Saturday, December 6, 2014

Apologia For Grandfather

William Bradford of Plymouth Plantation

     The past few days I've been reading everything I could find about my Mayflower ancestor and 11th great- grandfather John Billington.  John is on my Mother's side of the family, and so distant in time that it's hard to find concrete facts about him.  One article claims a completely different scenario than the next.  All agree John was born around 1580 in England and came to what would become the United States on the Mayflower in 1620.  All also agree that John has the dubious distinction of being the first man hanged in New England.  Not all agree however, on how the story unfolded.

     Common belief is that John Billington and his family were troublemakers from the start and the murder charge that would cost him his life was the culmination of a dissolute life.  But circumstances need to be examined here.  Everyone knows the Puritans, or Saints as they flatteringly called themselves, were escaping religious persecution when they set sail for the new world.  Not everyone on the Mayflower was a Puritan however.  In order to make ends meet, Anglicans and even a few Catholics were sold spots on the voyage; much to the chagrin of the Puritans who immediately took to calling them "strangers".  Among the strangers was John Billington and his wife Ellen/Elinor and their two young sons John Jr. and Francis.  Several articles claim the Billington family may have been Catholic which would have made them even more unlikeable to the Puritans.

     And dislike them they did.  It was believed that John was mixed up in disputes and a mutiny on the Mayflower, and his son Francis, (my 10th great-grandfather), almost ended the whole enterprise by firing a gun near a barrel of gunpowder on board, nearly transporting them all to kingdom come prematurely.  Governor William Bradford, in his writings called the Billingtons, "the most profane family", and there are records indicating John was often reprimanded for speaking his mind and generally annoying the powers that be.  But who was in charge at Plymouth?  The Puritans--and a more self-righteous, intolerant group would be hard to find.  It should be remembered these were the same people responsible for the terror of the Salem witch trials.

      The biggest differences among the articles about the Billingtons surround the death of John Newcomen, for which John Billington was executed.  One version holds that John Newcomen was found dead in woods belonging to John Billington, others claim that while John Billington did shoot John N., he then immediately sought help for the injured man.  One says John Billington stalked the man, another that John N. was given to poaching on the land of others, had been warned several times to desist, and that John Billington was only trying to scare him when he shot in his direction.  One says the victim was shot in the back, and yet another that the shoulder wound, (from the front),  was survivable, but infection set in.  One even says John Billington was innocent and offers as proof the writings of a neighbor who called him, "beloved by many".

     Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  John Billington and his family clearly did irritate the Puritans who were running the show in Plymouth, but so did many others who dared exhibit any individuality.  Shooting another man is wrong, but one stealing and scaring away the game John needed to feed his family might well provoke him to fire in his direction.  Judging actions that took place centuries ago, in a time so radically different from our own, is nearly impossible.  So I'm cutting 11th great-grandpa some slack. I don't think the "Saints" would have liked me much either, I can see myself in the stocks now.


  1. Fascinating Ellie. I'm just thinking, you know as much about your 11th great-grandpa as I do about both my paternal great-grandfathers!

    1. Well, yours probably weren't as notorious as mine Dara. One thing the Puritans did right though was keep great records, that amazingly have survived for the most part--that's helpful too. Once they moved into New York, the records ended.