John Carver: First Governor

Well, it’s good to be back in the 1620’s after last weekend’s extended foray in 1860’s history at the West Coast Civil War Round Table Conference. We’re continuing the discussion of real people who came to the New World on the Mayflower and whom modern society collectively calls “Pilgrims.”

Today, we’ll discuss the life and accomplishments of John Carver who served as the first governor of Plymouth Colony.

A Little Introduction

Did you know that the Mayflower wasn’t supposed to make land at Cape Cod (Massachusetts)? Nope. “The Pilgrims” were supposed to settle in Virginia since they had signed agreements with the Virginia Company in London, allowing them to live in that southern colony and create a self-governing settlement.

How did they end up in Massachusetts? Bad storms. Weeks without navigational aids or ability to see the sun or stars along with the fierce winds took the Mayflower far off course. It didn’t take long for Captain Jones to figure out his ship was not off the coast of Virginia, and after consulting with the colonial leaders, he attempted to sail south around Cape Cod…without success.

These historical details provide a brief introduction to better understand John Carver and his role in the founding of New Plymouth.

A Separatist Leader

It’s difficult to track solid details about John Carver’s life prior to his negotiations with the Virginia Company. We know he was part of the Separatist congregation that lived in Leiden, Holland, but where he originally came from is under question. Some sources claim he was part of the original group of Separatists that fled Scrooby, England; others suggest he had French ancestry and was part of a strict Huguenot group also seeking religious freedoms in Holland.

About 1609, John Carver served as a deacon in the local Separatist church. He married Katharine Legatt – probably around 1616 – and his only known child was buried in Holland.

As life and religious freedoms became more difficult in Holland, the congregation discussed resettling in the New World. But it wasn’t as simple as getting on a ship and going. Who would support the colony? Who would help fund the venture? John Carver was one of the leaders elected to return to England to ask questions and make negotiations.

An artist’s depiction of the signing of the Mayflower Compact; Carver is probably seated at the right.

Forging A Contract and Compact

The Virginia Company was a joint stock company in England formed for the purpose fostering colonial settlement in the British claimed territories along the eastern coast of North America. In 1617, Robert Cushman and John Carver met with leaders of the Virginia company, seeking permission to settle on land in the New World and operate a self-governing settlement. Sir Edwin Sandys – one of the influential members of the Virginia Company – had acquaintances with some of the Separatists and helped work out the details. The Merchant Adventurers in London agreed to sponsor the venture, hoping to make a profit in the process. Carver played an important role in all the negotiations and was the one who purchased supplies for the Leiden congregation.

John Carver, his wife Katharine, several servants, and several children/youth boarded the Mayflower as “the Carver household.” The voyage with Separatists and Strangers took place in the late autumn of 1620, leading to the off course landing.

After attempts to head south, Carver and the other leaders decided to settle in what would become Massachusetts. Realizing they were out of the jurisdiction of their original contract, they drafted the Mayflower Compact which required the colonists to stick together and for a self-governing settlement. John Carver was elected to serve as the first governor of Plymouth and was involved in the decisions of where to settle and how to survive the winter.

Making Peace

Despite the ravaging sicknesses which claimed the lives of so many “Pilgrims” that winter, John and Katharine survived.

In the spring of 1861, John Carver met with Wampanoag leader Massasoit to arrange a peace treaty between the local native tribes and the new settlers. Both agreed to peaceful arrangements, a system of ambassadors, and mutual protection of each other’s settlements in case of attack from other tribes.

An artist’s idea of Massasoit and Carver’s historic meeting. Probably not historically accurate, but interesting art!

And Then?

In April or May 1621 John Carver was busy about the colony. Perhaps he was working in the fields or building new houses when he collapsed. Careful care and the limited medical attention did not revive him, and the first governor of New Plymouth died that spring. Traditionally, it is believed he died of sunstroke. (William Bradford became the next governor.)

Sadly, Katharine Carver died several weeks later and was buried beside her husband. Tradition claims she died of a broken heart.

Beyond A First Glance

William Bradford presides in memory of “the Pilgrims” and dominates in the history books as governor of Plymouth. Why? He lived and led for years…and wrote his own history of the colony. John Carver hides in the shadows, primarily because he died early in Plymouth’s history.

However, looking at John Carver’s life, we see him as a driving force in the establishment of the colony. He met the businessmen and merchants, persuading them to sponsor the venture. He helped draft the Mayflower Compact and was the first to sign the historic document. He met with the Native American leaders and prepared the first peace treaty of its kind in British-claimed North America, a treaty that offered respect, peace, and prosperity for both people groups.

Bradford may have written the history and hogged the spotlight, but Carver founded the history, the colony, the peace treaty, and then passed away before he could see the success of his efforts.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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