Pilgrim Swept Overboard!

“I’ve got to go topside to fill my lungs with some fresh air,” thought agitated John Howland to himself as he began to climb the ship’s ladder up to the main deck. Water sloshed around his ankles and storm tossed waves splashed down on him from the hatch above. The Mayflower rocked back and forth and pitched side to side bobbing like a cork in the storm.  The fierce October tempest would eventually throw the ship far off course from its intended destination in the Virginia colony.

The other passengers shouted at John over the loud creaking of the Mayflower’s wooden frame as the ship rocked with every passing wave. “Don’t go up there, John!  We’ve been ordered to stay below until this terrible storm has passed!” The ship’s hold was filled with passengers as well as the stench that permeated everything in their close quarters.

“This storm has been raging for weeks! I’m going to take a look,” his shouts drowned out by the roar of the waves crashing above. “Don’t worry!”

John and most of the other passengers were en route from England to America to start a new life where they would not be persecuted for practicing Christianity the way they believed they should.  England and all of Europe had been going through tumultuous times since the beginning of the Reformation.  Catholic or Protestant?  The decision for England to embrace one or the other swayed back and forth almost as much as the Mayflower did during this storm.  Even when England was Protestant, as it was at the time of the Pilgrims in 1620, it was not Protestant enough for this group of Christians.

As John climbed the ladder and opened the hatch, water poured down on him and drenched every stitch of clothing on his body.  The wind and spray of the sea swirled around him as he came on deck.  The rocking of the ship caused him to stumble, slip, and slide.  He quickly grabbed a sail that had been furled because of the storm.

Illustration by H.B. Vestal - 1966

Pilgrim John Howland overboard – Illustration by H.B. Vestal – 1966

A crew member barked out an order for him to get below deck, but just as John turned around to look at him a monstrous wave crashed onto the deck.  The force of the water swept John overboard out into the watery depths.  As he slipped under the water he felt something next to him. He latched on to it as his head came above the surface and then dunked back underneath.  He had grabbed hold of the ship’s halyard!  He was hanging on for dear life!  The crewmen quickly grabbed the rope and pulled him back into the boat.  Wet, water-logged, and shaken, John Howland went back below deck, but he was thankful that he had been miraculously rescued!

William Bradford, in the only primary source account of the Mayflower voyage, writes of the experience:

“In sundry of these storms the winds were so fierce, and the seas so high, as they could not bear a knot of sail, but were forced to hull, for divers days together. And in one of them, as they thus lay at hull, in a mighty storm, a lusty young man (called John Howland) coming upon some occasion above the gratings, was, with a seele of the ship thrown into the 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.”

This Thanksgiving I have one more reason to be thankful — thankful that John Howland caught hold of that topsail halyard!  John Howland is my 10th great-grandfather, a Plymouth Pilgrim, and a signer of the Mayflower Compact.   (www.pilgrimhall.org/compact.htm)

John Howland’s signature on the Mayflower Compact


22 thoughts on “Pilgrim Swept Overboard!

  1. What a cool story! Do you keep a visual representation of the different family tree branches? I’m curious how you keep track…..Anyway, I love it! It’s so fun to read these. Love ya! 🙂

  2. I know you will continue your beautiful work. Which branch of our history decends from John Howland, Guice, Strong, Holloway, Hinson, etc? My love, Dad

  3. John Howland is my 11th Great-Grandfather on my mother’s side. I am thankful that he had a good grip!

    Pr. Gary Hatcher

  4. Melinda:
    I think I just heard you on the radio, telling a favorite talk show guy a little about this. I Googled for the illustration, as you said, and got intrigued enough to follow it back to this page. What a great bit of history! I can see why you’re grateful for your ancestor’s pluck (and the ship’s halyards!).

    • Grace, thank you for commenting. Yes, I am very thankful for John Howland’s pluck! I wish it was me that you heard on the radio, but alas, it was not. I am glad that you took the time to read my story and comment though. Blessings!

  5. My husband is also John and Elizabeth’s 10th grandson (through the Hope Howland Chipman-Huckins-Amidon-Chapman line). Wonder how many descendants are out there!

    My kids find the story very intriguing as well, especially since they realize that they wouldn’t be here if John had not caught the rope and if he and Elizabeth hadn’t been one of the few survivors if that first winter.

  6. […] Not only did he come over on the Mayflower, but he was the last surviving man from the journey. Although, he almost didn’t even make it to land. William Bradford tells of how Howland got thrown overboard during a storm on their voyage. I also found this account retold in a great and exciting way by another 10x great grandchild of John Howland: https://talesinthetree.wordpress.com/2011/11/17/pilgrim-swept-overboard/ […]

  7. Thank you for your telling of this story. I discovered just last night that John Howland is my 9th great grandfather. I would love to post your link to my tree on ancestry.


    • John Howland is also my 9th great grandfather! We descend from John Smith Van Beuren Harding who married Emily Gavel. I’ve just discovered this line and am really excited about it. Love this interpretation of his story, and am glad he was strong enough to hold on to that halyard.

    • Nice to meet you too, Cousin Nancy! I descend through Desire Howland as well. I peeked at your website and I’m glad to see you are a Christian. So we are sisters in Christ, too!

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