Saved by the Rope: John Howland, 1620

Article Covers
At Sea
Plymouth Colony
Year range
1620 - 1621

As one uncle says, “It’s a wonder any of us got here.” In the book Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647 , chapter 9, Pilgrim leader William Bradford tells how close ancestor John Howland’s descendants came to never existing. Bradford was there, although he tells the story in the third person. Howland came not as a Pilgrim but as an indentured servant to John and Kathrine Carver.

The scene is the Atlantic Ocean in the fall of 1620, and the Mayflower is spending days riding out a storm without carrying any sail at all:

   “As they thus lay at hull in a mighty storm, a lusty
   [lively] young man called John Howland, coming upon some
   occasion above the gratings was, with a seele [roll] of the
   ship, thrown into sea; but it pleased God that he 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.”

During the first year at Plymouth, 50 of the 102 colonists died, including the Carvers. This terrible toll also provided considerable social mobility, as Howland may have inherited their estate, and definitely gained his freedom, married Elizabeth Tilley, and became a leading figure in Plymouth Colony.


born ~1592 Fenstanton, Huntingdonshire, England

married ~14 August 1623 Elizabeth Tilley -- 10 children

died 23 February 1672

ANCESTORS: We know his parents Henry Howland and Mary _____ only.

COUSINS: Five siblings known; brother Arthur is also an ancestor with his own story.

Family:John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley (1)

Person:John Howland (13)