Have you ever thought to yourself – it is a miracle that you are even here, I mean, not to sound hokey, but throughout human history there have been millions of forks in the road, times in which, if something had gone even slightly different, you would not even be here. That was the feeling I was left with after researching the story of my 11th Great Grandfather, John Howland’s migration story. And in his case, had he, and his future wife Elizabeth Tilley, not made it through the harrowing journey across the Atlantic it would have literally changed the course of history for North American cultures.
Welcome to the Maple Family Treehouse, I am Kael Sharman, your host, in today’s episode, I climb one of the paternal branches of my family tree. My grandpa Sharman has always been a bit of a mystery. I promised my father that this episode would dive deep into his father’s past, and pilgrims on the Mayflower certainly delivers that promise. This story though is not just the story of my family, Because John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley’s…uh…fruitful marriage, ensured that their story also belongs to millions of other North Americans, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Chevy Chase, Humphrey Bogart, George Bush, Franklin Roosevelt, the Baldwin brothers, and the list goes on[i]. With such a legacy, it is no wonder that the story of the pilgrims at Plymouth has become part of the origin story of the United States. The story of the Pilgrims at Plymouth is also the origin story for thanksgiving.
So it is for good reason that I have been toiling over how to tell this story given my larger purpose for doing this podcast - owning my role in reconciliation, a process of mending relations with the indigenous peoples in Canada. Since the reconciliation process began in Canada, celebrations like thanksgiving have necessarily garnered some critical questioning. I want today’s story to reflect this. So, like the other episodes, I will include how the indigenous people, in this case, the Wampanoag, played a role in my family’s history, to appreciate the larger cultural and historical context of how I came to be here in Canada.
402 years ago, my 11th great grandfather John Howland and my 12th great grand parents John and Joan Tilley sailed here on the Mayflower. They came in search of religious freedom. In England at the time, belonging to the Church of England was law. Going against the Church of England was also going against the monarchy, putting your own freedom and perhaps even your life at risk. The “Act against Puritans” in 1593, made worship outside the Church of England punishable by banishment, or even death. The puritans had to leave England for their safety. At first, they thought the answer might be moving to Holland where protestant worship was not illegal, but after almost a decade, they felt isolated behind a language barrier that relegated them to second class citizenship. But returning to England was not an option, so they continued to search for a home that allowed them to worship and live in keeping with their faith. It was a priority for the Pilgrims to live on land that was essentially their heaven on earth, a godly republic.
After close to a decade in Holland, the 30 years war was well underway, feeling unsafe, their search for religious freedom was once again revived, so they commissioned 2 ships to take them across the ocean where England was attempting to create new permanent settlements but had not yet succeeded. The Pilgrims set out, and from the beginning, there was challenge after challenge, amounting to an epic saga that would become mythologized into the origin story of the United States of America.
After weighing all their options, they decided to emigrate by hiring illegal passage on a cargo ship. They were not wealthy people, so they had to find an organization to finance their voyage. The ideal time to cross was during the Spring to avoid severe weather that comes with the changing seasons. But by June the arrangements still had not been finalized. The Mayflower was finally secured along with a smaller ship called the Speedwell. The 2 ships set sail, but a few miles out the Speedwell was taking on water and had to turn around. Many passengers from the Speedwell joined the Mayflower. Overloaded, the Mayflower finally set out on September 6, 1620. Packed with more than 100 people, their belongings, 2 large dogs, and some farm animals – for 66 days. The delay meant the voyage just barely made it possible to reach their destination before Winter closed in.
The ship managed the ocean voyage but was damaged by a bad storm in October. The storm cracked one of the massive wooden beams supporting the frame of the ship. Fortunately, the passengers had brought along a “great iron screw,” which helped raise the beam back into place so the ship could continue.
In another storm, my 11th great grandfather, John Howland, made his way into the ship records when he was swept off the deck of the ship and into the ocean! He was saved because he grabbed onto one of the ship’s ropes and was pulled back onto the deck.
With so many challenges, it is amazing that only two people died during the voyage.
After more than two months at sea, the Pilgrims finally arrived at Cape Cod, 200 miles north of their intended destination. In the face of dangerous shoals, they took advantage of the northwesterly winds and sailed up the coast to Plymouth. It was not where they had originally planned to land, but the weather, and state of the travellers required a change of plans, they desperately needed to get off the ship, many passengers had early signs of scurvy, and they needed to start building shelters before Winter.
The Plymouth plantation was built upon the abandoned ruins of the Patuxet village in Wampanoag territory. The Wampanoag inhabited an area that covers the eastern part of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, for at least 12,000 years.
The mere arrival of Europeans posed serious challenges to the Wampanoag, particularly the people who inhabited Patuxet. The Pilgrims arrived on shore to find the village completed desimated. A plague had wiped out everyone there. And it happened so swiftly that many people remained exactly where they died because there were no remaining survivors to take care of burials.
When they first set eyes on Patuxet, they were shocked by the state of the village. It was obvious what had occurred, but in desperate need to get settled, they began to build shelters for the next few months, rowing ashore to build houses during the day, and returning to the ship at night.
Before the shelters were complete an agreement between the pilgrims was drawn up. When the Pilgrims entered into a contract with their financers, they obtained permission from the King of England to settle on land farther to the south near the mouth of the Hudson River (in present-day New York). Because they chose to remain where they landed in New England, they needed a new permission (called a patent) to settle there. On November 11, 1620, needing to maintain order and establish a civil society while they waited for this new patent, the adult male passengers signed the Mayflower Compact. John Howland’s signature can be found on this document.
This document took care of what might of amounted to a political crisis, but the reality was that many people on board began to get sick from the cold and the wet; by this time, it was December! About half the people on Mayflower died that first winter from what they described as a “general sickness” of colds, coughs, and fevers. According to a record left by Phineas Pratt, the dead were propped up against trees surrounding the settlement to appear as if the village was being guarded, in the hopes of warding off Wampanoag attacks during the winter.
One of the people that passed away was John Carver, the man John Howland worked for. This untethered Howland of his indenture.
Finally, in March 1621, there were enough houses that everyone could live on land. After a long, hard voyage, and an even harder winter, the Mayflower left Plymouth to return to England on April 5, 1621.
With Spring arriving, the Pilgrims could finally gain a foothold and plant crops and continue reinforcing their homes.
Another factor that contributed to strengthening the settlement was the Wapanoag alliance that was struck up out of sheer desperation on both sides. The dwindling numbers of both people made an alliance inevitable if both groups wanted to survive any further attacks from enemies such as the Massachusetts.
Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader, and 90 Wampanoag people joined the Pilgrims that fall for a 3-day feast that seemed by all accounts unplanned. This is the feast that gave rise to the celebration of Thanksgiving eventually mythologized over time.
By 1625, their debts to their financers still had not been paid. The financers claimed bankruptcy and disbanded. The original group was also, by this time, outnumbered by subsequent settlers who did not share their same religious fervor. Once the value of beaver skins skyrocketed the colony began to turn a profit and more and more settlers arrived. In many ways the Plymouth colony could be considered a success, by the survival of half the original members. In other ways the colony was so transformed, so compromised it did not achieve what it set out to do. Its story survived though in the extraordinary documentation by Governor Bradford whose text, the Plymouth Plantation, is now considered a national treasure in the United States.
Although John Howland stuck it out in Plymouth and remained there for the rest of his life, the line of his descendants that leads to me somehow migrates to Canada, here is how it goes:
John Howland’s daughter, Hope, migrated to Barnstable, Mass. And married John Chipman. Hope Chipman, their daughter, married Johnathon Cobb and migrated to Middleborough, Plymouth, Mass. Their son, Samuel Cobb married Abigail Stewart and migrated to Maine with their son Chipman Cobb, who married Mary Bloom. The Cobb family migrates to New Jersey and ends up in Pennsylvania where Hanna Cobb married Peter Swick. Their son Peter Swick migrates to Canada with his wife Mary Ross. Their son, Absalom Swick, was born in Norfolk County, Ontario, here in Canada and married Martha Kelly. Their daughter Elmira Swick migrated to London Ontario Canada with her husband Frederick Bouck, and finally, their daughter Bella Bouck married my great grandfather John (AKA Jack) Sharman.
So, Dad, this story goes out to you. It is my hope that in telling this family history it leaves my family with less myth, and more reality, a reality steeped in gratefulness for alliances that are not romanticized but seen for what they were, survival, that was at times, so tenuous that we must be thankful, not for material goods, land, resources, but for having the common sense to know that our survival rests in our mutual cooperation, a cooperation that is built upon a mutual respect for our differences, differences that are not to be feared but embraced in order to strengthen our efforts to survive the next 402 years.
[i] https://familypedia.fandom.com/wiki/John_Howland_List_of_Famous_Descendants The main source for this story comes from the PBS documentary, “Pilgrims.” I streamed this documentary on Amazon Prime.