19. Four Pilgrim Ancestors: Life, Death, and Thanksgiving for the Howland-Tilley Family at Plymouth

For the ancestry of the Howland, Tilley and Dickinson families, see The Omnibus Ancestry, available for download through Lulu. For a dramatization of the events described here, see Saints & Strangers, a National Geographic mini-series debuting on November 22nd, 2015. Vere Tindale plays John Howland, and Jessica Sutton plays Lizzie (Elizabeth) Tilley.

On 11 November 1620, the Mayflower anchored off Cape Cod of what is now Massachusetts, carrying 101 passengers. That very day 41 of the men signed the Mayflower Compact, agreeing both to combine into “a civil body politic” to enact laws for the general good, and to obey those laws [2]. It has been called the first written constitution in the world [3].

Among the signers were John Howland and John Tilley [2]. John Howland came as the servant of John Carver, who was shortly to become the first Governor of Plymouth Colony [3]. The son of Henry and Margaret Howland of Fenstanton, co. Huntingdon, England, he was about 28 years old, having been born in 1591/2 [1].

John Tilley (b. 1571) came with his wife Joan, daughter Elizabeth (bap. 1607), brother Edward, and Edward’s wife Ann. The extended family also included two young relatives of Ann, thereby forming a sizeable contingent of the passengers [1, 4]. The Tilleys originated at Henlow, co. Bedford, England, tracing in unbroken descent from Henry Tilly, who was born in the middle of the 15th century [1].

The Tilleys were among the “Saints” on the voyage. These were religious Separatists who had briefly settled in Leiden, Holland, before economic, religious, and cultural pressures led them to consider immigration to America. After protracted negotiations in London, a charter was issued creating the Plymouth Council for New England. Although issued several weeks after their departure on the Mayflower, it in effect permitted them to settle in New England [3, 15]. Others among the passengers were “Strangers”, or non-Separatists recruited by the London-based Merchant Adventurers for commercial reasons.

The trip to America had not been uneventful. The Leiden passengers had departed from Holland in July 1620 aboard the ship Speedwell. They met the Mayflower at Southampton, England, and initially set out on August 5th. However, problems led to a diversion to Devonshire and an abandonment of the leaky Speedwell as a companion ship. The Mayflower did not finally depart England until late in the sailing season, on September 6th [3]. Huge waves were encountered during the voyage, constantly crashing topside and fracturing a main support beam, which the passengers were obliged to help repair [6]. At one point John Howland was swept overboard, but by chance caught a trailing halyard and was saved [7, 16].

Life and Death in Plymouth

Both of the Johns, Howland and Tilley, were selected to be part of the expedition of December 6th, led by Myles Standish, that discovered Plymouth Bay and landed at what is now Plymouth on the 11th. Its members, according to tradition, were the first to step on Plymouth Rock [5, 17].

According to Gov. William Bradford, publishing in 1656 about events he had personally witnessed, the settlers built small cottages for shelter that first winter. But most were in poor condition from the voyage, “being infected with the scurvy and other diseases”. They began dying, as many as two or three a day. At the peak of illness there were only 6 or 7 healthy persons to care for the entire colony. January and February were particularly fatal months. By winter’s end, half of the settlers had died [8]. Among them were John Tilley (d. 11 January 1620/1) and his wife Joan. Their 13-year old daughter, Elizabeth, was an orphan. Nor did she any longer have an uncle and aunt in the New World, for Edward and Ann Tilley had also died [1, 4]. She was taken in by the Carvers, but only briefly; they also expired over the next few months [9].

John Howland survived. He appears to have inherited both the estate and the dependents of the Carvers, the latter including Elizabeth Tilley and four others. In 1623 John received 4 acres in a division of land, and about the same time married Elizabeth [10]. They were to have a total of 10 children [9].

Thanksgiving

After the horrifying winter of 1620/1, the Pilgrims learned from the Indians to fish for eel and to plant corn. They laid in stores of fish, fowl, and venison, and were rewarded with a generous harvest. On a fall day in 1621, probably about the end of September, they held a feast. The attendees were the 50 remaining survivors, and 90 Indian guests including their chief, Massasoit [11].

First Thanksgiving

That harvest feast can be considered the ultimate origin of the U.S. holiday, although it certainly was not regularly celebrated in that early era [11]. The festival attending the original 1621 feast was a week long, and was a time of rejoicing and pleasure. Interestingly, no religious service was described in the two accounts left by participants. In fact it has been argued, based on Separatist abhorrence of mixing recreation with religion, that none is likely to have occurred beyond the usual morning devotionals. However, in 1623 a true day of religious Thanksgiving was observed by the colonists, probably toward the end of July [12].

Later Events

John Howland rose to prominence in Plymouth. He purchased his freedom from indentured servitude in 1621, probably with proceeds from the Carvers’ estate. In 1626 he was one of a number of settlers who assumed the colony’s debt to the Merchant Adventurers of London. He helped set tax rates in 1634, and served as deputy to the General Court in 1641-55 and 1658. He also served as assistant and deputy Governor, selectman, and surveyor of highways [1].

Toward the end of his life, John moved with wife Elizabeth to Duxbury and then Kingston, Massachusetts. Following the burning of their house sometime after 1666, both lived with their son Jabez Howland in Plymouth, in what is today the only surviving house lived in by Mayflower passengers (see photo) [1, 13]. His personal estate inventory in 1672/3 showed a value of £157.8.8 and listed nearly a dozen books. He was also found to own several parcels of land in the towns of New Plymouth, Duxbury, Middleberry, and elsewhere [1].

Howland house

Jabez’ house was sold in 1680, and Elizabeth removed to the home of her daughter Lydia in Swansea, Massachusetts [1]. In her lengthy will, made in December 1686, she stated she was of “Swanzey” and gave her age as 79 [1]. By her namesake daughter Elizabeth Howland (ca 1631-1691), who married John Dickinson (ca 1622-1683/4), she was the ancestor of the numerous Dickinsons of Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York [9].

John and Elizabeth Dickinson were the great-great-great grandparents of my ancestor Samuel Dickason (ca 1757-1846, also spelled Dickison and Dickinson), who lived in North Castle, Westchester county, New York, and Duck Creek Hundred, Kent county, Delaware, before moving successively to Fayette, Butler, and Armstrong counties, Pennsylvania. He also lived briefly in Brown county, Ohio [1].

Dennis & Dad at Fort Plimouth

By means of that link, I descend from four of the Mayflower passengers: John and Elizabeth Tilley Howland, and her parents John and Joan Tilley [14]. None of this was known to my family during our only visit to Plymouth, in 1967 (see photo, taken at Plimouth Plantation). Having since applied The Genealogical Craft, I look forward to another one soon.


Notes:

[1] Boles, D.B. (2016). The Omnibus Ancestry. Available through Lulu.

[2] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayflower_Compact (2015).

[3] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilgrim_Fathers (2015).

[4] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Tilley, 2015).

[5] Jenks, T. (1905). Captain Myles Standish. New York: The Century Co.

[6] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayflower (2015).

[7] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Howland (2015).

[8] Information retrieved from http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/amerbegin/settlement/text1/BradfordPlymouthPlantation.pdf (2015).

[9] White, E.P. (2008). John Howland of the Mayflower, Volume 4. Rockland, ME: Picton Press.

[10] They married ca 25 March 1624 (ibid), the first day of the new year under the calendar then in use. The date of the 1623 division is uncertain, but was probably in Mar 1623/4 — i.e., the same month but perhaps earlier than the 25th (information retrieved from http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/MAYFLOWER/2001-04/0987280455, 2015).

[11] Information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanksgiving_(United_States) (2015).

[12] Love, W.D. (1895). The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Co.

[13] It is operated as a museum on a part-year basis; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jabez_Howland_House.

[14] The intervening generations and supporting evidence appear in Boles, D.B. (2016). The Omnibus Ancestry. Available through Lulu.

[15] Separatists believed that the established Church of England was wrongly organized by geographical area, and that a congregation should instead be organized by common belief. Separatist congregations were therefore autonomous (information retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/topic/Separatists, 2015).

[16] A dramatic painting of Howland’s rescue appears at http://www.mikehaywoodart.co.uk/webrescue.html.

[17] The rock is controversial, however; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plymouth_Rock.


Picture attributions (in order shown):

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914). Public domain. The log cabin, as well as the Plains dress of the Indians, are historical inaccuracies (information retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jennie_Augusta_Brownscombe, 2015).

Swampyank at English Wikipedia, Jabez Howland House in Plymouth MA, retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jabez_Howland_House_in_Plymouth_MA.jpg. Used and adapted under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  The photo was taken on Thanksgiving day, 2009.

Personal photo of my brother and father, foreground, at the fort at Plimouth Plantation, 1967.

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One thought on “19. Four Pilgrim Ancestors: Life, Death, and Thanksgiving for the Howland-Tilley Family at Plymouth

  1. Excellent research, David!

    Back in 2011, my very first blog post was about my and my spouse’s Mayflower ancestors.

    It is estimated that somewhere around ten percent of Americans (approximately 32 million of us) can trace our ancestry back to at least one of the passengers on the Mayflower. Isn’t it fascinating that so many of us are connected personally to this historical event… and to each other?

    Like

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