I have some friends who can trace their genealogy to John Alden, one of the original Mayflower passengers and settlers in New Plymouth. That’s really interesting, but our conversations became lively when we compared the legends about Mr. Alden to the known historical facts.
Today, we’ll try to set aside the legendary John Alden (though we’ll trace where the legends came from) and take another look at the life of this influential settler…
A Little Introduction
Through the centuries, the facts of the “First Thanksgiving” – limited as they are – have been badly mangled by pop-culture and even well-meaning teachers. We imagine a few “Pilgrims” in buckle sprinkled clothes gathering around a table that looks like it came from a retail store to feast on juicy turkey and pumpkin pie with whipped cream while their Native American neighbors happily feast with them. As usual, history ain’t that modern or simple.
(As an aside, I’ve been thinking that next year maybe we should feature the Wampanoag tribes and try to better understand their world that the “Pilgrims” entered.)
The romanticized, and some would say “white-man centric,” idea of the First Thanksgiving started to develop in the mid and later 19th Century. One of the key players in bringing mythical ideas about New Plymouth into American culture was the famed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His lengthy poem “The Courtship of Myles Standish” heavily features John Alden, Priscilla Mullins, and the title character in a romantic tale set in Plymouth and very, very loosely based on facts. For many people, John Alden is only associated with the line from the poem, “Why not speak for yourself, John?” from a scene when John is trying to tell Miss Mullins about all of Myles Standish’s fine qualities! It’s just a reminder of how our impression and pop-culture of history can be far from realities when compared to the real facts and how it’s important to trace the beginnings of the legends to understand where they came from.
John Alden was a “Stranger,” not a Separatist seeking religious freedom. Records suggest he was born about 1599, putting him in his early twenties when the Mayflower set sail for the New World. Some researchers think his father had recently passed away, and John took passage on the ship as a job and adventure. There might have been more reason, though; facts suggest that the Mayflower’s captain, Christopher Jones, was related by marriage to the Alden family and he might have hired John specifically for the voyage as a family favor.
Whatever the exact circumstances, we know that John Alden boarded the Mayflower, employed as a cooper. He would have been in charge of looking after the ship’s barrels of food, water, and other supplies and helping with other carpentry tasks during the voyage. It’s possible that John intended all along to work on the voyage and then settle in the New World. Why? He signed the Mayflower Compact, joining himself to the other colonists.
A Rising Leader
John Alden survived the first winter and decided to stay in New Plymouth. Probably a hard worker and ambitious, he quickly took leadership positions in the settlement. In 1626, he and some of the others bought stock in the join-stock company that funded, profited from, and controlled New Plymouth. By 1631, he served as assistant governor and held that post until 1675.
How did a cooper get the money? There’s a possible reason…and one that didn’t fit Henry W. Longfellow’s romantic vision…
Marriage and Legends
Priscilla Mullins had also come to Massachusetts on the Mayflower, but her father, mother, and brother all died that first winter, leaving her to inherit her family’s property in the new colony. Around 1622, John Alden married Priscilla Mullins. Ideally, they married for love and it’s not fair to speculate that John was just fortune hunting.
According to family legends which that 19th Century American poet relied upon for his romantic epic, there was a rivalry between Captain Myles Standish and John Alden to win Priscilla Mullin’s hand. Believe or disbelieve it… Personally, I think there could have been some rivalry (after-all, there weren’t that many eligible young women in New Plymouth), but I have my doubts about Longfellow’s details.
Back to the known facts, Mr. and Mrs. Alden had ten children and all survived to adulthood.
Founding A New Town
Possibly as early as 1629, John Alden, Myles Standish, and a few other settlers started building a village north of Plymouth and named it Duxbury. In the 1650’s, John built a new house in Duxbury…and it’s still standing today!
Around 1634, John was arrested in a trading dispute in which a trespasser was killed. John wasn’t involved in the death, but since he was the highest ranking official from Plymouth Colony nearby, the Massachusetts Bay Colony leaders arrested him for questioning and caused the rift between the two colonies to deepen.
John Alden was influential in colonial government. Aside from his role as assistance governor, he also served on committees, as treasure, and on councils of war in times of danger. Most of his leadership roles were voluntarily and unpaid, forcing him to petition the colony for land grants to help support his family.
When John Alden died in 1687, he was one of the last surviving passengers of the Mayflower. His obituary was printed in the broadsides – the forerunners of New England newspapers.
Beyond A First Glance
John Alden’s real biography and history have been obscured by a well-meaning poet who portrays him as the love-sick youth finally told to “speak for himself.” Looking at the reliable facts of John Alden’s life, I have a hard time adding up the too images. To accomplish what he did in colonial government required a strong work ethic, not much time for daydreaming and wooing.
From ambitious cooper to assistant governor and town founder, John Alden’s life reflects industry, forethought, and respect. His marriage to Priscilla Mullins probably played a significant role in his success, both through their relationship and the advantages of her inheritance.
John Alden’s obituary includes this religious lines to memorialize his life in Colonial New England style: His walk was holy, humble, and sincere; His heart was filled with Jehovah’s fear; He honored God with much integrity, God therefore did him truly magnify. The hearts of the Saints [colonists] entirely did him love, his uprightness so highly did approve, that whilst to choose they had their liberty, Within the limits of this Colony, their Civil Leaders, him they ever chose. With all the Governors did he assist, his name recorded is within the list, of Plimoth’s pillars to his dying day.