Not all the Mayflower families were of sterling character. While most seemed to upstanding folk – there were a few that didn’t quite meet our view of a Pilgrim. John Billington was one such Pilgrim. As an amateur genealogist it is quite exciting to find that Mayflower connection…until you find out he was hung for murder!
The Billington family were the troublemakers of the Plymouth colony. On the trip over, John Billington’s son, Francis shot off his father’s musket showering sparks among open barrels of gunpowder. With that one action, the entire ship could have easily burned down. Later in March 1621, John Billington’s son, John wandered off and was found by the Nauset Indians and was later brought home. According to Caleb Johnson, Billington “was implicated in the Oldham-Lyford scandal (a failed revolt against the Plymouth church).” He claimed that he knew nothing about it. The final nail in the coffin occurred in 1630, when John Billington shot and killed John Newcomen…John Billington was tried and hanged in September 1630. John Billington was one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact and he was also the first to be hanged for a crime in New England. He wasn’t a member of the separatist’s church but rather left England to escape creditors…so not all the Pilgrims were Puritan separatists. After Billington’s death, his wife Eleanor or Helen couldn’t stay out of trouble either. She was found guilty of slander, was fined and put in the stocks and whipped as punishment.
After John Billington’s death, Helen or Eleanor (both names are reputed to be her name) deeded her land to her remaining son, Francis, and remarried Gregory Armstrong in 1637. Francis Billington had married a widow named Christian Penn, who was a widow of Francis Eaton. Christian Penn brought with her 4 children including one step child – she and Francis Billington had nine more children. Francis’ older brother, John, died in the late1620’s and so all of John Billington’s descendants come through Francis. Francis lived to be an old man and died in 1684 nearly 80 years old, his wife Christian preceded him in death a few months before his own. Here is my lineage from John Billington:
- John Billington m. Eleanor/Helen
- Francis Billington m. Christian Penn
- Mary Billington m. Samuel Sabin
- Mercy Sabin m. James Welch
- Mercy/Mary Welch m. Thomas Spaulding
- Eunice Spaulding m. John Baldwin
- Elizabeth Baldwin m. Jesse Swan
- Nathaniel Swan m. Harriet Shutter
- Cynthia Swan m. Potter Gage
- Gilbert Gage m. Phoebe Allen
- Orlando Gage m. Edith Gallup
- Ora Silas Gage m. Florence Shawver
- Helen Gage m. Frank Johnson
- Eugene Johnson m. Betty Tannahill
Back when I was in high school and certainly old enough to know of some the peccadillos of the Pilgrims, don’t you think that it would have interested kids my age to know some of what really happened. There were babies born before prerequisite nine months after marriage, there were those who didn’t agree with their leadership and were put in stocks or whipped, and even some who committed murder. I never heard of any these stories…and I think that if we had the chance to learn about some of these things, perhaps we would remember their history better. These people were all too human and their experiences are more interesting because of their problems as well as their successes.