“The Billingtons were not the kind of next-door neighbors you wanted in any century.” (Boston Globe)
John Billington was born in England about 1582. In 1603, he married a woman named Elinor Lockwood and had two sons: John, who was born in 1604 and Francis, who was born about 1606. The Billington family lived in Lincolnshire. (Brooks)
In the summer of 1620, businessmen from London began recruiting families and individuals to help colonize northern Virginia. Billington decided to take the men up on their offer. The only catch was that the passage to America came with a price:
“In exchange for their passage, shipboard provisions, and a share of the profits, Billington signed a contract that bound himself, his wife, and their two sons to labor on behalf of the colony until 1627.”
“For the duration of their partnership with the investors, the Billingtons and their fellow colonists would work six days per week for ‘the Company.’ All profits from ‘trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means’ would remain in the common stock; even the houses and gardens ere to be included in the assets to be divided after seven years.”
“Some people considered the terms ‘fitter for thieves and bond slaves than honest men,’ but the prospect of a better life was sufficient inducement for the Billingtons to cast their lot with other hard-pressed families headed for America.” (Brooks, HistoryOfMassachusetts-org)
According to the book American Murder, Billington and his family began causing problems while aboard the Mayflower:
“Billington, his wife Ellen, and their sons Francis and John the younger were aboard when the Mayflower dropped anchor at Provincetown harbor. Straightaway, the Billingtons started causing trouble.”
“Even before the newly arrived immigrants could move on to Plymouth Rock, Francis almost sank the ship when he fired a gun near an uncovered barrel of gunpowder and set fire to a cabin.”
The Pilgrims had arrived in the area in December, 1620, on board the Mayflower. There were about one hundred of them altogether.
Most had come primarily for religious reasons. Some – collectively called the “Saints” – were Separatists who decided that the only way they could be true to their conscience was to leave the established church and secretly worship. These Separatists thought the English church too corrupt for salvage.
Another group of these early settlers was called the “Strangers,” a diverse number of people who did not share the radical Protestant views. Their primary motivation for resettlement was economic, not religious. They had been haphazardly selected in England by the sponsors of the trip to fill up the ship and insure a profitable voyage.
There is even some evidence to suggest that a few Catholics had come aboard as part of the “Stranger” group. Many more Anglicans or Church of England adherents were on board. One such person was a well-to-do Anglican named John Billington.
While all of the “Strangers” were seen as a threat, it was John Billington and his family who were singled out as responsible for some tensions on the Mayflower crossing the Atlantic. Of note,
- The ship was small causing considerable crowding. The Billingtons, however, had sufficient wealth to live in a private cabin angering the cramped and crabby anti-Catholic Pilgrims.
- When the ship was taken off course Billington was a member of a group threatening mutiny.
- While off shore expeditions set out to explore possible settlement areas in the New World one of the Billington children accidentally set off a small explosive charge almost destroying the ship.
- During one of these expeditions when her husband was gone, the wife of William Bradford mysteriously fell over board and drowned. It was never clear whether this was suicide or an accident. While the Billingtons were not directly responsible, Bradford blamed the mischievous and inattentive behavior of the Billington boys for the incident.
- Due to illness and death at sea, by the time the Pilgrims landed the “Saints” were beginning to be outnumbered by the “Strangers.” Upon landing there were 32 “Saints” and 51 “Strangers.” (History of Criminal Justice, Illinois State University)
Billington and his family miraculously all survived the first harsh winter in Massachusetts which claimed the lives of so many who had boarded the ship in Plymouth on September 16, 1620. He was even one of the 41 ‘true’ Pilgrims who signed the Mayflower Compact.
Billington was not known to the Pilgrim Separatists. However, the Billingtons became well-known as the troublemakers of the group, and Billington subsequently became the first person to commit a crime in America in 1621 when he refused to obey military orders.
He was regularly involved in disputes and civil disobedience, and was accused of secretly supporting local dissenters who were sending political letters back to England, written to undermine the colony. (Mayflower400UK-org)
The Mayflower was still riding at anchor off the tip of Cape Cod, when Francis was accused of nearly blowing the sturdy three-master sky high. (Mulligan, Daily News)
Later, in reckless disregard for his or the Colony’s safety, Francis went exploring. Finding ‘Billington Sea’ is part of his legacy, today.
John Billington Jr – Lost and Found
There were children on the Mayflower — Oceanus Hopkins who was born at sea, Peregrine White who gave his first baby-cry soon after the Mayflower reached the New World, Francis Billington who almost blew up the Mayflower while trying to make fireworks, and John Billington.
John was a mischievous youngster, and so lively that the Pilgrim Fathers had to keep a stern eye upon him. That night when John did not come home, the Plymouth folk were worried.
Governor Bradford sent a party to look for him. They scoured the woods about, but there was no John. Five days went by.
And John had not returned when a message came from the friendly Indian, King Massasoit, saying that the Nausets had the lad. The Nauset Indians were the same fierce savages who had attacked the Pilgrims at The Place of the First Encounter.
After sunset, they saw a long train of Nauset Indians come winding down to the beach. At their head, walked their haughty Chief Aspinet.
They began to wade out toward the shallop. And whom should the Pilgrims see sitting on the shoulders of a big Indian, but John himself, covered with strings of beads!
He had been visiting in the Nauset village, where his new friend the big Indian had feasted and entertained him in his wigwam.
And while the Indian was giving John over to the Pilgrims, Aspinet announced that he and his people wished to make peace with the white men.
So the Pilgrims made peace with him, and presented him with a strong English knife.
So the lost boy was found. (Good Stories)
The mother did not seem to redeem the reputation of husband and sons; traditionally she was called “the scold.” She later married Gregory Armstrong. She had various controversies in court with her son and others.
In 1636, she was accused of slander by “Deacon” John Doane, she had charged him with unfairness in mowing her pasture lot, – and she was sentenced to a fine of five pounds and “to sit in the stocks and be publickly whipt.”
Her second husband died in 1650 and she lived several years longer, occupying a “tenement” granted to her in her son’s house at North Plymouth. (Marple)
Back to John Sr …
In 1626, the colonists assumed full ownership of the plantation after a period of negotiation with the investors who were disgruntled because they had received very little profit from the project. The land and cattle were divided up among them but for Billington, it wasn’t quite what he was expecting.
Billington received the smallest per capita allotment in the colony, despite the fact that he was one of the first settlers of the colony. He received a house in the center of Plymouth, 63 acres of land, a share in the plantation’s livestock and rights in future distribution.
Billington didn’t have much of a social status in the colony either. He was not a member of the church, he had been excluded from all public office due to his bad reputation with Governor Bradford and he lacked the resources necessary to become one of the colony’s Undertakers, which were men who took on financial liability for the colony and controlled its trade with England. As a result of all this, Billington was frustrated and angry.
To make matters worse, sometime between 1627 and 1630, Billington’s son, John, died just before he turned 25 years old. The cause of death is unknown but Richard Warren also died in 1628 which indicates there may have been an illness in the Warren household.
Around the same time, Billington became involved in a dispute with his neighbor John Newcomen.
It is not known what the dispute was about but the after effects lingered until 1630 when Billington happened upon Newcomen in a field and shot him dead.
According to the book The Human Tradition in the Atlantic World, the murder was the result of Billington’s frustration after years of struggling to prosper in the colony. The book states that after the death of his son, Billington was angry about his bad fortune and was frustrated about a new wave of incoming colonists that would only increase their hardships.
Massachusetts Governor William Bradford wrote an account of Billington’s trial and hanging in his journal Of Plymouth Plantation, and stated that he sought the advice of the nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony on the matter.
John Billington was hanged in September of 1630. Billington’s burial location is unknown, although he was probably buried on his property as per social custom at the time. (Brooks)
Click the following link to a general summary about the Billingtons: