William Bradford was one of the founders, and a longtime governor, of the Plymouth Colony settlement. Joining the Separatists who rejected the Church of England, Bradford spent many years in the Netherlands before coming to America on the Mayflower in 1620. He served as Plymouth Colony governor on and off for 30 years and was instrumental in the creation of the colony’s legal code. Bradford’s two-volume Of Plymouth Plantation is one of the primary sources used by historians about the history of Plymouth Colony written by a Mayflower passenger.
Dorothy Bradford was the wife of William Bradford, and traveled with him on the Mayflower from the Netherlands, leaving their young son, John, behind with the hope of being reunited when they found stability in the new colony. The reunion would never be, however. While the ship was docked off of Provincetown, from where the men launched scouting expeditions, Dorothy tragically fell over the ship’s rail and drowned.
John Carver was the first governor of Plymouth Colony. A leader of the Separatist Congregation in Leiden, Netherlands, Carver was instrumental in the efforts to create the new colony. He is credited with organizing the Mayflower journey, is said to be the first to sign the Mayflower Compact before the ship’s arrival, and to have played a key role in choosing Plymouth as the site of the settlement. Carver died in the spring of 1621, reportedly of sun stroke while working in the field shortly after his election as governor.
Catharine Carver, the wife of John Carver, traveled with him to the New World. Just a few weeks after the death of her husband, Catherine succumbed to what William Bradford described as a broken heart.
Edward Winslow was one of the most prominent men in Plymouth Colony. A three-time governor and skilled negotiator, Winslow was selected to meet and negotiate with local Native American tribes in the region, and later served as a diplomat between the colony and England. Listed as a printer by trade in his native England, Winslow also authored several important historical pamphlets including “Good Newes from New England” and the historic “Mourt’s Relation,” which he co-wrote with William Bradford and which features a first-person account of the “first Thanksgiving.”
Myles Standish was a professional English soldier who was chosen by the Pilgrims to be their military leader. Standish led multiple expeditions to explore the land and choose a site for colonization. He oversaw the construction of a fort and trained and led the colony’s militia. He would play a critical role in both the colony’s defense, as well as playing a key role in its government. Known for a fiery temper and an impulsive, preemptive and aggressive leadership style, Standish was at times criticized by some for the brutality of his attacks on Native Americans, yet highly respected for his bravery as well as for his skills in negotiating with Native American trading partners, and with the Pilgrims’ original investors, the Merchant Adventurers Company.
Of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower, Stephen Hopkins is said to have been the only one with previous New World experience. He had survived a storied shipwreck in Bermuda in 1609 that may have been the inspiration for Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” before making his way to Jamestown and serving under Captain John Smith. The experience and knowledge he gained there of Native American cultures and language proved particularly helpful to his fellow leaders in Plymouth, and the first formal meeting between Plymouth leaders and Native Americans was held in his home. He later became a pub, or “ordinary” owner, and would have several run-ins with authorities in Plymouth regarding drunken revelers at his home.
The wife of Stephen Hopkins, Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth to the couple’s second child, Oceanus, during the Mayflower voyage. She was one of only four women to survive to the “first Thanksgiving.”
John Billington, Sr.
John Billington, Sr. was the patriarch of a family of troublemakers who drew attention on the ship for its troublesome behavior. Firmly in the camp of the “Strangers” onboard (he is said to have left England to escape creditors), Billington was implicated in mutinous maneuvering during the journey, and his son Francis could have sent the ship to the ocean floor by firing off his father’s musket near a powder keg while the ship was moored in Plymouth Harbor. The elder Billington was accused of—and talked his way out of—charges of insubordination in the challenging of the military rule of Myles Standish. He was implicated in the Oldham-Lyford failed revolt against the Plymouth church, and ultimately made history as the first person to be executed in the new colony for his conviction of the murder of John Newcomen.
The matriarch of one of America’s most troublesome first families, Eleanor Billington also found trouble on her own. In 1636 she was sentenced to sit in the stocks and be whipped for slandering John Doane, an influential leader in the settlement.
John Billington, Jr.
John Billington, Jr. arrived with his family in Plymouth in 1620. He put his name in the history books a year later for wandering off from the colony and going missing for five days. Billington, Jr. was delivered by the Manomet sachem, Canacum, to the Nauset tribe, whose corn the pilgrims had stolen upon their arrival at the Cape. When the colonists sent a heavily-armed posse of 10 men to Nauset to retrieve him, the Natives arrived with more than 100 men. To the colonists’ surprise, the boy was returned peacefully and conflict was avoided, but the incident certainly did not help the Billington family’s already shaky standing in the community.
John Alden was a 21-year-old ship laborer hired to be the “cooper”, or barrel maker, for the Mayflower’s voyage to America, and chose to stay in Plymouth. Alden would go on to be a prominent member of the community, serving in various capacities, and was one of the longest-surviving Mayflower passengers at the time of his death in 1687.
Priscilla Mullins was the only member of her family to survive the first Plymouth winter, and would go on to marry John Alden. She is well known in literary history as the unrequited love interest of Myles Standish in the fictional Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “The Courtship of Myles Standish,” in which the military leader dispatched Alden to ask for Mullins’s hand in marriage only to have her ask why he was not speaking for himself.
On the Mayflower as a manservant to Governor John Carver, John Howland nearly became one of the earliest casualties of the journey when he was swept overboard in a storm, but he managed to hang on to a rope long enough to be rescued by the crew. Once in the New World, Howland rose to prominence and later agreed to join a group of men in assuming the settlers’ debt to its investors in exchange for a monopoly on the colony’s fur trade. In that capacity he was involved in an infamous trading dispute that saw one of his men, Moses Talbot, killed, and the shooter killed in retaliation.
Like so many were, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Tilley was orphaned during the first Plymouth winter when her parents, uncle and aunt passed away. She was then taken in by the Carver family, until their untimely death as well. She would marry John Howland in 1623 or 1624. The couple went on to have 10 children, and their descendants today number in the millions, including U.S. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and actors Humphrey Bogart, the Baldwin brothers, and Chevy Chase. Later in their lives, the couple wintered at the Plymouth home of their son, Jabez Howland. The home, built in 1667, is today the only house standing in which Mayflower passengers actually resided.
Susanna White set sail on the Mayflower with first husband William and a son, then gave birth to another son, Peregrine, during the voyage. Her husband died during the first winter. A few months later she would marry Edward Winslow in Plymouth in what was the first marriage in New England.
Christopher Martin, a Londoner, was appointed by the leaders of the Leiden congregation as an agent for their upcoming voyage. According to later writings by Governor John Bradford, the appointment may have come with the rationale that it might lessen perceptions of impropriety from non-church members slated to make the voyage. The result was fairly disastrous, as Martin proved financially irresponsible, unwilling to give accounts for his spending, and so personally abrasive that Robert Cushman wrote “He insulteth our poor people, with such scorn and contempt, as if they were not good enough to wipe his shoes.” Originally appointed governor of the ill-fated Speedwell voyage, he may have very briefly held that role on the Mayflower before being replaced by John Carver. Martin and his family would die while the ship was still in the harbor, saving the colonists – some historians contend – from future trouble.
Believing in the value of a strong relationship and thriving trade with the newcomer to his region, the powerful Wampanoag Indian chief Massasoit negotiated the earliest agreements with the Pilgrim leaders – treaties that would remain binding until his death decades later. In addition, historians credit Massasoit and his people with the settlers’ success by sharing farming and fishing techniques. When Massasoit became ill in 1623, Edward Winslow traveled to the village of Pokanoket to care for him. Winslow ministered to the sachem, including making a homemade herbal remedy. Whether aided by Winslow’s efforts or not, Massasoit would recover, and warn the Plymouth settlers of a plot by the Massachusetts to attack them, a plot which was then defused before it could be realized.
Also known as Tisquantum, Squanto was a member of the Patuxet and played a key part in the story of the Plymouth Pilgrims. In 1614, he was kidnapped along with four others by Thomas Hunt, an English explorer and associate of John Smith, and sold into slavery. Squanto returned to New England in 1619 to find his own tribe decimated by illness, so he joined the Wampanoag tribe, becoming an invaluable resource as an interpreter and guide to the Pilgrims, as well as teaching them critically important survival techniques.
Hobbamock was a pniese, an elite warrior thought to be “unkillable” in battle, and a trusted counselor of Massasoit who, following Squanto’s death, would become the primary interpreter for key leaders of the Plymouth community. Hobbamock and his family would become the only natives to actually live among the Pilgrims. He is said to have later converted to Christianity and remained in Plymouth until his death.
Canonicus was the chief sachem of the Narragansett. While the Wampanoag tribe aligned themselves with the Plymouth colonists, Canonicus instead cast his lot with Roger Williams, to whom he granted Rhode Island. In 1622, after his tribe escaped the plague that all but eradicated the Wampanoag three years earlier, Canonicus sent the Plymouth settlers a bundle of arrows wrapped in the skin of a rattlesnake. His aggressive stance was said to be shaken when Governor Bradford returned the same snakeskin, now stuffed with gunpowder and shot.
A sachem of the Nauset tribe on Cape Cod, Aspinet was a strong leader. In July 1621, young John Billington Jr. wandered away from the Plymouth settlement and ended up in Manomet (present day Bourne), where he was found by natives and delivered to Aspinet. The Nausets cared for the boy and eventually returned him to the Pilgrims, who gave the Nauset corn in exchange for what they had stolen from the Nausets during their first expeditions on the cape.
A boastful pniese warrior of the Massachusett, Wituwamat offended Myles Standish by upstaging the Englishman in “a long speech in an audacious manner” about killing three French sailors using an ornate knife. Later, after Massasoit confided to Edward Winslow that the Massachusett were planning an attack on the English at Plymouth and Wessagussett, Hobbamock, Standish and three other Pilgrims ambushed Wituwamat, his brother and another Massachusett warrior by inviting them to dinner, locking the doors and then slaughtering them with their own knives, ultimately displaying Wituwamat’s severed head at Plymouth as a sign of the colony’s willingness to use violence in its defense.
Samoset was the first Native to make contact with the Pilgrims following their arrival at Plymouth. Samoset was a leader of the Abenaki tribe in Maine who was visiting Massasoit at the time. He had a rudimentary knowledge of English from interactions with European fishermen who had been coming to fish off Monhegan Island. Five days after his initial visit to Plymouth, he returned along with four Natives including Squanto.