In November 1620, following an arduous two-month, 3,000-mile voyage, the Mayflower arrived in the New World from Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers. That December, the group went ashore at present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts, to establish what would become the second permanent English settlement in America. It’s unlikely these colonists, known collectively as Pilgrims, could have imagined the months ahead—half the Mayflower passengers perished by the spring of 1621—let alone the centuries to come, when their countless descendants would include presidents, artists, inventors and movie stars.
The man who founded Eastman Kodak Company in 1892 and made photography available to the masses was a descendant of William Bradford, the influential, longtime governor of Plymouth Colony whose journal, later published under the title “Of Plymouth Plantation,” is the main record of Pilgrim life. As a young man, Bradford, an orphan, was part of a group of Separatists who rejected the Church of England and in 1608 fled to Holland in search of religious freedom, eventually settling in the city of Leiden. Within a decade, though, the Separatists, concerned their children were becoming too assimilated to Dutch culture and losing their English identity, decided to found their own settlement in America. After the Mayflower anchored at present-day Provincetown Harbor, Bradford, who’d worked as a weaver in Leiden, was a member of the exploration party that chose Plymouth as the site of the Pilgrims’ home. However, while he was scouting locations, Bradford’s wife, Dorothy, fell from the Mayflower and drowned. In 1623, he wed Alice Southworth, a widow who’d come to Plymouth earlier that year. Bradford became governor in 1621, after John Carver, the colony’s first elected governor, died. For much of the next three decades, until his death in 1657, Bradford served as governor and played a critical role in the colony’s growth.
The woman who taught Americans the art of French cooking likely would’ve been underwhelmed by the dining options aboard the Mayflower (ship goers of that era typically subsisted on such items as salted meats and dried grains) but she did have a number of relatives, including William and Mary Brewster, who as passengers aboard the vessel would’ve had no choice but to eat up. William Brewster, who studied at Cambridge University and served as an assistant to Elizabeth I’s secretary of state, was jailed for his involvement with the Separatists before they fled to Holland. In Leiden, he worked as a printer and was an elder in the Separatist congregation. The Brewsters journeyed to Plymouth with their sons Love and Wrestling, while also caring for two young children named Mary and Richard More. The Mores, along with two of their other siblings, had been put on the Mayflower without the permission of their mother, Katherine, by her husband, Samuel, who claimed the children were the product of an affair Katherine More had with another man. Three of the More children perished shortly after the Mayflower reached Plymouth; only Richard survived. In Plymouth, William Brewster served as the colony’s religious leader for many years (the Separatists’ Leiden pastor had remained in Europe) and also was a close adviser to Governor William Bradford.
America’s 20th chief executive was descended from a family of troublemakers: non-Separatists John and Eleanor Billington, who made the Mayflower voyage with their two teenage sons. Not long after reaching America, while the Pilgrims were still aboard the ship, one of the Billington boys, Francis, shot off a musket and almost set fire to a barrel of gunpowder, an act that had the potential to be highly disastrous. In the ensuing years, John Billington committed a series of offenses, culminating with the 1630 shooting death of one of his neighbors following an argument. Later that year, Billington was hanged for his crime. (In 1636, Eleanor Billington, after being convicted of slandering a fellow colonist, was fined and ordered to sit in the stocks and be whipped.) About two-and-a-half centuries later, in July 1881, President Garfield was shot by a disgruntled constituent, Charles Guiteau. Garfield, who had been inaugurated in March 1881, died that September from an infection related to his bullet wound. His was the second-shortest time in office of any commander-in-chief. (The ninth U.S. president, William Henry Harrison, served for a month before dying.)
Born in Massachusetts in 1735, a little more than a century after the Pilgrims’ arrival, America’s second president was a descendant of John Alden, a Mayflower crew member, and Priscilla Mullins, who traveled aboard the ship with her parents and a younger brother. Alden was a cooper, responsible for building and maintaining the ship’s barrels used for storing food and supplies, while Mullins’ father was a member of the Merchant Adventurers, a group of English merchants who funded the cash-strapped Separatists’ voyage in exchange for a share of future profits they might make through the fur trade, fishing and other activities. Mullins’ parents and brother all died not long after landing at Plymouth. Alden decided to stay in America, rather than return to England, and he and Priscilla were married around 1623. The couple went on to have at least 10 children, and Alden served as an assistant to the governor of Plymouth Colony for many years. He and Priscilla became the subject of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1858 poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” about a love triangle between the two of them and Standish, a fellow Mayflower passenger who served as the colony’s military leader. Longfellow, also an Alden descendant, based his popular poem on a family legend, although there’s no conclusive evidence the story is true.
It’s fitting that the 20th century painter and illustrator known for his portraits of American life could trace his roots to Mayflower passengers. In fact, one of Rockwell’s forebears, Stephen Hopkins, is thought to have been to America before 1620. In 1609, Hopkins reportedly left England for the Jamestown Colony in Virginia, but wound up shipwrecked on Bermuda. There, after participating in an attempted mutiny, he was sentenced to death. However, Hopkins’ life was spared and he eventually made it to Jamestown, where he spent several years before returning to England. On the Mayflower, Hopkins was part of the non-Separatist passenger group recruited for the journey by the Merchant Adventurers. He made the trip with his second wife, Elizabeth, and three children. During the voyage, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, the appropriately named Oceanus. In Plymouth, Stephen Hopkins acted as an emissary to the local Native Americans and served for a time as an assistant to the colony’s governor, but also ran into legal trouble for such offenses as allowing people to drink alcohol at his house on a Sunday.
The Hollywood star (“Casablanca,” “The Maltese Falcon”) was an ancestor of John Howland, who traveled aboard the Mayflower as an indentured servant. Howland almost didn’t make it to America: During the voyage, he was swept overboard in a storm; he managed to grab hold of one of the ship’s ropes and was pulled to safety. Howland was the servant of John Carver, Plymouth Colony’s first elected governor. After Carver died in the spring of 1621, Howland became a free man. He married fellow Mayflower passenger Elizabeth Tilley, whose parents, aunt and uncle all died soon after the colonists got to Plymouth. Elizabeth and John Howland had 10 children and John became a prominent member of the colony.
The 12th U.S. president was a relative of Isaac Allerton, a Separatist who came to America on the Mayflower with his wife and three of their children. Although Allerton’s wife passed away not long after the Pilgrims’ arrival in Plymouth, their youngest child, Mary Allerton Cushman, lived until 1699, making her the last surviving Mayflower passenger to have crossed the Atlantic. (Peregrine White, who was born aboard the ship once it reached Provincetown Harbor in late 1620, died in 1704.) In Plymouth, Allerton served as an assistant governor and acted as the colony’s representative with its investors in England. However, he mismanaged Plymouth’s finances and plunged the colonists deeper into debt. Allerton eventually left Plymouth and died in New Haven, Connecticut, in the late 1650s. About two centuries later, in March 1849, his descendant, Zachary Taylor, a hero of the Mexican-American war, became president. However, Taylor’s time in the White House was brief; he died from a sudden digestive ailment in July 1850.