John Billington

In the Moore-Bragg-Thornton-Billington direct line, my 10th great grandfather Luke Billington was the brother of a man who helped found Plymouth Colony but who would become notorious as the first murderer executed in America. This John Billington is my 10th great grand uncle. The Billington family appears to have originated near Cowbit or Spaulding, Lincolnshire, England, where Francis Longland later named young Francis Billington, son of John Billington, as an heir. This Francis Longland was probably Elinor’s father and her son was named for him.

John Billington was born about 1580 in Spaulding or Cowbit, Lincolnshire, England and died 30 September 1630 in Plymouth Colony, MA. He married Elinor (Ellen/Helen) Longland around 1603 in London, England and had two sons. After John’s death, Elinor married Gregory Armstrong in September 1638. Elinor died after March 2, 1642/3. Gregory Armstrong died in Plymouth on November 5, 1650.

Children of John and Elinor Billington:

  • John, born about 1604. He died in Plymouth between May 22, 1627 and 30 September 1630.
  • Francis, born about 1606. He married Christian (Penn) Eaton in Plymouth in July 1634 and had nine children. A survey in 1650 indicated that Francis Billington was then in New England. This Survey for the manor of Spalding in Lincolnshire is a lease for three lives in which one of the lives is “Francis Billington son of John Billington.” He died in Middleboro on December 3, 1684.

John Billington (also spelled as Billinton), his wife Elinor and two sons, John and Francis, departed from Plymouth, ENG on the Mayflower  on September 6/16, 1620. The small, 100-foot ship had 102 passengers and a crew of about 30 or 40 in extremely cramped conditions. By the second month out, the ship was being buffeted by strong westerly gales, causing the ship‘s timbers to be badly shaken with caulking failing to keep out sea water, and with passengers, even in their berths, lying wet and ill. This, combined with a lack of proper rations and unsanitary conditions for several months, contributed to what would be fatal for many, especially the women and children. On the way there were two deaths, a crew member and a passenger. Arriving at their destination in the space of several months, almost half the passengers perished in the cold, harsh New England winter.

On November 9/19, 1620, after 3 months at sea, they spotted land, which was the Cape Cod hook, now called Provincetown Harbor. After several days of trying to get south to their planned destination of the Colony of Virginia, strong winter seas forced them to return to the harbor at Cape Cod hook, where they anchored on November 11/21. Billington and the other founders signed the Mayflower Compact that day.

The Billington family appeared a number of times in the accounts of the early Plymouth Colony and were reputed to be the colony‘s troublemakers. Francis made squibs and fired his father’s musket inside the ship, showering sparks around an open barrel of gunpowder and nearly blew up the Mayflower while the ship was anchored off Cape Cod. He also went exploring soon after arrival and discovered the body of water now known as Billington Sea. As William Bradford recorded it later:

“The fifth day [of December, 1620] we, through God’s mercy, escaped a great danger by the foolishness of a boy, one of … Billington’s sons, who, in his father’s absence, had got gunpowder, and had shot off a piece or two, and made squibs; but there being a fowling-piece charged in his father’s cabin, shot her off in the cabin; there being a little barrel of [gun] powder half full, scattered in and about the cabin, the fire being within four foot of the bed between the decks, and many flints and iron things about the cabin, and many people about the fire; and yet, by God’s mercy, no harm done.”

Despite this beginning, Billington and the others signed a contract to govern their behavior in the New World: The Mayflower Compact--“I shall … begin with a combination made by them before they came ashore; being the first foundation of their government in this place. Occasioned partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them had let fall from them in the ship: That when they came ashore they would use their own liberty, for none had power to command them, the patent they had being for Virginia and not for New England… And partly that such an act by them done, this their condition considered, might be as firm as any patent, and in some respects more sure. The form was as followeth:

IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc. Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.”

“Monday, the eighth day of January … This day Francis Billington, having the week before seen from the top of a tree on a high hill a great sea [known today as Billington Sea, actually a large pond], as he thought, went with one of the master’s mates to see it. They went three miles and then came to a great water, divided into two great lakes; the bigger of them five or six miles in circuit, and in it an isle of a cable length square; the other three miles in compass, in their estimation. They are fine fresh water, full of fish and fowl. A brook issues from it; it will be an excellent place for us in time. They found seven or eight Indian houses, but not lately inhabited. When they saw the houses, they were in some fear; for they were but two persons and one piece.”

In March 1621 John Senior challenged Myles Standish’s orders for “contempt of the Captain’s lawful command with several speeches” and was punished for it. Brought before the Company, Billington was charged with “contempt of the Captain’s lawful command with opprobrious speeches,” and was sentenced to have his neck and heels tied together, “but upon humbling himself and craving pardon, and it being the first offence, he is forgiven.” This would not be the last of his opposition to the authoritarian tactics of Standish and Bradford.

“About the latter end of this month [May or July 1621], one John Billington [the son of John Billington] lost himself in the woods, and wandered up and down some five days, living on berries and what he could find. At length he light on an Indian plantation twenty miles south of this place, called Manomet; they conveyed him further off, to Nauset among those people that had before set upon the English when they were coasting whilst the ship lay at the Cape, as is before noted. But the Governor caused him to be inquired for among the Indians, and at length Massasoit sent word where he was, and the Governor sent a shallop for him and had him delivered.”

“A voyage made by ten of our men to the kingdom of Nauset [Eastham on Cape Cod], to seek a boy [John Billington] that had lost himself in the woods: with such accidents as befell us in that voyage. “The 11th of June [1621] we set forth, the weather being very fair. But ere we had been long at sea, there arose a storm of wind and rain, with much lightning and thunder, insomuch that a spout arose not far from us. But, God be praised, it dured not long, and we put in that night for harbor at a place called Cummaquid [Barnstable Harbor], where we had some hope to find the boy. Twosavages were in the boat with us. The one was Tisquantum, our interpreter; the other Tokamahamon, a special friend. It being night before we came in, we anchored in the midst of the Bay, where we were dry at a low water. In the morning we espied savages seeking lobsters, and sent our two interpreters to speak with them, the channel being between them; where they told them what we were, and for what we were come, willing them not at all to fear us, for we would not hurt them. Their answer was, that the boy was well, but he was at Nauset…

“After sunset, Aspinet [Indian sachem] came with a great train, and brought the boy with him, one bearing him through the water. He had not less than a hundred with him; the half whereof came to the shallop side unarmed with him; the other stood aloof with their bows and arrows. There he delivered us the boy, behung with beads, and made peace with us; we bestowing a knife on him, and likewise on another that first entertained the boy and brought him thither. So they departed from us.”

The 1623 Division of Land marked the end of the Pilgrims’ earliest system of land held in common by all. Governor Bradford explains it in this way: “And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.”

Plymouth Colony Records, Deeds, &c, Vol. I 1627-1651 is the oldest record book of the Plymouth settlement. It begins with the 1623 Division of Land, recorded in the handwriting of Governor William Bradford. The lands of John Billington were among those designated as “their grounds which came first over in the May Floure, according as thier lotes were case” and described in this way “these lye on the South side of the brooke to the baywards.”

Plymouth Colony Records Vol. I also tells of the 1627 Division of Cattle: “At a publique court held the 22th of May it was concluded by the whole Companie, that the cattell wch were the Companies, to wit, the Cowes & the Goates should be equally devided to all the psonts of the same company… so the lotts fell as followeth, thirteene psonts being pportioned to one lot…

“The seauenth lott fell to Stephen Hopkins & his companie Joyned to (2) him his wife Elizabeth Hopkins (3) Gyles Hopkins (4) Caleb Hopkins (5) Debora Hopkins (6) Nickolas Snow (7) Constance Snow (8) Willam Pallmer (9) ffrances Pallmer (10) Willm Pallmer Jnor (11) John Billington Senor (12) Hellen Billington (13) ffrancis Billington. “To this lott fell A black weining Calfe to wch was aded the Calfe of this yeare to come of the black Cow, wch pveing a bull they were to keepe it vngelt 5 yeares for common vse & after to make there best of it. Nothing belongeth of thes too, for ye copanye of ye first stock: but only half ye Increase. To this lott ther fell two shee goats: which goats they posses on the like terms which others doe their cattell…

“The ninth lot fell to Richard Warren & his companie Joyned w’th him his wife (2) Elizabeth Warren (3) Nathaniell Warren (4) Joseph Warren (5) Mary Warren (6) Anna Warren (7) Sara Warren (8) Elizabeth Warren (9) Abigall Warren (10) John Billington (11) George Sowle (12) Mary Sowle (13) Zakariah Sowle. “To this lott fell one of the 4 black Heyfers that came in the Jacob caled the smooth horned Heyfer and two shee goats.”

In 1621, King James I authorized the Council for New England to plant and govern land in this area. This Council granted the Peirce Patent, confirming the Pilgrims’ settlement and governance of Plymouth. Peirce and his associates, the merchant adventurers, were allotted 100 acres for each settler the Company transported. The Pilgrims had a contract with the Company stating all land and profits would accrue to the Company for 7 years at which time the assets would be divided among the shareholders. Most of the Pilgrims held some stock. The Pilgrims negotiated a more favorable contract with the Company in 1626.

In 1627, 53 Plymouth freemen, known as “The Purchasers,” agreed to buy out the Company over a period of years. In turn, 12 “Undertakers” (8 from Plymouth and 4 from London) agreed to pay off Plymouth’s debts in return for trade benefits. The list of the 1626 Purchasers comes from the Plymouth Colony Records. Because of some discrepancies in the names, it is usually thought that the list was compiled several years after the actual agreement was negotiated. The Plymouth Colony Records list simply “Billington” (no first name). 

In addition to John Billington’s sons getting themselves lost and the ensuing expeditions to rescue them, he himself was quite a troublemaker, according to Bradford. Of course, as an American free thinker, I am always suspicious when someone with great power and wealth, such as William Bradford, complains about a poor farmer expressing himself about conditions forced upon him.

John Billington (Senior) was caught up in the 1624 Lyford and Oldham conspiracy against the leadership of Plymouth Colony and against the rule of Plymouth Church: “Thus all things seemed to go very comfortably and smoothly on amongst them, at which they did much rejoice. But this lasted not long, for both Oldham and he [Lyford] grew very perverse, and showed a spirit of great malignancy, drawing as many into faction as they could… So as there was nothing but private meetings and whisperings amongst them; they feeding themselved and others with what they should bring to pass in England by the faction of their friends there…”

When Oldham was confronted with letters he had written, his response was: “that Billington and some others had informed him of many things and made sundry complaints, which they now denied … for none would take his part in anything, but Billington and any whom he named denied the things and protested he wronged them and would have drawn them to such and such things which they could not consent to, though they were sometimes drawn to his meetings.” He was not punished and Oldham alone blamed it all on Billington and others.

Bradford’s opinion of John Billington is stated openly in a letter to Robert Cushman on June 9, 1625: “Billington still rails against you, and threatens to arrest you, I know not wherefore; he is a knave, and so will live and die.” (Governor Bradford’s Letter Book as printed in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society for the year 1794; Volume III. Boston: 1810; Governor William Bradford’s Letter Book (Boston: Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, 1906)).

Whatever disputes were ongoing, they reached a head by 1630. Whether Bradford and his ‘government’ simply overlooked these troubles as simple quarrels or assumed that strict court proceedings against those who disobeyed his totalitarian regime, is unknown. In his book about the plantation, Bradford simply records the deaths of settlers with sang froid:

“And seeing it hath pleased Him to give me [William Bradford] to see thirty years completed since these beginnings, and that the great works of His providence are to be observed, I have thought it not unworthy my pains to take a view of the decreasings and increasings of these persons and such changes as hath passed over them and theirs in this thirty years… John Billington, after he had been here ten years, was executed for killing a man, and his eldest son died [John] before him but his second son [Francis] is alive and married and hath eight children.”

John Billington’s hanging was the 1st such execution in Plymouth Colony; he was about 40 and his burial location is unknown.

“This year [1630] John Billington the elder, one that came over with the first, was arraigned, and both by grand and petty jury found guilty of wilful murder, by plain and notorious evidence. And was for the same accordingly executed. This, as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them. They used all due means about his trial and took the advice of Mr. Winthrop and other the ablest gentlemen in Bay of the Massachusetts, that were then newly come over, who concurred with them that he ought to die, and the land to be purged from blood. He and some of his had been often punished for miscarriages before, being one of the profanest families amongst them; they came from London, and I know not by what friends shuffled into their company. His fact was that he waylaid a young man, one John Newcomen, about a former quarrel and shot him with a gun, whereof he died.” (William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647, p. 234).

This suggests that other members of Plymouth Colony liked Billington and sought a way to NOT execute him but that Bradford’s influence was too powerful. While it is true that the Billington’s were living in London before boarding the Mayflower, they came originally from Lincolnshire and her family at least apparently were wealthy.  Also, if Billington ran into this Newcomen in the woods and they were old enemies, perhaps Billington shot him in self defense. I see no witnesses or evidence that this was murder. Bradford, methinks, doth protest too much.

Thomas Morton of Merrymount was no friend to the leaders of Plymouth Colony. Morton published a satirical and allegorical work, The New English Canaan, in 1637, in which he speaks more kindly of Billington, saying:”[Billington] that was choaked at Plimmouth after hee had played the unhappy Markes man when hee was purfued by a carelesse fellow that was new come into the Land … Hee was beloved of many”(p. 216). So, Morton also noticed that Billington was ‘beloved’ by other inhabitants; if so, that would explain their initial reluctance to execute him and indicates to me how very flawed and primitive the ‘legal’ system in Plymouth was.

[This event soon took on great significance for chroniclers of the Colony and details were added which do not appear in the original records and cannot be corroborated: “About September, in the year 1630, was one Billington executed at Plymouth for murther. When the world was first peopled, and but one family to do that, there was yet too many to live peaceably together; so when this wilderness began first to be peopled by the English, when there was but one poor town, another Cain was found therein, who maliciously slew his neighbor in the field, as he accidentally met him, as himself was going to shoot deer. The poor fellow perceiving the intent of this Billington, his mortal enemy, sheltered himself behind trees as well as he could for a while ; but the other, not being so ill a marksman as to miss his aim, made a shot at him, and struck him on the shoulder, with which he died soon after. The murtherer expected that, either for want of power to execute for capital offences, or for want of people to increase the Plantation, he should have his life spared ; but justice otherwise determined, and rewarded him, the first murtherer of his neighbor there, with the deserved punishment of death, for a warning to others.” (William Hubbard, p. 101).]

Sources

Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society for the year 1794; Volume III. Boston: 1810.

Governor William Bradford’s Letter Book (Boston: Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, 1906).

William Hubbard, A General History of New England from the Discovery to MDCLXXX (Boston: Charles C. Little & James Brown, 1848), p. 101–This history was written c. 1680 & first published in 1814.

Thomas Morton, The New English Canaan of Thomas Morton (Boston: Prince Society, 1883).

Mourt’s Relation, ed. Jordan D. Fiore (Plymouth, Mass.: Plymouth Rock Foundation), 1985, p. 27.

Pilgrim Hall Museum.

Plymouth Colony Records, Deeds, &c, Vol. I 1627-1651.

Thomas Prince’s New England Chronology as reprinted in: Nathaniel Morton, New England’s Memorial (Boston: Congregational Board of Publication, 1855).

William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Knopf, 1991).

© Copyright 2015 Linda L Labin, PhD

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