John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley: Their Life and Legacy in Plymouth Colony


This November marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims to the New World. In September 1620, the Mayflower started its journey with 35 crew members and 102 passengers, including John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley. This fascinating man and woman are estimated to have millions of descendants. Let’s learn more about them and find out if they are a part of your family story!

Who Is John Howland?

John Howland was born in Fenstanton, Huntingdonshire, England, between about 1592 and 1599. Based on his death date, which is recorded on his headstone and death records in Plymouth, he would have been born in about 1592. Some researchers believe his age at the time of death may have been inflated, which was common. Because Howland was listed as a manservant to John Carver on the Mayflower voyage, he was perhaps a younger man at the time of the voyage, perhaps under the age of 25.

In November 1620, the  Mayflower Compact was signed by nearly all the adult male colonists and two indentured servants. One of those indentured servants was John Howland. His signature on the famous document suggests he was likely an adult and at least 21 years old in 1620.

John Howland’s Voyage on the Mayflower: The One Who Fell Overboard

mayflower boat

The separatist Pilgrims had originally planned on sailing to the New World in two ships. The Speedwell proved to be unseaworthy, and many of the passengers were moved to the Mayflower.

There were turbulent seas that autumn, and in one horrible storm, John Howland fell overboard. William Bradford wrote in his book Of Plymouth Plantation about John Howland’s near-death experience:

“It pleased God that he [John Howland] caught hold of the topsail halyards which hung overboard and ran out at length. Yet he held his hold (though he was sundry fathoms under water) till he was hauled up by the same rope to the brim of the water, and then with a boat hook and other means got into the ship again and his life saved. And though he was something ill with it, yet he lived many years after and became a profitable member both in church and commonwealth.”

Life at Plymouth

john howland plymouth home

John Howland lived with Mr. and Mrs. John Carver as their manservant. Some have speculated that there was some type of family relationship between Howland and the Carvers, but no proof has been discovered. The first winter at Plymouth was exceptionally difficult. The colonists had landed too far north and too late to plant crops to get through the cold months. Howland and the Carvers, however, lived through the winter.

Unfortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Carver died the following spring. Because the couple’s children had passed away before the family had left Europe, it is speculated that John Howland inherited the Carver estate.

elizabeth tilley statue

Who is Elizabeth Tilley?

John Howland married Elizabeth Tilley in about 1623. No official record of their marriage has been found, but a division of cattle record from 1627 reveals that the couple had two children by then. Their oldest child, Desire, was recorded as having been born in about 1624, which would likely mean the couple was married the year before.

Elizabeth Tilley was baptized on August 30, 1607, in Henlow, Bedford, England. Prior to 1856, when William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation was discovered, scholars believed Elizabeth to be the adopted daughter of John Carver. However, this was not the case. Elizabeth had traveled on the Mayflower as a 13-year-old girl with her parents, John Tilley and Joan (Hurst) Tilley, and her uncle and aunt, Edward and Ann (or Agnes) Tilley.

Elizabeth’s parents and aunt and uncle all died that first winter, leaving her an orphan. She was then taken in by the Carvers. When the Carvers died in the spring, Elizabeth might have become the ward of John Howland. However, this theory is pure speculation—Elizabeth could have been placed in any household, and there is no evidence that there were any formal wardships for any of the orphaned children.

Elizabeth and John Howland: Children and Family Life

John and Elizabeth Tilley Howland initially built a house on First Street and over time acquired four acres on Watson’s Hill. They also purchased acreage in Duxbury and Rocky Nook (today’s Kingston, Massachusetts). Some of that land is owned by the Pilgrim John Howland Society.

John and Elizabeth raised 10 children:

  1. DESIRE, born in about 1624, and married in 1644 to John Gorham.
  2. JOHN, born on 24 February 1626 or 1627, and married on 26 October 1651 to Mary Lee.
  3. HOPE, born in about 1629, and married by 1647 to John Chipman.
  4. ELIZABETH, born in about 1631, and married first on 13 September 1649 to Ephraim Hicks and later, on 10 July 1651, to John Dickerson.
  5. LYDIA, born in about 1633, and married by about 1655 to James Brown.
  6. HANNAH, born in about 1637, and married on 6 July 1661 to Jonathan Bosworth.
  7. JOSEPH, born in about 1640, and married on 7 December 1664 to Elizabeth Southworth.
  8. JABEZ, born in about 1644, and married by 1669 to Bethiah Thatcher.
  9. RUTH, born in about 1646, and married on 17 November 1664 to Thomas Cushman.
  10. ISAAC, born on 15 November 1649, and married by 1677 to Elizabeth Vaughn.

John Howland held several prominent positions during his lifetime. He served as a Plymouth colony assistant and deputy for Plymouth to the general court, was in charge of the fur trading post at Kennebec, and was on the fur trade committee.
John Howland died in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on February 23, 1672 or 1673. Elizabeth died at Swansea, Massachusetts on December 21, 1687 or 1688.

John Howland grave

Elizabeth Tilley and John Howland Descendants

Today, nearly 35 million people worldwide are estimated to descend from someone who sailed on the Mayflower. It is estimated that 10 million of those descendants live in the United States, and a large number of them are John Howland descendants—and a surprising number of them famous!

Are you a John Howland descendant? You can find out by visiting his and his children’s profile pages in the FamilySearch Family Tree. First, sign in to (or create a free account), and then click this hyperlink that will take you directly to John Howland’s profile page.

On the far right of the profile page, click View My Relationship to see if you are related!

John Howland view descendancy

Tip: View My Relationship looks at your family tree to see if you are related. The more information you have added to your family tree, the better it can trace your relationship.

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