Monday, February 5, 2024

John Howland - The Pilgrim Who Fell Off the Mayflower

By Mary Dodge Allen

The Mayflower at Sea, painted by Gilbert Tucker Margeson

The Pilgrims had originally planned to sail to the New World in two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. Both ships set sail on August 15, 1620, but the Speedwell leaked so badly, they both returned to Plymouth, England.

On September 16, 1620 the Mayflower set sail, alone, bound for the New World. The ship now carried Pilgrims from the Speedwell, making it severely overcrowded with 102 passengers and crew. One passenger was John Howland, a man in his early to mid-twenties, born in Fenstanton, Huntingdonshire, England. Howland boarded the ship with John Carver and his wife. Some historians believe he was John Carver's indentured servant. But others believe Howand was related to the Carver family, and he served John Carver as his manservant or secretary. 

During the 66-day voyage, storms buffeted the Mayflower's wooden frame, causing leaks and even cracking one of its main beams. One fierce storm sent a huge wave over the main deck, sweeping John Howland overboard.

Howland Overboard, painted by Mike Haywood

William Bradford described the event in his book: Of Plymouth Plantation:

"In a mighty storm, a lusty young man called John Howland... [was] thrown into the sea; but it pleased God that he caught hold of the topsail halyards which hung overboard and ran out at length. Yet he held his hold (though he was sundry fathoms under water) till he was hauled up by the same rope to the brim of the water, and then with a boat hook and other means got into the ship again and his live saved. And though he was somewhat ill with it, yet he lived many years after and became a profitable member both in church and commonwealth."

Another passenger, Elizabeth Tilley, age 13, had boarded the Mayflower with her parents, John and Joan Tilley and her uncle and aunt. In his book entitled: Mayflower, author Nathaniel Philbrick hints that a romance started between Elizabeth and John on the ship, perhaps while she was nursing him back to health.

The Mayflower Compact, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

In November 1620, the Mayflower Compact was drawn up. John Howland was one of the men who signed it. 

The Pilgrims suffered during the first harsh winter, and nearly half of them died, including Elizabeth Tilley's parents and her uncle and aunt. John Carver and his wife took in Elizabeth and made her part of their family. But unfortunately, John Carver and his wife died the following Spring. Since the Carvers died childless (their children had died before the Carvers set sail on the Mayflower), it is speculated that John Howland inherited the Carver estate. 

John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley married in 1623 or 1624, and they had ten children, who all survived to adulthood. John held a number of leadership positions during his lifetime, serving as a Plymouth colony selectman; assistant to the Governor; deputy for Plymouth to the general court; surveyor of highways; and as a prominent member of the fur trade committee. He also helped establish and operate a fur trading post on the Kennebec River (in current-day Maine).

John Howland Coat of Arms

John and Elizabeth Howland founded one of the largest Mayflower families. Their descendants include three presidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush; poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; and actors Humphrey Bogart and Anthony Perkins. 

The John Howland Society includes nearly 1,200 documented descendants.

John Howland died in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1672 or 1673. His wife Elizabeth died in Swansea, Massachusetts in 1687 or 1688.

The Howland Gravesite (Public Domain)

The amazing rescue of one man - John Howland - led to the subsequent birth of people who played a role in our nation's leadership or the arts. His rescue reminds me of the classic movie: It's a Wonderful Life, which illustrates the positive difference that one person's life can make in the world... for generations to come.


Mary Dodge Allen is the winner of a 2022 Christian Indie Award, a 2022 Angel Book Award, and two Royal Palm Literary Awards (Florida Writer's Association). She and her husband live in Central Florida, where she has served as a volunteer with the local police department. Her childhood in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, sparked her lifelong love of the outdoors. She has worked as a Teacher, Counselor and Social Worker. Her quirky sense of humor is energized by a passion for coffee and chocolate. She is a member of the Florida Writer's Association, American Christian Fiction Writers and Faith Hope and Love Christian Writers. 

Mary's novel: Hunt for a Hometown Killer won the 2022 Christian Indie Award, First Place - Mystery/Suspense; and the 2022 Angel Book Award - Mystery/Suspense.

Click the link below to buy Hunt for a Hometown Killer at

Link to Mary's Spotlight Interview:   Mary Dodge Allen Author Spotlight EA Books


  1. Thank you for posting today. Wow, that's quite a story and a remarkable legacy!

  2. Hi Connie, John Howland's rescue was truly amazing. Two of my dear friends are among his descendants.