The Mayflower brought some stalwart, devout, and admirable men to America in 1620. It also brought John Billington.
Susan Page Davis here. Last month I told you about my ancestor, John Alden. Today I’ll tell my husband’s family’s side of the story.
|The Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, but William Halsall|
John Billington is known as the black sheep of the Mayflower. William Bradford, who wrote the classic Of Plimouth Plantation, said about him in a letter, “…he is a knave, and so will live and die.”
Problems with John began on the voyage. He and his wife, Elinor, embarked with their two sons, John Jr. and Francis. The boys were about ages 15 and 13 when the Mayflower sailed.
Like John Alden, Billington was a Stranger, one of the passengers who was not part of the Separatist group on the Mayflower. Bradford described the Billington family as far from pious, being “one of the profanest families amongst them.” Some sources say John Billington left England to escape his creditors.
On board the ship, John was disliked for his foul language and the escapades of his sons. Francis endangered all aboard when he fired a gun inside the ship, near an open keg of gunpowder. Though the father was already known as a troublemaker and implicated in a near mutiny on board, he did sign the Mayflower Compact when they anchored.
|Signing of the Mayflower Compact, by Jean L. G. Ferris|
During the first winter, the cruel weather and lack of provisions contributed to the death of half the colonists, reducing their number to fifty. The Billington family was the only one that survived without losing at least one member.
In 1624, a scandal rocked the Plymouth Colony. Several people revolted against the rule of the Plymouth church, led by a minister who arrived on the ship Charity, John Lyford. Lyford was loyal to the Church of England, not the Separatists, and apparently sent letters to England to undermine the Plymouth Colony and the authority of Governor Bradford. John Billington was named among Lyford’s supporters. However, Billington insisted he was innocent and was never officially punished. Lyford was banished from the colony.
His real claim to fame—or infamy—came in 1630. By this time, many other ships had brought new colonists, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony was also growing at Boston. A young man who arrived about 1624, John Newcomen, got in the bad graces of Billington and several others who were now landowners, by poaching on their property. Apparently, this was a matter of contention for some time, and he had been repeatedly warned against it.
As Bradford recorded it, Billington waylaid Newcomen in the woods “about a former quarrel and shot him with a gun, whereof he died.” Other sources tell us Newcomen hid behind a tree when Billington accosted him. Primary sources are few, but most accounts say Billington shot him in the shoulder and that Newcomen lingered several days. Infection set in, and he died.
Some modern descendants have tried to defend John Billington, saying that William Bradford had it in for him from the start. There may be something to that, but the authorities at Plymouth did call in John Winthrop of Massachusetts Bay and others to help them make the right decision, as there was some question as to whether the colonists had jurisdiction to carry out a death sentence.
John Billington was hung in September, 1630. He was the first white man convicted of murder and hung in New England.
John Jr. was already dead at the time of his father’s execution. The younger son, Francis Billington, married Christian Penn Eaton, also a Mayflower passenger, in 1634, and they had nine children. Francis apparently overcame the family stigma and became an upright member of the community. It is from Francis and Christian that my husband is descended.
Susan Page Davis is the author of more than fifty published novels. A history major, she’s always interested in the unusual happenings of the past. She’s a two-time winner of the Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award, and also a winner of the Carol Award and the Will Rogers Medallion, and a finalist in the WILLA Awards and the More Than Magic Contest. Visit her website at: www.susanpagedavis.com .
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