The Mayflower: Tales of Jumping Ship


Evening Star (Washington, DC), November 26, 1933

For a seemingly interminable 65 days the Mayflower was the floating home of pilgrims, officers and crew as they made their famous journey to America.  For some it was a graveyard, and for others, a symbol of life renewed.

Those who sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 are commonly known as pilgrims, but the sailors who traveled with the actual pilgrims—the passengers who were seeking religious freedom—were at distinct odds with each other.  They swore like, well, sailors, which wasn’t welcome among the Puritans, who were bullied for their sea unworthiness.  One sailor, whose name is known only to God, was especially contemptible and merciless, hoping “to cast half of [the Pilgrims] overboard before they came to their journey’s end.”[1]  Early in the voyage this young sailor himself got sick and died, his body thrown over the Mayflower to a watery grave.  A blessing for the boat-weary passengers.

What might have happened if the bully sailor hadn’t drowned on his way to America. Evening Star (Washington, DC), May 9, 1926

What could have ended disastrously for John Howland proved to be a miracle: after falling overboard the Mayflower, he survived to become the patriarch of many descendants, including Dorothy Bradford Alden, born in 1900 and no doubt named for John Howland’s fellow Mayflower passenger, Dorothy Bradford. New Ulm Review (New Ulm, MN), May 23, 1900

Being cooped up in cramped quarters with hardly any fresh water and increasing stink would drive the most hardy among us mad.  Such was the case with John Howland who found the ‘tween decks, the space on the Mayflower where its residents lived, unbearable.  Seasickness, too, was a constant struggle, and fresh air would be just the thing to help combat it…or so John Howland thought.  He exited to the ship’s deck in the midst of a howling storm with violent waves and fell overboard.  He grabbed a rope that miraculously dangled from the ship and was pulled up to the safety of the Mayflower.

In a more mysterious episode, Dorothy Bradford, wife of William Bradford, the famed governor of Plymouth Plantation, fell overboard and died in completely calm waters.  The Mayflower had reached its destination and was anchored in a quiet harbor, where she “drowned by falling from a boat in the bay.”

Given John Howland’s surviving a fall during a torrential storm, it is suspect that Dorothy Bradford would fall over and drown in calm waters while the ship was stationary.  Not surprising, then, that some historians suspect her of committing suicide.

“Wondering Over Pilgrim Fathers,” Devils Lake World and Inter-Ocean (Devils Lake, ND), December 10, 1919

What despair and depression she must have suffered after she and William arrived at a barren scene without their young son, whom they left behind in Europe, hoping he would join them later.  The desolation Dorothy felt and her desperation under extremely tough circumstances might have been too much to take.  Nonetheless, the official record indicates death as a result of an accident.  Her husband hardly even noted it, recording in his journal under death, “Dec. 7.  Dorothy, Wife to Mr. William Bradford.”[2]

Pilgrims living in a new land, as illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. New York Herald, December 5, 1920

Youth’s Companion, (Volume 47, issue 29), July 16, 1874

Another jump-ship account happened before the Mayflower ever arrived in America.  The pilgrims were relative latecomers to the American coast, and French and English sailors navigated American waters from present-day Virginia north into Canada years before the pilgrims came.  During these explorations, indigenous peoples were kidnapped and taken to Europe as curiosities.  One “curiosity” named Epenow sailed to England, presumably never to return home.  But he devised a way to go back to his native land: he wove stories of limitless gold supplies found there.  His captors, lusty for riches, returned with Epenow, who jumped off the ship as it approached land and escaped to freedom.


[1] Philbrick, Nathaniel, Mayflower (New York: Viking, 2006), 31.

[2] Willison, George F., Saints and Strangers (New York: Ballantine Books, 1965), 113.

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