As I stepped on board the Mayflower II, a replica of the 17th-century wooden ship that brought over the Pilgrims to North America, I overheard a reenactor dressed in Pilgrim garb entertaining the crowd. I got there in time to hear her recount how my ancestor John Howland fell overboard while the Mayflower was under sail. According to her retelling, he wanted to get some fresh air during a severe storm when the wind and waves knocked him overboard. Fortunately, John was able to grab a line that happened to be dangling overboard or else I wouldn't be here. Touring the cramped quarters down below, I can imagine how the stench from living in such tight quarters would send me on deck as well.
As a direct descendent of John Alden, Priscilla Mullins, John Howland, and Elizabeth Tilley—four passengers on board the Mayflower—my trip to touristy Plymouth, Massachusetts took on the flavor of a family reunion. I started my tour at Plimouth Plantation, a replica of the original plantation where the Pilgrims lived during their first seven years in this New World.
Normally, I flee when faced with actors donned in historical costumes. Despite the Pilgrim kitsch available for sale, somehow this presentation seemed less Disney-esque than most offerings of this ilk. Through the eyes of re-enactors, I began to get a sense of my familial history. First I met Elizabeth Tilley, a young woman of about 17. This character described how she despised leaving Holland, a place she had called home for most of her life. After arriving in Plymouth, she suffered the loss of her parents during the first winter that killed about half of the colony. She became a ward of Governor Carver but when he died, Elizabeth became a ward of John Howland, a 30-year old servant of Governor Carver.
Two years later this 16-year old girl became Mrs. John Howland. When I inquired about this significant age gap, I was greeted with traditional Pilgrim modesty, though the couple seemed to live together in harmony until Elizabeth died in 1687.
The Alden residence housed an even more tragic tale. The reenactor playing John Alden was out tending the fields apparently, but his wife Priscilla Mullins recounted how she lost her entire family during that first winter. Since she was 19, she was of suitable age to be married, and the men came courting. With women in short supply, she could have had her pick among a number of wealthy widowers but yet she chose John Alden, a young man in his early twenties hired to be the cooper (barrel maker) for the Mayflower. While no pictures exist of any of my Pilgrim relatives, I presume John must have possessed youthful good looks and charm that would have appealed to a teenager such as Priscilla. When I pressed today’s Priscilla about the romanticized view of their courtship as depicted by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in "The Courtship of Miles Standish," she simply shook her head "no."
Next stop, the gazebo-like structure that houses the Pilgrim Rock (1620). This infamous stone is situated in Pilgrim Memorial State Park, one of the most heavily visited sites in the state parks system with over one million visitors a year. Supposedly, this marked the spot where the Pilgrims first exited the Mayflower though I question if my ancestors actually touched this sacred stone.
At First Parish Plymouth, the oldest continuous church in New England, my eye caught a glimpse of a plaque honoring another one of my ancestors, the Rev. Roger Williams. After he got kicked out of Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631 for promoting separation of state and equal treatment of Native Americans, Roger settled in Plymouth Colony and served this church. After a year, pressure from the Boston Puritans forced him to flee where eventually he founded Rhode Island, a colony with the distinction of granting the first charter in Western civilization making religious liberty law of the land.
Once my relatives' seven years of service were up, they chose to live apart from this separatist community, with the Howlands and Aldens settling in nearby Kingston and Duxbury respectively. When touring the Alden House, I laughed when I saw canned "Alden Pumpkin" for sale in their gift shop, not to mention other Pilgrim collectibles crafted in the image of America's first cute couple.
While only a marker remains of the Howland home in Kingston, I was able to tour the Jabez Howland House, the residence for one of John's children where he lived after Elizabeth died. As I toured the house, I felt a bit like I was walking around a long-lost relative's home. When tracing the list of "famous" people related to the Howlands mounted on the wall, I shuddered when I realized I'm also related to George W. Bush.
When I ventured up to Cole's Hill, I first stopped by the "Sarcophagus," a 9'8" x 4'4" x 6'5" granite tomb that marks the final resting place of the bones of the Pilgrims who perished during the first winter. Tears welled in my eyes when I read the names of my ancestors the Tilleys and Mullins who died.
Nearby, I spotted the Statue of Massasoit, a bonze larger-than-life likeness of this sachem of the Wampanoag tribe. While he's best known for coming to the aid of the Pilgrims, he also assisted my other ancestor Roger Williams when Roger was forced to flee from Massachusetts in the dead of winter. Without his kind hand, odds are all my aforementioned relatives would not have survived to see spring.
In lieu of purchasing cheesy memorabilia commemorating branches of my family tree, I concluded my trek to my ancestral stomping ground by toasting their legacies at Plymouth Bay Winery. Doubtful though the Pilgrims would drink to that.
If you go:
See the Plymouth Tourism site to find info on the home of Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower replica, as well as where to stay in the area.
Becky Garrison is the author of Jesus Died for This? and a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column. Other writing credits include work for The Guardian, Killing the Buddha, Religion Dispatches, and US Catholic. When she takes a break from her laptop, Becky can often be found kayaking, fly-fishing, biking or hiking.
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The Mysterious Stone Chambers of New England by Brad Olsen
Setting Foot on Celtic Sod by Becky Garrison
Other Travel in the USA stories from the archives
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