Friday, January 21, 2011

Pilgrim (actually Stranger) Father

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John Billington
Pilgrim (actually Stranger) Father

John Billington, born about 1580 possibly in Spaulding, Lincolnshire, England
Married Ellen or Eleanor (maiden name unknown, possibly Langland) possibly in London, England
Died 1 September 1630, Plymouth, Massachusetts
Children: 1. John Billington
      2. Francis Billington m Christian  Penn of England

Now, John Billington and his wayward family may be a rather odd place to start a family history of faith. John, at least according to William Bradford (who seems to be a fair judge of others), was not exactly a God fearing man. Bradford, in a letter he wrote to Robert Cushman on June 9, 1625, states “Billington still rails against you, and threatens to arrest you, I know not wherefore; he is a knave, and so will live and die.” Bradford was certainly correct about the way John would die. In his memoirs of the founding and first thirty years Of Plymouth Plantation, Bradford wrote “Anno Dom: 1630, This year John Bilington the elder (one that came over with the first) was arained, and both by grand & petie jurie found guilty of willfull murder, by plaine & notorious evidence. And for the same accordingly executed… They used all due means about his triall, and tooke the advise of Mr. Windthrop and other the ablest gentle-men in the Bay of the Massachusetts, that were then new-ly come over, who concurred with them that he ought to dye, and the land purged from blood …” However, Thomas Morton, who was no friend of Bradford, in his satirical work The New English Canaan (1637) wrote of Billington “that [he] was choaked at Plimmouth after hee had played the unhappy Markes man when hee was purfued by a carelesse fellow that was new come into the Land … Hee was beloved of many.”

John Billington, for all intent and purpose, was not a “saint”. However, I feel that he had to had faith, hope or just plain determination to do what he did. Crossing a great, unknown ocean in late Fall when the weather was turning stormy, to an unknown land, lacking the common comforts of England, takes a large measure of bravery. He had to have had the “faith” that he wasn’t taking himself and his family to their doom. Even if he was running from creditors and bad debt, fleeing to a “new world”, the unknowns must have been wildly on his mind. Mrs. Eleanor Billington must have had her own sense of bravery and determination to drag two wild boys along for the three-month trip into the wilderness.

I included the Billingtons in my list of the “faithful” not so much for their sake as for the fact that they were on the Mayflower and were the first successful and continuous English Americans on the Eastern seaboard of what would become the United States of America. Their venture was one of not only faith, but of shear bravery. William Bradford wrote in his Of Plymouth Plantation “What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace? May not and ought not the children of these fathers rightly say: "Our fathers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice and looked on their adversity,” The “saints” among the Mayflower came to build a safe place to worship God as they felt He should be worshiped and to keep their children from straying. They had fled to Holland where they found freedom to worship in the way they felt God should be worshipped but their children were beginning to fall away and become part of the secular life-style. Also, the political atmosphere was suggesting that Catholic Spain would soon have control over their adopted homeland and then there would be no freedom to worship God, as they felt fit. The Billingtons and the other “strangers” were there not to create a safe place to worship, but for escape from creditors, jail or just plain adventure and the hope of a better life.

Having read William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, I cannot but marvel at the fortitude not only of the saints had but the stranger’s as well. The Billington family may have been a thorn in Bradford’s side, they were also helped Plymouth become a successful colony.

I’m not trying to make John Billington into a saint. He wasn’t one. There is much speculation that he left England because he was headed toward debtor’s prison. Fear is a good motivator but I still feel that there was some bravery involved in his choice to go to the New World. He seemed to be a man of quick temper but also a man of much energy, hopefully not just in a negative way. His boys certainly were BOYS. Even his wife  Eleanor (also called Ellen or Helen) sat in the stocks for slandering John Doane.  Bradford wrote about December 1620 adding that on the fifth “we, through God’s mercy, escaped a great danger by the foolishness of a boy, one of…Billington’s sons, who, in his father’s absence, had got gunpowder and had shot off a piece or two, and made squibs; but there being a fowling piece charged in his father’s cabin, shot her off in the cabin; there being a little barrel of powder half full, scattered in and about the cabin, the fire being within four foot of the bed between the decks, and many flints and iron things about the cabin, and many people about the fire, and yet, by God’s mercy, no harm done.” My son loves this story. I am grateful that it ended happily with no injuries or death, or my son and myself might never have been born. Bradford doesn’t say which of the Billington boys was the instigator of this prank. However, both boys had their adventures. Francis apparently was a tree climber for Bradford reports that while swinging from the top of a tree Francis discovered a “great sea” which in reality was more of a large pond and now known as Billington Sea. The boys also found “seven or eight Indian houses, but not lately inhabited. When they saw the houses, they were in some fear; for they were but two persons and one piece.” [Bradford] Bradford goes on to tell about young John Billington getting lost in the woods the summer following the landing of the Mayflower. “John Billington lost himself in the woods and wandered up and down some five days, living on berries and what he could find. At length he light on an Indian plantation twenty miles south of this place, called Manoment; they conveyed him further off, to Nauset among those people that had before set upon the English when they were coasting whilst the ship lay at the Cape … But the Governor caused him to be inquired for among the Indians and at length Massasoit sent word where he was, and the Governor set a shallop for him and had him delivered.” Young John disappears from the Plymouth records and Bradford’s memoirs after this report. In the 1627 Division of Cattle, only (11) John Billington Senor, (12) Hellen Billington and (13) ffrancis Billington are mentioned. The elder Billington is called “Senor” in this report and later in 1630 at his death, so it makes one pondered about the fate of the younger John. Another Billington, years ago, told me that there was a “family story” that Young John decided he liked living with the Indians and left the plantation for the forest. It’s a story but for the adventuresome boy and a father still being called “Senor”, it could very well have some truth to it.

As for the “Senor” John, there seems to be no end to his disruptive personality. Early Colonial historian Thomas Prince [born 1687, died 1758] wrote that “the first offence since our arrival is of John Billington who came on board at London, and is this month [March 1621] convented before the whole company for his contempt of the captain’s lawful command with opprobrious speeches, for which he is adjudged to have his neck and heels tied together; but upon humbling himself and craving pardon, and it being the first offence, he is forgiven.” Despite, his rebellion, John did sign the Mayflower  Compact. One would think he’d have been last on the list but somehow he managed to be somewhat in the middle of the list at number 26 of 41 signers.

But where trouble wondered, John Billington was not far behind. In 1624 he was part of a conspiracy lead by the Reverend John Lyford and John Oldham. Rev. John Lyford seemed a rather odd chose to lead the separatist (the pilgrims) as he leaned more toward the theology of the Church of England and seemed to be a trouble maker in his own right. Lyford sent letters back to England in an attempt to alienate the colony’s supporters from the colonist. William Bradford was able to make copies of the letters and confronted Lyford and Oldham before the entire colony. Lyford told Bradford that he was only repeating what John Billington and others had said. John only admitted to having attended Lyford’s meetings. Bradford only names Billington in his report of this occasion. One gets the feeling though, that while others were involved with Billington, Bradford probably was saying “If there is trouble, there is John Billington.”

John Billington died by hanging in 1630 for the murder of John Newcomen over a “hunting dispute.” For this, John Billington, the old troublemaker met his maker at the end of a rope and hopefully found his peace with God. Maybe not, but maybe so.

It might be prudent to add here, that Francis Billington, son of John, married a woman named “Christian.” This more then likely indicated that Christian had believing parents, so even if the Billingtons were “pagans”, at least they had the blessing of Christian influences. The Billingtons continued to cause dishevel in Plymouth for a few more generations. Fortunately for me, Isaac Billington, John Sr.’s grandson, married Hannah Glass, daughter of James Glass and his wife Mary Pontus who was born in England but raised in Holland among the Separatists, some of the saints who came to Plymouth with the Billingtons and the other “strangers” on the Mayflower. Hopefully, Mary and her saintly upbringing brought some calmness to the wildness of the Billingtons.

My Billington line:

John Billington m Ellen, Helen or Eleanor ?
Francis Billington m. Christian Penn
Issac Billington m. Hannah Glass
Lydia Billington m. John Washburn
Ichobod Washburn m. Bethiah  Phillips
Bethiah Washburn m. Daniel Braman
Daniel Braman m. Silence Clapp
Jesse Anson Braman m. Abiatha Felt
Anson Amos Braman m. Mary Marshall
Martha Ann “Matty” Braman m. James Harvey Chubb
Otis T. Chubb m. Caroline Bell Maltby
Ida May Chubb m. Joseph Mendoza

1. Mayflower Families Through Five Generations Vol. 5, Pub. by General Society of Mayflower Descendants
2.  Genealogy Summary on John Billington / Internet
3.  "The Great Migration Begins; Immigrants to New England, 1620-1633" Vol. I,  by Robert Charles Anderson pgs 173-4
4.  Internet John Billington Family billington family.htm "Mayflower Families"
5.   The Division of Cattle, 1627; Internet Mayflower Site
6.    "Pilgrim Hall Museum" "John, Ellen & John (2) Billington in 17th Century Records, http//
7.         Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford


  1. Amazing, Candace! Its fascinating reading about Mr. Billington (and his colorful personality) and it must be even more fascinating knowing that its your own family.


  2. This is impressive work. I too have Lincolnshire roots from the 1400-1700's. Thanks for sharing.