The Man Who Stepped on Plymouth Rock FIRST

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Welcome to the August 2009 edition of “Jud’s New England Journal,” the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, editor-in-chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, New Hampshire.

plymouth rockThe Man Who Stepped on Plymouth Rock FIRST

An unimportant and possibly not totally accurate examination of proper New England ancestry.

New England’s so-called “First Families” didn’t originate with the Mayflower group. Instead they trace their ancestors back to those who sailed over here from England in 1629 (and for about 10 years thereafter) on the Arbella and several other ships to found the Massachusetts Bay Company. These people, including a Saltonstall, a Winthrop, a Phillips, a Bradstreet (but no Dun — although a Dunn came over on the Mayflower), a Quincy, and most of the other First Family ancestors, were conservative businessmen with a puritanical outlook on work, religion, sex, death, and the hereafter. As we all know, they were Puritans. The Mayflower people are referred to as Pilgrims.

Now most would agree that Mayflower ancestry doesn’t have the financial and political power that has always been associated with First Family names. But it’s nonetheless very fine to be a member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. If, for instance, you’re a Chilton (the oldest passenger on board was James Chilton), or a More (Richard More was one of the children on the Mayflower), or a Rogers (Thomas Rogers signed the Mayflower Compact), or if you’re descended from one of the other 20 families aboard the Mayflower who are now known to have present-day offspring, then you can join the society. You could, perhaps, also hang a huge print of the ship Mayflower in your living room, which might at times elicit enough conversation at social gatherings for you to mention your Mayflower ancestry without appearing overly forward about it.

However, as the late Vrest Orton (founder of the Vermont County Store, still going strong today) wrote in his book The Voice of the Green Mountains, “If the good ship Mayflower … had taken aboard all the ancestors that are now claimed to have come over on that voyage, it would have been bigger than today’s Queen Elizabeth II.”

I regret I have no ancestors who came over on the Mayflower. I was, however, once introduced in the following manner: “And although our speaker claims no Mayflower descendance, he does have a relative who ran for the boat and missed it.” (That was, indeed, a relative of mine, who then waited 18 years before catching a boat that subsequently landed in Newburyport, Massachusetts. But he was neither a Pilgrim nor a Puritan.)

If I could be a Mayflower descendant, I’d like to be a Howland. John Howland fell off the Mayflower as it was rounding the tip of Cape Cod. “But it pleased God he caught hould of ye top-saile halliards …” wrote Governor Bradford about the incident in his History of Plimouth Plantation, “… held his hould (though he was sundrie fathoms under water) … and then with a boat hooke and other means got into ye shipe againe.”

A few days later, John Howland was one of a small group of Mayflower men “sente oute” to discover a locality suitable for their future home. Thus it was that John Howland stood on “Forefathers’ Rock,” as Plymouth Rock is also called, five whole days before the rest of the Mayflower people landed on it. Now, that’s one-upmanship.


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