On September 6, 1620, 102 passengers and 30 crew members boarded the Mayflower. Some were in search of religious freedom; others, new opportunities in a new land. Eighteen adult women were on board.
Only four of those adult women would survive the following year and be present at what has come to be known as the “First Thanksgiving” in the fall of 1621. The reasons for this scale of loss are well known and well documented, and have little to do with the initial concerns related to lack of strength and fortitude that caused many of the Pilgrim men to leave their wives behind in Europe.
When the Pilgrims arrived on the north shore of Massachusetts after their arduous 66-day, 2,800-mile journey, there was much work to be done. While the men organized and executed scouting trips that would ultimately result in the selection of Plymouth as the site for their colony, the women remained in the cramped — and no doubt fetid — ship. Care-giving roles for children soon expanded to include nursing the sick as the winter swiftly ushered in rampant disease.
Due to the antiquated social mores of the time, in which women were entirely subservient to men, the details of their lives are sparsely recorded.
More than half of the new colonists would be buried by the spring.
The hardship and loss endured by the surviving women is unimaginable. And due to the antiquated social mores of the time, in which women were entirely subservient to men, the details of their lives are sparsely recorded.
Perhaps the most complicated legacy is that of Eleanor Billington. She was the matriarch of the black sheep family of Plymouth: her husband, John Billington Sr., was the first murderer in the new colony and the first to be hanged for his crimes. Her son Francis fired a musket shot aboard the ship that narrowly missed a powder keg, which could have significantly altered history. And her son John Jr.’s disappearance ended when he was found and peacefully returned by a local Native American tribe in what otherwise could have been a history-changing early skirmish. Billington herself would be no stranger to controversy — she was later sentenced to sit in the stocks and be whipped for slandering John Doane. Yet, historians suggest that black sheep was not the only role she played: Eleanor Billington was also responsible for sharing the duties of caring for the sick during that first devastating winter.
Elizabeth Hopkins was one of three women who were in the third trimester of pregnancy when the Mayflower departed. She went on to give birth to a son, Oceanus, during the voyage. She and husband Stephen Hopkins, one of the most prominent “Strangers” to land, led a fruitful and colorful life that would see him run afoul of the law for a variety of offenses related to drunken revelry in their home.
Mary Brewster joined her husband William and their children, Love and Wrestling, on the Mayflower. William Brewster is one of the most celebrated figures in this early chapter of American history, serving as a chief advisor to Gov. William Bradford, and Mary, according to historical accounts, is said to have acted as a sort of mother figure to colonists, playing a particularly strong role in the moral education of the women and children. Of her death in 1627, at the age of 57, Bradford wrote, “her great and continual labours, with other crosses and sorrows, hastened it before y'e time.”
Susanna White Winslow made history twice in the earliest days of New England. She bore the first child there when her son Peregrine was born while the ship was anchored in Provincetown Harbor. And after the death of first husband William White, she married Edward Winslow, viewed as one of the most energetic and trusted men in the colony, in the first wedding recorded there.
Two younger girls, Priscilla Mullins and Elizabeth Tilley, both of whom were left orphaned in the first winter, also survived to the first Thanksgiving. They would go on to have a significant impact on the colony.
Priscilla Mullins found a sort of romantic immortality thanks to a largely fictionalized account of her relationship with future husband John Alden in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Courtship of Myles Standish.” About 20 years old when she arrived on Plymouth’s shores, Priscilla was said to be attractive, a good cook, and a strong wit. The latter quality, regardless of whether she actually uttered the words, is immortalized in the most famous moment of the poem, when Alden is dispatched by Standish to ask for Priscilla’s hand in marriage, only to be chided, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”
Elizabeth Tilley was 13 when she arrived in Plymouth. Following the death of her parents, she was taken in by Gov. John Carver and his wife Catharine, both of whom would be gone themselves within the year. She would then be taken in by the Carver’s manservant John Howland, and the two would later marry and have 10 children, all of whom would live to adulthood and would eventually create more than a million ancestors. The lineage includes Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush; writer Ralph Waldo Emerson; actor Christopher Lloyd; and former governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.