“They were a most unusual group of colonists. Instead of noblemen, craftsmen, and servants – the types of people who had founded Jamestown in Virginia – these were, for the most part, families – men, women, and children who were willing to endure almost anything if it meant they could worship as they pleased.” – Nathaniel Philbrick
The year 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims in the New World. It’s a year of celebration for me as a descendant of a number of Mayflower passengers.
Originally, I was planning to honor the memory of my Pilgrim ancestors by participating in a variety of events held throughout the coming months. Unfortunately, with Covid – 19 and the world-wide pandemic, most Pilgrim events are canceled and my plans have significantly changed.
It’s entirely likely I won’t be participating in any events in person this year but rather I’ll be commemorating them in other ways. One way I aim to honor my Pilgrim forebears is to write a few blog posts about them.
In this first Pilgrim blog post, I provide an overview of the nine families and 16 individual Pilgrims from which my family, through Mary Waterman, is known to descend. Mary Waterman was the grandmother of my father making her my patrilineal great-grandmother. Her line brings us back to many Pilgrim families.
In future blog posts, during this commemorative year, I hope to share with you some of my experiences learning about the Pilgrims, my connection to them, and information about their families as they grew in New England.
A “Pilgrim,” for the purposes of this blogpost, is anyone who traveled on the Mayflower in 1620 and remained in America to begin the colony in Plymouth.
The first Pilgrim family, connected to Mary Waterman, I would like to discuss is the John Howland Family. There is a great deal written about John Howland as he lived a long and productive life within the Plymouth Colony. He traveled to the New World as a manservant to John Carver; a leading member of the Leiden community of Separatists in Holland. John was a signer of the Mayflower Compact and he married Elizabeth Tilley, a fellow Pilgrim. Together they had ten children.
Pilgrim John Howland is my tenth great-grandfather and he and his family left a memorable mark upon early New England. One of the most outstanding facts of his life involves his brush with death as he made his way across the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower.
The story goes, during a severe storm John was tossed overboard by a massive wave. Providentially, he grabbed hold of a trailing halyard and was pulled back aboard the ship. Saving his life. Imagine, millions of souls wouldn’t exist today if he hadn’t made his way back onboard the ship.
Amazingly, for this era, all their children lived to adulthood. It is suggested, John Howland has more descendants than any other Mayflower Pilgrim. My family has five confirmed lines to John Howland through his daughters Hope and Desire.
John Howland’s wife, Elizabeth Tilley, was the daughter of two lesser known Pilgrims, John Tilley and Joan Hurst, linking me to a second Pilgrim family headed by John Tilley.
Elizabeth was baptized in Henlow, Bedfordshire, England and she journeyed to the New World with her parents. And while she survived the first winter, her mom and dad, sadly, did not. Her uncle Edward Tilley and his wife also joined them on the Mayflower. They, too, died the first winter leaving Elizabeth all alone. Some years after arriving in America, in 1625, Elizabeth married John Howland. She died around 1687 in what was then Swansea. Today, it is a part of East Providence, RI.
A third family from which I descend is the John Alden Family. John Alden is a well-known Pilgrim through fact and myth. John was a crew member on the Mayflower acting as the cooper for the ship joining the voyage in Southampton. He was born in England around 1599 and may have been connected to Harwich, Essex, England.
Once arriving in America, and after signing the Mayflower Compact, John elected to remain in the New World and contributed greatly to the Plymouth Colony. John Alden married fellow Pilgrim, Priscilla Mullins, whose father and her suspected step-mother were also Pilgrims.
John and Priscilla Mullins raised ten children together producing a great number of descendants. The marriage of John and Priscilla is poetically remembered by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish. John Alden died in Duxbury, MA in 1687 after a long and fruitful life.
After the Howland, Tilley, and Alden families, the Allerton Family comes to mind. The Isaac Allerton Family connects my family to three different Pilgrims; Isaac, his wife Mary Norris, and their daughter Mary Allerton. Isaac and Mary are my tenth great-grandparents and Mary, who married Thomas Cushman, is my ninth great-grandmother.
Isaac Allerton was said to be the son of Bartholomew Allerton, a tailor, from East Bergholt, Suffolk. He was born about 1588 and died about 1659. He was likely a member of a group of Brownist recusants or Separatists in the region of Suffolk and became a prominent member of the Leiden congregation in Holland. In 1611, he married Mary Norris. Sarah Allerton, his sister, married on the same day the future Pilgrim, Degory Priest, another direct ancestor.
Isaac brought his whole family with him when he boarded the Mayflower this included his wife Mary, his son Bartholomew, and his two daughters – Remember and Mary. My family descends down through Mary.
Isaac was one of the first five signers of the Mayflower Compact and was a prominent member of the Plymouth Colony for most of his life. There was some controversy about his business dealings later in his life as it seems some of his business transactions were benefiting him in a lopsided way to the detriment of the colony.
The next Pilgrim Family from which my contemporary Waterman Family claims descent is the Francis Eaton Family. Francis was born in Bristol, Gloucester, England about 1596 and arrived in Plymouth on the Mayflower with his wife, Sarah, and his child. Sadly, Sarah died the first winter. Francis married a second time to a woman only known to history as Dorothy and then a third time to Christiana Penn, my tenth great-grandmother, who arrived in Plymouth in 1623 on a ship named Anne.
Francis also signed the Mayflower Compact and it is commonly believed that he was a member of the Leiden congregation. He was a carpenter by trade and in Plymouth Colony it seems he experienced some financial challenges as evidenced by his selling of certain land holdings in 1631. Some two years later, in 1633, an epidemic spread through the colony with deadly consequences. Tragically, Francis was a casualty of this epidemic and died in the fall of 1633. I descend down the Francis Eaton line through his son Benjamin.
Next, we come to the James Chilton Family. James was born about 1556 in Canterbury, Kent, England and was trained as a tailor. He was the oldest passenger on the Mayflower at about 64 years of age and signed the Mayflower Compact. He is said to have been part of the Separatist community at Leyden, Holland and he traveled to the New World with his wife and youngest daughter, Mary. Evidently, he left his other 10 children in England. And his wife is known to us only as “Mrs. Chilton” because William Bradford did not record her first name. James Chilton died on the Mayflower in 1620 in Provincetown Harbor. His wife died a few months later.
James’ daughter, Mary, has, like so many other Pilgrims, a variety of interesting facts and myths attached to her. First, she is reputed to have been the first Pilgrim to step ashore in Plymouth as a 13 year old girl. She shares this distinction with a competing story which claims John Alden was the first Pilgrim to step ashore. Be that as it may, she was indeed present from the earliest moments of the colony and her family grew abundantly in New England. She’s also one of only two female Pilgrims who left a will and her marriage to John Winslow connected her to another important Pilgrim family.
The Francis Cooke Family now captures our attention. Francis came to the New World on the Mayflower with his oldest son, John. His wife, Hester, and other children joined him later in America after arriving on the ship Anne in 1623.
Francis Cooke, by evidence of his tax burden, was not a wealthy member of Plymouth Colony though he was self-sufficient. He wasn’t overly represented in the political life of Plymouth Colony but he was consistently available for different civic duties. He clearly had a knack for surveying as he was regularly called upon to practice this skill for the colony laying out many roads in Plymouth and the surrounding towns. He and his wife had seven children and he died in Plymouth in 1663. The Waterman Family enjoys three connections to Francis Cooke.
Shortly, we will come to the end of this list of families and we find the Degory Priest Family as our eighth subject of interest. Degory Priest was an active member of the Leiden Separatist congregation and worked as a hatter when he became a citizen of Leiden.
In 1611 Degory married Sarah (Allerton) Vincent who was the sister of the future Pilgrim, Isaac Allerton. Degory and Isaac married their brides on the same day. Degory came to Plymouth alone. His wife and two daughters, Mary and Sarah, came to the New World and settled in Plymouth after his death. Degory Priest was a signer of the Mayflower Compact and he died, shortly after signing, during the first winter on January 1, 1621. The Mary Watermans descend through his daughter Sarah.
The ninth and final family from which the Waterman clan descends is the Mullins Family. Based on the number of shoes identified in his will and the supply of footwear he brought over on the Mayflower, William Mullins was believed to be a shoemaker. He came to the New World with his wife Alice, his daughter Priscilla, his son Joseph, and his servant Robert Carter. Alice isn’t considered an ancestor because it hasn’t been sufficiently proven that Priscilla was her daughter. With the exception of Priscilla, all of the Mullins family died during the first winter. Priscilla would later marry John Alden and leave a large family.
These nine different families, each with rich New England stories, make up a part of our American history and they also make up a part of my personal history. We celebrate their efforts and their accomplishments this year not because of our excessive pride or because we ourselves have done anything special but because their values and their virtues, real or imagined, provided the bedrock upon which America was built.
Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, Caleb Johnson, (ed.), Xlibis Corp., 2006.
Bunker, Nick, Making Haste From Babylon, New York: Knopf, 2010.
Fraser, Rebecca, The Mayflower: The Families, The Voyage, And The Founding of America, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017.
John Alden Silver Books, Volume 16, Part 1, 1999.
Johnson, Caleb, The Mayflower and Her Passengers, Xlibris Corp., 2006.
Philbrick, Nathaniel, Mayflower, Viking Penguin, 2006.
Stratton, Eugene Aubrey, Plymouth Colony: It’s History and People – 1620 – 1691, Ancestry Publishing, 1986.
Whittock, Martyn, Mayflower Lives, London and New York: Pegasus Books, 2019.