One month into the voyage of the Mayflower, John Howland, an indentured servant from Huntingtonshire, could bear the smells and the damp and the darkness below deck no more. He went upstairs for some air.

A violent gale was blowing, and Howland had no experience trying to walk across the deck of a heaving ship. The Mayflower lurched leeward, and Howland was tossed to ship’s rail. He failed to get a good grip, and tumbled into the sea. Fortunately, a rope from topsail halyard, the ship’s upper sail, was dragging in the water.

Howland, a strong young man in mid-twenties, managed to grab the rope. Sailors hauled him toward the ship, then used a boat hook to get him back on deck. If it hadn’t been for that rope, for Howland’s lucky grab, and for the alertness of the crew, modern American history would be very different, because John Howland’s descendants include the Bush political dynasty.

According to The Columbian magazine, the descendants of the 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower in 1620 now number around 20 million. Most of them, of course, were and are ordinary folk, but there have been some striking exceptions.

John Alden, one of the most famous of the Mayflower passengers, thanks to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1858 poem, “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” was a 21-year-old cooper, or barrelmaker. While most of the Pilgrims were Separatists — Calvinists who had separated from the Church of England because they believed it could never be reformed of “popish” customs such as having bishops and playing organs in churches — Alden was a member of the Church of England. As such, the Pilgrims referred to him as “a stranger.” They referred to themselves as “saints.” Nonetheless, given his youth and skills, he was a desirable addition to the colony, so they urged him to stay. And he did.

Alden married a fellow Mayflower passenger, the equally famous Priscilla Mullins. She was 16 years old when she came aboard the Mayflower with her parents. Tragically, they died from disease or cold within weeks of the ship’s arrival. Among John and Priscilla’s descendants are presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, the comedians Dick Van Dyke and his brother Jerry Van Dyke, actor-director-producer Orson Welles, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (very appropriately), and Marilyn Monroe.

One of the saddest and most scandalous Mayflower stories casts the spotlight on the four young children of the More family: Richard, Jasper, Ellen, and Mary. The oldest was 8-year-old Ellen, the youngest 4-year-old Mary. Their mother had had all four of them with a man who was not her husband. Their stepfather couldn’t wait get them out of his sight, so when the Mayflower passengers advertised that they were looking for children to train as indentured servants in the New World, the unfeeling man signed up all four.

Like Priscilla Mullins’ mother and father, three of the four More children succumbed during that terrible winter of 1620-1621. The surviving child was Richard. Among his distant descendants is George Washington.

There’s a general impression out there that the arrival of the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower marks the beginning of the United States, which has got to make descendants of the Jamestown settlement a bit peevish. Nonetheless, accuracy aside, the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, the First Thanksgiving have all become part of our national origin myth, and it is unlikely to be debunked anytime soon.

The Pilgrims intended to establish in America the small tightly knit communities they had known in England. So when they came ashore and found an empty Wampanoag village ready for the taking, it must have seemed to them that God had granted their wish. There was one cause for concern: the forest was full of Indian tribes who might help them or might exterminate them, depending on how the Pilgrims conducted themselves.

It went very well for a while, culminating in the Thanksgiving feast of 1621 which remains the model or inspiration for our own Thanksgiving dinners. Although whether the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag had turkey remains an open question.

* * * * * * *

36 Notable Descendants of the Pilgrims

Presidents and Political Figures

  • Ulysses S. Grant
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • Sarah Palin
  • Barbara Bush
  • John Hancock
  • Patrick Henry

Literary Types

  • Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Helen Keller
  • Harper Lee
  • Jack London
  • Robert Frost
  • Ernest Hemingway

Military

  • Commodore Matthew Perry
  • General George S. Patton
  • Admiral Richard Byrd

Innovators/Businessmen

  • JP Morgan
  • John D. Rockefeller
  • The Wright Brothers
  • Samuel Colt

Celebrities

  • Alan B. Shepherd, Jr.
  • Dr. Benjamin Spock
  • Amelia Earhart
  • Julia Child

Actors and Actresses

  • Alec Baldwin
  • Humphrey Bogart
  • Jane Fonda
  • Katharine Hepburn
  • Bette Davis

Artists

  • Grandma Moses
  • Norman Rockwell
  • Frank Lloyd Wright

Notorious

  • John Hinckley, Jr.
  • Lizzie Borden
  • Jesse James
  • Lee Harvey Oswald
  • Aaron Burr