November 15, 2021

John Howland overboard on the Mayflower

In October 2020, my blog post was about our family Mayflower connection and my research that connects our family back to the Mayflower voyage along with possible provenance gaps in the documentation. 

It is well known that John Howland and his future wife, Elizabeth Tilley, were among the 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower in 1620.   John boarded the Mayflower as an indentured servant to John Carver.  The three month voyage aboard the Mayflower was a difficult journey for the passengers and crew with turbulent weather and lack of proper rations.  After arriving in New England, the group was decimated with almost half of the passengers dying in the first harsh and cold winter.

According to the accounting of William Bradford, John Howland nearly lost his life while traversing the icy Atlantic Ocean aboard the Mayflower. 

“In sundry of these storms the winds were so fierce, and the seas so high, as they could not bear a knot of sail, but were forced to hull, for divers days together. And in one of them, as they thus lay at hull, in a mighty storm, a lusty young man, John Howland, coming upon some occasion above the gratings, was, with a seele [sail] of the ship thrown into the sea; but it pleased God that he caught hold of the topsail halyards, which hung overboard, and ran out at length; yet he held his hold (though he was sundry fathoms under water) till he was hauled up by the same rope to the brim of the water, and then with a boat hook and other means got into the ship again, and his life saved; and though he was something ill with it, yet he lived many years after, and became a profitable member both in church and commonwealth.”


Howland was smart enough to grab a loose halyard rope that was hanging off the ship and clung for dear life until the crewmen were able to pull him back on board the ship.  This narrow escape with death allowed John to have a long life and a prominent place in history.

John Howland was the son of Henry Howland and his wife, Margaret.  John was born around 1592 and was believed to have lived in Fenstanton, England for most of his childhood.  He was not a son of a wealthy family as evidenced by his having been an indentured servant as a young man.

Prior to the ship’s landing at Plymouth, John Howland was among the men that signed the Mayflower Compact, an important document outlining the self-government of the colony.  The document was a democratic acknowledgement of their liberty in a community of law and order with each person having the right to participate in the government.

About a year after the arrival of the Mayflower in America, John Carver, the first Governor of Plymouth and the person to whom John was indentured, became sick and died.  Carver’s wife died five weeks later and they had no children or natural heirs entitled to the Carver estate. It is believed that John Howland may have been kin to Carver and likely inherited some or all of Carver’s possessions and land rights.  In 1621, after Carver’s death, Howland became a freeman. 

William Bradford succeeded John Carver as the leader of the Plymouth Colony.  Bradford’s journal revealed that Elizabeth Tilley was the daughter of John Tilley and his wife, Joan Hurst Tilley.  Elizabeth was born in Henlow, Bedfordshire, England and she and her parents were passengers on the Mayflower.  John Tilley and his wife Joan both died the first winter as did John Tilley’s brother, Edward Tilley, and his wife Ann.  Elizabeth was left an orphan and so she was taken in by the Carver family. 

When the Carvers both died, part of their estate was inherited by John Howland, and Elizabeth became his ward.  By 1624, John Howland was considered the head of what was once the Carver household when he was granted an acre for each member of the household including himself, Elizabeth Tilley, Desire Minter, and a boy named William Latham. 

Around 1623 or 1624, John Howland married Elizabeth Tilley.  Within several years, John served at various times as a selectman, assistant and deputy governor, surveyor and as a member of the fur committee.  Young John Howland became a leader in the Plymouth colony.  

Together John & Elizabeth raised ten children that all lived to adulthood.  And they lived remarkably long lives as they both reached at least 80 years of age..  John Howland and his wife, fellow Mayflower passenger Elizabeth Tilley, had 10 children and more than 80 grandchildren.  Today, an estimated 2 million Americans can trace their roots to this couple.

*  *  *  *  *

Key individuals:

       John (the Mayflower) Howland  (1592 – 1672)

       Elizabeth Tilley Howland  (1607 – 1687)



Now for an update concerning lineage provenance from the General Society of Mayflower Descendants.  In my October 2020 blog post titled “A Mayflower Connection, or not” I outlined what I believe is our line of descent from John Howland & Elizabeth Tilley Howland as noted below: 

   John Howland (1592-1672) m. Elizabeth Tilley (1607-1687) [Mayflower]

      John Howland (1627-1702) m. Mary Lee

         Experience Howland (1668-1728) m. James Bearse/Bierse

            Experience Bearse (1692-1735) m. Dennis Edgerton

               Experience Edgerton (1725-?) m. Benjamin Howland

                  Abraham Howland (1762-1853) m. Anna Staples

                     Islethera Howland (1802-1843) m. David Scribner 

And then I cited a 2007 comment from the General Society of Mayflower Descendants that indicated that it “has never been proved that John and Mary (Lee) Howland’s daughter/son Experience married James Bearse, and the Mayflower Society does not accept this line as a Mayflower lineage.”

Next, in correspondence dated April 30, 2020, the Society accepted that Experience Howland did indeed marry James Bearse/Bierce, however they only recognized 4 of their children, namely James, Priscilla, Rebecca and Shubael.  We were getting closer, but still needed recognition for another daughter named Experience to prove our line.

I wrote the General Society of Mayflower Descendants after I posted the Mayflower Connection blog asking for an update, and was pleased to see that there has been progress.  In a responding email to me it was noted: 

“Until recently, it was not known whether Experience Howland, child of John Howland and Mary Lee, was a male or female, so lineages going through Experience Howland and James Bearse were not accepted by the Mayflower Society. However, recent research has proven this lineage to be valid. The Mayflower Society now has a manuscript of a Bearse Genealogy which will help prove your Howland lineage through your 6th generation: Abraham Howland m. Anna Staples. You may use this manuscript to help prove your Howland lineage!” – Erin Gillett, Research Assistant, GSMD 

I haven’t pursued this anymore since I was never actually interested in applying for membership in the Society of Mayflower Descendants.  However if this interests you, then you will be pleased that several more generations on our line have now been accepted as proven by the Mayflower Society. 

With this update, you should be able to have your application accepted in time by providing marriage and birth documentation for the generations beginning with Abraham Howland and Anna Staples down to our present day. 

 – Jane Scribner McCrary

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John Howland overboard on the Mayflower

In October 2020, my blog post was about our family Mayflower connection and my research that connects our family back to the Mayflower voyag...