Friday, November 15, 2013

Thanksgiving: A Family History

With our Thanksgiving celebration only two weeks away, I wanted to introduce my ancestors, John Howland and his wife Elizabeth Tilley. American school children for generations have studied the story of how the pilgrims boarded a rickety, little wooden ship that would take them to a new life in a new world desiring religious and political freedom. Actually only about half of the manifest consisted of Puritans. The best record of the pilgrims can be found in William Bradford’s journal as he writes about the ship’s journey across the Atlantic beginning in September 1620. One of the most notable stories that Bradfrod relates is the story of John Holwand,  the young lad who fell overboard as the ship was thrown about the sea during a storm. John grabbed hold of part of the halyard from the sail that had broken and fallen into the water. There he held tight until he was rescued.

Born in 1598/9 in Fenstanton Huntingdonshire, England, John came to Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620 as a manservant to John Carver, the governor of the group of 102 pilgrims onboard. He may have been one of the several indentured servants whom their masters brought with them. I did a bit of reading on what it really meant to be an indentured servant. Briefly, the indentured servants entered an agreement with one whom they owed a debt and were generally very young, even children. There is some discussion that John bought his freedom, but there was never any documentation found to prove his freedom. Once they arrived in Plymouth, Carver was elected governor of Plymouth Colony. Of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower, 53 of them and half of the crew survived the first winter living on the ship until it returned to England in April 1621. The others died either during the voyage or after the landing of sickness or starvation. The settlers formed a friendship with the natives, the Wampanoagos who taught them how to hunt, fish, and grow crops. That first year, the colony celebrated their success, giving thanks for their survival.

Howland may have inherited his master's fortune when Carver died suddenly from sunstroke while working in his cornfield. As the story is told, he emerged from the field on a very hot day and collapsed from the heat. His wife died a few weeks later.   Part of Howland’s lore says that as the only male survivor of the Carver household, he inherited the Carver fortune.  Elizabeth Tilley born in Henlow Bedforshire, England. was also on board the Mayflower with her parents who died that first winter, making her an orphan and the only Tilley child to survive. The Carvers took her in and when they both died John became the guardian of the 16 year old girl. Records show that they married when Elizabeth was probably 17 and John probably in his mid-twenties.

In reading the couple’s biography, we learn that Howland was a businessman, a leader, and a statesman, helping to grow a new colony that would forge a new nation. The Howlands had 10 children, so today their descendants number in the millions with such famous Americans from presidents to actors and common folk such as this humble blogger. Check of  The John Howland Society  for a list of the more famous Howland descendants. Visit the Mayflower Society website to see if your family name might be on that list. My grandmother and aunt worked on the Duston/Henry genealogy, so I have an accurate record of my family’s heritage, all English on my father’s side. Little wonder then, that I feel my English heritage calling to me.

While I do have great pride in such an ancestral heritage, my family heritage is hardly unique for I share that distinction with many other Americans. The Howlands had 10 children; their children had very large families creating a legacy of millions of descendants. . My ancestral line traces back to their 7th daughter Hannah who married Johnathan Bosworth July 1661. They had 9 children. My great grandmother on my grandmother's side Mercy Bothsworth Henry is my direct link. 

Today, Thanksgiving Day is about the food, the dinner, families and friends gathering to give thanks for their many blessings in life, and football. Now add to that list the number of stores that are announcing their Thanksgiving Day hours. Here at the Garden Spot there probably will be none of the above. The girls spend the day with their husbands’ families, so we often celebrate Thanksgiving here on Sunday. As for shopping, I don’t like crowds and I may even do most of it online this year.

That first Thanksgiving really was a celebration of a first successful harvest that lasted three days with 53 pilgrims and 90 Indians attending, but the country’s official Thanksgiving was actually declared by President Lincoln as a national holiday November 26, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War to give “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dewelleth in the Heavens.” (Wikipedia). And Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November since.

I hope you enjoyed this brief history lesson. It is hardly new information, but I love the family connection to the history. And who knows, we may be distant cousins. Our families all have such interesting tales to tell. I am rather old fashioned and want to savor the holidays for what they are meant to be, celebrations of family tradition and friends, grace, peace, and joy. May your holiday season be filled with just that: peace, joy, and love.

Have a fabulous week end.


  1. Hi Ann! What a fascinating story! Thank you for sharing it! I don't like crowds either. We do very little shopping anymore, which I am thankful for!

  2. Thank you for this story which was (of course) unknown to me. It was very nice to meet your ancestors John Howland and his wife on your blog.
    Wish you a great weekend too!

  3. How interesting. I wonder if you have ever visited Plymouth, Devon, and seen the marker showing where the Mayflower launched.

  4. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family, Ann. Very interesting story..I enjoy your blog every time!

  5. Wow, that is so interesting, I loved it. I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, I don't like crowds either and shopping isn't top on my list of things to do, I know I'm weird :)

  6. I still think it's amazing when any family can trace back more then a few generations. With records being what they were in those days, it's somewhat of a miracle that it can be done. And it's very interesting.


  7. Wow, you sure do know alot about your family history. Hope your Thanksgiving celebrations are enoyable, tasty and fun filled.