Saturday, 16 May 2015

John Alden: Mayflower "Self-conceited Fool" (c. 1599-1687) (52 Ancestors #20) Theme: "Black Sheep"

No, I don't think for an instant that my 10X great grandfather John Alden is really a "black sheep". (I don't think of any of my ancestors as black sheep!) Certainly some of them had attributes or behaviours that got them into all sorts of hot water with the authorities of their times. Some were certainly outspoken, opinionated, eccentric and no doubt the subject of gossip and rebuke. Those tend to be the ones whose stories are so interesting! Maybe, when it comes right down to it, most of us are really various shades of  "grey sheep" with admirable characteristics along with a few that might from time to time land us in some sort of trouble or disrepute. John Alden was such a man.

Mayflower II replica ship in Plymouth Harbor 1999
Far from being a black sheep, John Alden is generally respected as one of the earliest American immigrants, having arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. He was not one of those coming to America because or religious persecution but was part of the ship's crew who chose to remain in Plymouth, New England. I like the fact that he was the ship's cooper, charged with the crucial task of tending and repairing the wooden barrels holding beer, strong water (distilled spirits) and water for the trip. Beer was a safer drink than water in those days and apparently everyone, including children, drank it as a regular source of hydration.

Kate Caffrey on page 86 of her book "The Mayflower" says that "One new member of the company came aboard at the last minute, a young cooper named John Alden, tall and fair-haired and powerfully built."

William Bradford, another Mayflower passenger, wrote the definitive source book about the journey and passengers - "Of Plymouth Plantation". On page 441 he lists John as one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact and adds: "John Alden was hired for a cooper at Southampton where the ship was victualled, and being a hopeful young man was much desired but left to his own liking whether to stay when he came here; but he stayed and married here."

Mayflower Compact 1620
John Alden 7th name down in left-hand column
(Other of my ancestors who also signed: William Mullins, John Howland, John Tilley, Peter Brown)
In May of 1622 John married Priscilla Mullins at Plymouth Colony.  She was in her late teens and he in his early 20's. This is thought to be just the second marriage to occur in Plymouth Colony. Priscilla had been left alone when her parents William and Alice and brother Joseph Mullins had all died during that treacherous first winter in New England. Priscilla would have been left well off: her father had been a businessman and had brought along 40 pounds worth of shoes and boots to sell. She also would have been left a large amount of money, a number of shares in the Plymouth Colony's joint stock company and all of her family's household goods. John and Priscilla's courtship (and the supposed love triangle with Miles Standish) is recounted in a romantic but probably historically inaccurate poem by Alden descendant William Longworth Longfellow. (The families were, however, to be united in the next generation when John and Priscilla's daughter Sarah married Miles Standish's son Alexander.)

Children started to arrive in 1624 with daughter Elizabeth, then sons John in 1626 and my 9X great grandfather Joseph in 1627. Seven more children were to follow.

John quickly rose within the ranks of Plymouth society. This was probably a combination of his relative wealth and status from his marriage to Priscilla along with his physical stature, honesty and ability. Records show that he was a respected man who was very involved in community affairs and was:

  • Among those who undertook to pay the debts of the colony to the London Adventurers who had funded the migration from England to Plymouth;
  • One of the first prominent settlers of Duxbury, MA, by about 1632;
  • Assistant Governor of the colony 1633-39, 1651-86 and probably also 1631-32;
  • Master carpenter and, along with my other ancestor Kenelm Winslow, made the better pieces of furniture (serrated cabinets, chests and cupboards) for the more prosperous families;
  • Treasurer of the colony (as successor to his old friend Miles Standish) 1656-1658;
  • Member of many juries.
John Alden House 1653, Duxbury MA with the writer and her mother, 
two Alden descendants, 1999

He certainly sounds like a solid family and community man. Where does the "grey sheep" come in?

John Alden was a man of his time and, even though he found himself in some difficult situations, he can probably be forgiven for some matters like these:
  • One of the juries on which he served was a witch trial. (But this jury could actually be commended for taking the unusual decision of finding the accused witch innocent and finding the accuser guilty of libel and ordering him to pay a fine and be whipped.)
  • He found himself in jail for an affair in 1634  that could be called "The Murder on the Kennebec". (This affair was also touched on in connection with my story about John Howland, another ancestor who was very involved in the matter. A thorough description of the incident can be found on this Howland family society website in which it can be seen that John Alden had no direct part in the murders and was eventually freed.) 
Where John Alden's reputation is really tarnished (at least by most modern standards) is with respect to his religious intolerance. Living in a community whose very existence resulted from an escape from religious intolerance in England, it always disappoints me to learn how they treated other religious groups within Plymouth Colony. John Alden persecuted those of other religions mercilessly:
  • When six Quaker Friends were banished from the colony on pain of death in 1659, John Alden as Assistant Governor was seen to nod in agreement when Governor Prence stated that all Quakers deserved to be destroyed along with their wives and children, without pity or mercy. 
  • He was a leader in the persecutions of Baptists in 1657. 
  • Another ancestor, James Cudworth (who will be the subject of next week's story on this blog), lost his powers as commissioner to the United Colonies as a result of some Quaker leanings within his family. John Alden was apparently responsible for this based on a letter written to him by Cudworth (found on pages 317- 318 in Volume 10 of "The Baptist Quarterly")  in which Cudworth said: "Our Civil Powers are so exercised in matters of religion and conscience that we have not time to effect anything that tends to the promotion of the civil weal; but must have a State religion, and a State ministry, and a State way of maintenance." Cudworth had apparently thought better of Alden for he said that Alden "had deceived the expectations of many, and indeed lost the affection of such as I judge were his cordial Christian friends."
  • One Quaker summed up his opinion of John Alden in a letter to him (found on page 378 of Willison's "Saints and Strangers") in which he said: "John Alden, I have weighed thy ways, and thou art like one fallen from thy first love; a tenderness once I did see in thee, and moderation to act like a sober man, which through evil counsel and self-love thou art drawn aside from . . .  like a self-conceited fool puffed up with the pride of his heart because he has gotten the name of a magistrate." 
John Alden died at the age of 88 in 1687, outliving many of his children. He is buried beside Priscilla at Duxbury. John Alden's inventory included chairs, bedstead, chests and boxes (probably all made by him), as well as tongs, kettle, saw, augurs and chisel, carpenter joiners, dripping pan, pewter wear, two old guns, table linen, horse bridle and saddle, library, clothing and old lumber.

Old Burying Ground, Duxbury, MA
Burial location of John and Priscilla

It is said that until the last he was a bold and hardy man, stern, austere and unyielding. Such qualities can have a positive bearing on family and community but, unfortunately, can also lead to bad treatment of others who have different views. 


*Willison, G.F., "Saints and Strangers", New York: Reynal and Hitchcock 1945

*Anderson, Robert Charles, "The Great Migration Begins - Immigrants to New England 1620-1633" NEHGS 1995, Vol. 1

*Johnson, Caleb H., "The Mayflower and Her Passengers",, 2006

*Caleb Johnson's Mayflower History Web Pages

*"Families of the Pilgrims: John Alden and William Mullins", Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, 1982

*Roser, Susan E., "Mayflower Increasings" 2nd Ed., Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1997

*Bradford, William, "Of Plimoth Plantation 1620-1647", a digital copy of which can be found with this link

*Caffrey, Kate, "The Mayflower", Stein and Day, 1974


  1. Beautifully written as always, Joanne. I too had trouble finding truly black sheep to write about this week, and copped out by picking a sheep farmer! But after reading your post, I'm now sure I could have found someone with similar "grey" tendencies in my tree (I love your first paragraph and summation).

    Religious intolerance is unfortunately all too common. It seems so hypocritical to me when people with supposedly strong religious beliefs are so intolerant and even cruel to others. Whatever happened to "do unto others ..." and "love thy neighbour ..." that at least is the more Christian and humane way to treat others.

    Thanks for being an inspiration!

    1. Thanks for that, Claudia. Yes, I've had 3 weeks of stories that showed religious intolerance and the price people in those days paid for that. Next week's story is going to be about an ancestor who stood up to the intolerance - and how that affected him negatively!