leave Plymouth, England until 6 September 1620 on a two month voyage that didn't land them on the shores of Cape Cod until late in the season in November.

This was not a lovely cruise in balmy weather. The only first-hand account of the journey was written by William Bradford who later became the colony's governor. He said: "After they had enjoyed fair winds, and weather for a season, they were encountered many times with cross winds, and met with many fierce storms, with which the ship was soundly shaken, and her upper works made very leaky." Storms lashed the ship and water soaked the passengers and their belongings. (It has been speculated that the terrible conditions may have been one of the causes of the deaths later that winter of about half the Mayflower passengers.)

During one of the many storms that battered the Mayflower during its journey, the ship lay ahull, meaning it had very little or no sail up and was allowed to drift at the mercy of the storm. John Howland went on deck for some fresh air and was pitched overboard by one of the big swells. William Bradford's description of the incident follows: "In sundry of these storms, the winds were so fierce and the seas so high, as they could not bear a know of sail, but were forced to hull for divers days together. And in one of them, as they lay thus at hull in a mighty storm, a lusty young man called John Howland, coming upon some occasion above the gratings was with a seele of the ship, thrown into the sea; but it pleased God that he caught hold of the topsail halyard which hung overboard and ran out at length. Yet he held his hold (though he was sundry fathoms under water) till he was hauled up by the same rope to the brim of the water, and then with a boat hook and other means got into the ship again and his life saved. And though he was something ill with it, yet he lived many years after and became a profitable member both in church and commonwealth."

Notwithstanding the after-effects of this near-tragedy and his seemingly menial position as servant, he was a signer of the Mayflower Compact on 11 November 1620 and then took part in an early exploration of the Cape Cod area in early December. It was this exploration party that found the Plymouth site that the company moved to and settled. The Mayflower Compact set out the principles governing the new colony.

Monument with text and signatories of Mayflower Compact 1620
including John Howland and Elizabeth's father John Tilley (other of my ancestors listed are John Alden, William Mullins and Peter Brown)

In 1623 he married Elizabeth Tilley, a fellow passenger aboard the Mayflower. Elizabeth had been baptized 30 August 1607 in Henlow, Bedfordshire, England and had also come to America aboard the Mayflower with her parents John Tilley and Joan (Hurst) Tilley, both of whom died the first winter in Plymouth, leaving 16 year-old Elizabeth alone in the new world. In the 1623 Division of Land, John Howland received four shares - one for himself, one for wife Elizabeth and two for her deceased parents.

Plaque representing the signing of the Mayflower Compact
By 1626, John Howland was one of the men who bought out existing shareholders in the joint-stock company that had funded the new colony.  Arriving as a manservant, he had become one of the prominent men of the community within a half dozen years. Whether his new-found wealth resulted from an inheritance from Elizabeth's parents or from his former employer John Carver who had died in 1621. no one knows for sure. In any event, he was elected assistant governor from 1632-1635.

His appointment as head of Plymouth's trading post on the Kennebec River marked a tragic turning point in his life. The Plymouth company had been granted exclusive trading rights on the Kennebec and the right to defend this territory against illegal incursions. A group of men from Piscataway settlement led by one John Hocking had taken a small boat up the river to trade with the Indians, interfering with this trading right. John Howland approached Hocking and suggested they depart, but Hocking's response was  a refusal to do so given in foul language. Unable to persuade the Piscataway men to leave, Howland sent three of the Plymouth men to cut their anchor cables so that the current would take them out to sea. This resulted in guns being drawn, at which Howland again tried unsuccessfully to defuse the situation. Hocking shot one of the Plymouth men in the head and then Hocking in turn was shot in the head.  This incident caused quite a controversy throughout Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies. It doesn't appear that there were any legal ramifications, but John Howland, obviously very affected by the tragedy, stepped out of public life for several years.

John and Elizabeth had 10 children including my 9th great grandmother Lydia Howland born about 1633.

By the 1640's, John resumed his participation in the life of the community. He was deputy for the Plymouth Court for many years.

John died 23 February 1672/3 and was buried two days later on Burial Hill in Plymouth. Elizabeth survived him  by 15 years.

Burial Hill, Plymouth
The inventory of John Howland's estate was taken 3 March 1673/4 and lists his possessions on a room by room basis. The outer or fire room contained a musket, long gun, cutlass, belt, chimney iron, pot hangers, frying pan, fire shovel, woodworking tools, cow bells, old chain, sheep sheers, knives and scissors, pots and kettles, candlesticks, several books and 3 beer vessels. His bedroom contained his wearing apparel including 3 hats, homespun suit and waistcoat, coats, stockings, shirts and caps, jackets and mittens, silk neck cloths, a pair of boots and 2 pairs of shoes, fabric and buttons. It also contained his bed and table linens, chair and pots, wineglasses, spectacles, feather bed and bolster, 5 pillows and 5 blankets, ammunition and an ink horn. The upper chamber had another feather bed and bolster, a wool bed, wool, feathers, corn, malt, rye, wheat, peas, bacon, beef, tallow and candles, butter and lard, sugar, tobacco (6 pounds of it!), beans and a grindstone. Livestock included 2 mares, one colt, 4 oxen, 4 cows, 4 heifers, 2 steers, 2 yearling calves, 13 pigs and 45 sheep. He also had a canoe.

All ten children survived to adulthood and married; it has therefore been said that John and Elizabeth have more descendants living today than any other Mayflower passengers. This gives one pause. Had John Howland not survived his trip overboard during that stormy day on the Mayflower, picture a world where the following people would have never been born:
  • US Presidents Franklin D Roosevelt, George H W Bush and George W Bush
  • Actors Chevy Chase, Humphrey Bogart,  and the Baldwin brothers (Alec, Stephen, William and Daniel), Lillian Russell, Anthony Perkins, Christopher Lloyd
  • Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith
  • Poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • Sarah Palin
  • Doctor Benjamin Spock
  • me (and perhaps you too?)


  • Roser, Susan E. "Mayflower Increasings", 2nd Edition, Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc., 1997
  • Lainhart, Ann Smith and Wakefield, Robert S (comp). "Mayflower Families Through Five Generations", Volume 23, Part 1: John Howland", General Society of Mayflower Descendants 2006
  • Philbrick, Nathaniel. "Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War", Penguin Group 2006
  • Johnson, Caleb H. "The Mayflower and Some of Her Passengers", Xlibris Corporation 2006
  • Bradford, William. "Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647", Morison, Samuel E (ed) NY 1952
  • Wikipedia article for John Howland accessed online 24 February 2015

1 comment:

  1. John is also my 12th great grandfather. I am descended though his daughter Desiree. Thanks for all the interest information!