John and Elizabeth Howland

By Robert Jennings Heinsohn, PhD

Mayflower passengers John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley were married in 1623/4. John was about thirty-one and Elizabeth was about sixteen. They spent their entire lives in Plymouth, and between them participated in every aspect of the Pilgrim experience from its beginning in Leiden up to the merger of the Bay and Plymouth colonies. This article is a retrospective summary of their lives and their contribution to Plymouth.

John was born about 1592 to Henry and Margaret Howland of Fenstanton, nine miles northeast of Cambridge, England. Elizabeth Tilley was the youngest of several children born to John and Joan (Hurst) Tilley. She was baptized in 1607 in Henlow, Huntingdonshire, England. John Tilley and his family, and the family of his brother Edward Tilley and wife Ann (Cooper), were members of John Robinson's congregation in Leiden.

John Howland, John and Joan and Elizabeth Tilley, and Edward and Ann Tilley were passengers on the Mayflower. John Howland had at least five siblings. Arthur (d. 1675), his older brother, arrived in Plymouth after 1627 while Henry (d. 1671), his younger brother, arrived as early as 1633. Arthur Howland soon moved to Marshfield where he became a major landholder. Henry Howland was one of the original settlers of Duxbury and was chosen constable in 1635.

Howland Overboard

'Pilgrim Overboard', the rescuing of John Howland. Painting by Mike Haywood

At age twenty-eight John Howland was recruited in England by John Carver to join his household and be his assistant in moving the Leiden congregation to America. Also included in Carver's household were a servant-girl Desire Minter (age fifteen), a servant-lad, William Lantham, and several other servants. During a storm in the crossing, John Howland was pitched overboard, but luckily was able to catch hold of a halliard and was hauled back aboard the Mayflower. John was the thirteenth signer of the Compact. While in Cape Cod Harbor, John Howland, John and Edward Tilley and others explored the New England coast for several days and chose Plymouth to begin a settlement.

Elizabeth Tilley's parents and aunt and uncle died in the winter of 1621. John Carver took Elizabeth in as one of his household. After John and Katherine Carver died in the spring of 1621, John Howland became the head of the household containing Elizabeth Tilley, Desire Minter, and William Lantham. The living arrangements for this household are unknown. After John married Elizabeth, he received four acres of land as the head of household in the 1623 Division of Land.

Desire Minter was the daughter of William and Sarah Minter, members of the Leiden congregation. Desire's father died in 1618, and she joined John Carver's family. Her mother remarried in 1622, and her new parents established an endowment that Desire would inherit at the age of twenty-one. After a few years in Plymouth, Desire returned to England to assume her inheritance. John and Elizabeth Howland were very fond of Desire and named their first child Desire in her honor. They had ten children: Desire, John, Hope, Elizabeth, Lydia, Hannah, Joseph, Jabez, Ruth and Isaac.

In 1625 John Howland accompanied Edward Winslow on an expedition of the Kennebec River in Maine to explore trading opportunities with the Indians. In 1626 John was asked to be one of the "Undertakers" to buy out the colony's debt to the "Merchant Adventurers" who had invested in the venture to establish Plymouth Colony.

In the 1627 division of Cattle agreement, John Howland acquired twenty acres for each member of his household. In addition, the colonists were organized in "companies" of thirteen members each. The livestock of the colony was divided equally among the companies. Listed in John's "company" were John and Elizabeth and their two children, John and Priscilla Alden and their two children, and five unattached men.

Isaac Allerton (1586-1658/9) negotiated a patent that granted Plymouth the exclusive right to trade with the Indians and to establish a trading station on the Kennebec River. In 1627 Governor Bradford placed John Howland in charge. In 1628 a trading station was built at Cushnoc (now called Augusta) on the east side of the Kennebec River. A year later, a permanent log-house was built, and Howland, then Assistant Governor, was asked to manage the trading station. For approximately seven years John Howland was in charge of the station. It is not known if Elizabeth and their family of three children lived at the station permanently or for short periods of time. During the time that John operated the station Elizabeth gave birth to three more children, but it is not known whether she gave birth while she was living at the trading station or in Plymouth.

The trading station in Cushnoc was very successful. The Pilgrims traded corn and manufactured goods with the Indians for beaver, otter and other furs. The proceeds of this trade enabled the Undertakers to settle their debts with the Merchant Adventurers. In 1643 a colony in Piscataqua at the mouth of the Kennebec River under the control of London investors attempted to trade with Indians on the Kennebec River. Howland and men from Plymouth told the Piscataqua men under the command of John Hocking to leave since they were trespassing and the patent granted Plymouth exclusive trading rights. The Piscataqua men refused to pull up anchor and leave, and John Hocking shot and killed one of Howland's men. One of Howland's men returned fire and killed John Hocking. A meeting called by the General Courts of Plymouth and Bay Colony established that the Piscataqua men were trespassers and that Hocking's killing was justified. Following this, the two colonies agreed to honor each others patents and to curtail the activities of settlements poaching on these patents. It was feared that if the issue was not resolved satisfactorily, Parliament might appoint a single governor of all New England, which none of the colonies wanted.

In 1633 John (age forty-one) was admitted a freeman in Plymouth. John and Elizabeth acquired land and in time became major landholders in Plymouth and the surrounding towns. For nearly forty years, John Howland was actively involved in the governance of Plymouth through elected or appointed positions, viz. one of the seven Plymouth Assistant Governors—1632-35, 1638-39; one of the four Plymouth Deputies to the General Court for nearly thirty years—1641, 1645, 1647-56, 1658, 1659, 1661-68, 1670; one of the five selectmen of Plymouth—1665-66; one of the Plymouth Assessors—1641, 1644, 1647-51; committee on fur trading—1659; surveyor of highways—1650.

Rocky Nook Map

Map of Kingston, Rocky Nook (1857)

In 1637 John received forty acres of land, and in 1639 he was given a choice of additional land for himself or his heirs around Yarmouth, Dartmouth and Rehoboth. Part of the land he chose was in Yarmouth, which he gave to his son John and daughters Desire and hope and their respective families. In 1639 John purchased land and a house in Rocky Nook, where he spent the rest of his life. Also living in Rocky Nook were Thomas and Mary (Allerton) Cushman and their family.

Quaker missionaries arrived in Plymouth between 1655 and 1662 and attracted a considerable number of converts. Quakers opposed Puritan authority and religious beliefs and practices. They refused to attend church services, would not recognize ministers and magistrates or fidelity oaths, and would not support the church financially. They criticized Puritan beliefs and practices publicly and in such scathing terms as to anger the General Court. Governor Bradford had died in 1657 and was succeeded by Thomas Prence (1600-73), who would not tolerate Quaker criticism and took unusually strong measures to suppress Quaker activities, through fines, whipping, excommunication and expulsion from the colony. In the Bay Colony punishment was more severe, and included hangings. Quakers wished to separate themselves from the prevailing religious beliefs and practices, just as the Pilgrims had done some fifty years earlier in England. Thus, the Quakers were to Plymouth what the Separatists were to England, except that now the Pilgrims were on the receiving end. Governor Prence and the General Court punished Plymouth residents who attended Quaker services or gave them support and protection. The families of John Howland's brothers, Arthur and Henry, were two Plymouth families most identified as practicing Quakers. The families ceased attending Plymouth religious services and allowed their homes for the conduct of Quaker meetings. Arthur, Henry and Henry's son Zoeth were called before the General Court in 1657 and fined for using their homes for Quaker meetings. In 1660 Henry was again fined. In 1659 Arthur Jr.'s freeman status was revoked and in 1684 he was imprisoned in Plymouth. Throughout his life, John Howland remained faithful to Separatist belief and practice, but his compassion for Quakers is not known.

John and Elizabeth were highly respected citizens of Plymouth. In 1657 and again in 1664, serious issues concerning members of John Howland's family came before the Court of Governor's Assistants that resulted in judicial sanctions. John Howland was only a deputy for Plymouth to the General Court, and while he did not have to act on these cases personally, there is not way his standing in Plymouth could avoid being affected.

Governor Prence's actions toward Quakers took an ironic twist that can be appreciated by parents today. In 1657 Arthur Howland Jr., an ardent Quaker, was brought before the court. Thomas Prince's daughter and Arthur Howland Jr., fell in love. The relationship blossomed and matrimony seemed inevitable. However, it was illegal and punishable by court sanction for couples to marry without parental consent. Thomas Prence urged Elizabeth to break off the relationship, but to no avail. He then used powers available to him as Governor. Arthur Howland, Jr., was brought before the General Court and fined five pounds for "inveigling of Mistris Elizabeth Prence and making motion of marriage to her, and prosceuting the same contrary to her parents likeing, and without theire mind and will...[and] in speciall that hee desist from the use of any meanes to obtaine or retaine her affections as aforesaid." On July 2, 1667 Arthur Howland, Jr., was brought before the General Court again where he "did sollemly and seriously engage before the Court, that he will wholly desist and never apply himself for the future as formerly he hath done, to Mistris Elizabeth Prence in reference unto marriage." Guess what happened! They were married on December 9, 1667 and in time had a daughter and four sons. Thus a reluctant Thomas Prence acquired a Quaker son-in-law, Quaker grandchildren and innumerable Quaker in-laws of Henry Howland.

Gravestone John Howland

John Howland Grave Marker. Erected by the Pilgrim John Howland Society in 1897.

The second case involving John Howland's family occurred in 1664 when Ruth Howland (b. 1646), his youngest daughter, was the subject of a morals case brought before the Court of Governor's Assistants. Sexual mores, including chastity before marriage, were issues about which were strict codes of conduct. Ruth Howland fell in love with Thomas Cushman, Jr. (1637-1726), the first son of Plymouth's Ruling Elder Thomas Thompson (1607-91), and Mary (Allerton) Cushman (1616-1699), a Mayflower passenger. In 1664/5 Thomas Jr. was fined five ponds by the Court for carnal behavior "before marriage, but after contract." Once again John Howland was Deputy to the General Court for Plymouth and not involved personally in sentencing. Twenty-five years earlier punishment could have been severe, e.g. excommunication, fines, stocks for women and whipping for men. However, in 1664 harsh physical sentencing had been relaxed, and the social meeting of the parties became a factor in sentencing. In 1664 Thomas Jr. and Ruth were married. In addition to John Howland's embarrassment, Thomas Cushman, Jr. squandered the opportunity to be considered to succeed his father as Ruling Elder. In 1694, Thomas' younger brother Isaac was chosen to succeed his father as Ruling Elder. Thomas Jr. and Ruth remained in Plymouth. Ruth died as a young woman sometime after 1672, and Thomas Jr. married Abigail Fuller in 1679.

John Howland died in his home at Rocky Nook on February 23, 1672/3 at the age of eighty. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Burial Hill. In 1897, a headstone was erected on Burial Hill by the Howland Society. Elizabeth Howland spent her declining years and died on December 21, 1687 at the age of eighty in the home of her daughter Lydia Brown, in Swansea. Elizabeth is buried in East Providence, Rhode Island, with a memorial marker.

While not political leaders of Plymouth, John and Elizabeth were pillars of the community and played a major part in the colony's governance and development. They lived through every aspect of the Pilgrim experience beginning in Leiden—the Mayflower, the harsh first winter, the Undertakers, the trading station in Maine, the Quakers, King Philip's War—up to the merger of the Bay and Plymouth colonies. Descendants of John, Henry and Arthur Howland multiplied in number and influence to become one of New England's famous pioneer families.

Bradford, W., Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647. Modern Library College Editions, New York, 1981.
White, E.P., John Howland of the Mayflower vol. 1, Picton Press, Rockport, Maine, 3rd printing, 1999
Stratton, E.A., Plymouth Colony, Its History & People 1620-1691, Ancestry Publishing, Salt Lake City, UT, 1986
Howland, F., A Brief Genealogical and Biographical History of Arthur, Henry and John Howland and Descendants of the United States and Canada, published by F. Howland, New Bedford, MA, 1885.