An estimated two million Americans can trace their roots to the influential pilgrim John Howland including three presidents — Franklin Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush — as well as former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin; poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; actors Alec Baldwin, Humphrey Bogart, and Christopher Lloyd; child care guru Dr. Benjamin Spock, and my friends in California, Peter and Gwen Dailey, who were the first to tell me the story of John Howland.
Of all the pilgrims, John Howland may have been the most influential. He certainly had one of the greatest impacts on American history. As one of the early settlers, Howland exemplifies that America is a nation of opportunity.
Howland began his journey when the Separatists – those who separated from the Church of England in search of religious freedom – relocated to the Netherlands. After a brief stay in Amsterdam, the families settled in Leiden for a dozen years. While they could worship freely, life was not easy for these foreigners. When their children began to embrace the lifestyle of the people around them, the Separatists made the bold decision to travel to America. The congregation planned to establish a farming village in the northern part of the Virginia Colony near present-day New York City. At that time, Virginia extended from Jamestown in the south to the mouth of the Hudson River in the north.
On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set out with 102 passengers. Among the Mayflower’s passengers, John Howland boarded the ship as John Carver’s servant. For two months, the Mayflower doggedly battled counter currents and inclement weather. During one particularly dangerous storm, the passengers were told to remain below decks.
Crammed with too many people for too long, the crowded area felt suffocating. Despite the captain’s orders to remain below deck, Howland went above for fresh air. The waves and winds buffeted the small ship and quickly swept Howland overboard into the middle of the churning Atlantic. Providentially, a trailing rope from the ship passed by the drowning man. Howland grasped ahold tightly, and sailors used boat hooks to haul the wet, frightened, and thankful pilgrim aboard. Howland never disobeyed the captain again.
Happily Ever After
On November 11, 1620, the Mayflower arrived on America’s East Coast. Poor winds and dangerous shoals prevented the ship from reaching the Hudson River and the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth Harbor on December 16, 1620. Fellow Mayflower passenger, Elizabeth Tilley, was left an orphan after the first winter in Plymouth. Though she had family in England and her best friend returned to Europe with the Mayflower, Tilley chose to stay and marry Howland. The couple had ten children and more than 80 grandchildren.
There are so many Howland descendants that they formed their own club, The Pilgrim John Howland Society, with about 1,200 members as well as a publication called The Howland Quarterly.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans will enjoy Thanksgiving dinner this year unaware that they owe their very existence to Pilgrim John Howland who almost didn’t live long enough to arrive in the New World. Who knows, maybe you are related to Pilgrim John Howland.
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