Knowing Your Ancestors’ Professions Can Yield New Insights into Colonial Life

Mayflower Pilgrim John Tilley (1571-1621) is one of my ancestors.

I have spent some time digging into my Mayflower ancestors’ lives to see what new information I could find about them. In my research on John Tilley this month, a newspaper notation about his profession took me by surprise. He was a “silk worker.” I don’t know as I’ve had any other ancestor that worked as a silk worker.

John was born in December 1571 in Henlow, Bedfordshire, England, and married Joan Hurst (1568-1621) on 20 September 1596. John and Joan had five known children, according to Rose (who died as a young child), John, Rose, Robert, and Elizabeth. Of their children, Elizabeth Tilley (1607-1687) was the only one who accompanied them on the Mayflower voyage. She was about 13 years old at that time.

Sadly, John died the first winter in Plymouth. So, I decided to search for John in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to see if additional information about him had ever been published.

I started by searching for John’s first and last names.

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page showing a search for John Tilley
Source: GenealogyBank

This search was far too broad: over 3,000 results. To narrow it down, I included the keyword “Mayflower.”

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page showing a search for John Tilley and "Mayflower"
Source: GenealogyBank

This more refined search led me to an article about the Arkansas Society of Mayflower Descendants, which listed John Tilley’s family as Mayflower passengers, and also gave another interesting detail: his profession.

An article about the passengers on board the Mayflower in 1620, Arkansas Democrat newspaper article 9 February 1958
Source: GenealogyBank, Arkansas Democrat (Little Rock, Arkansas), 9 February 1958, page 73

Wait – William Bradford was also listed as a silk weaver, Francis Cooke a wool comber, John Goodman a linen weaver, Degory Priest a hatter, Edward Tilley a cloth maker, James Chilton a tailor? I was pretty surprised that so many of them worked in the weaving, cloth and apparel trades: solid, practical skills that everyone in the colony would need.

At the time the Pilgrims came to the colonies in the 17th century, silk was a luxury commodity and the British were hoping to use the colonies as a production site. It would be another 150 years later before the silk industry would begin and take hold here.

Had John and Joan Tilley survived that first tough year, it might be that his skill in the silk industry and the active support of his wife and daughter would have developed the industry a century earlier.

Genealogy Tip: Newspapers can tell you the details of your ancestors’ lives – like the professions of even your earliest American ancestors. It’s interesting to know the skills that they had and how they provided for their families. Use GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to discover your own relatives’ stories.

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31 thoughts on “Knowing Your Ancestors’ Professions Can Yield New Insights into Colonial Life

  1. Julie- Your grandparents name will be on your parents birth certificates. You can also look them up with the US census records depending on the dates that they lived in. If your parents where born before 1940 they will be listed as children to your grandparents.

  2. I can’t find what ship or when my great grandmother came to the U.S. from Austria. Her name was Anna or Annie Balgo. We have found a couple different spellings. Her birthdate was May 5th 1901, married a Paul Dusa in 1914 and remarried a Daniel Lewandowski around 1919 or 1920. She died as Anna Lewandowski on April 12th 1963. I need help.

  3. Angela — Passenger lists were put in the newspapers and can be of assistance in searching the ships coming to the U.S. Marriage announcements and obituaries can also be of help. Another thing you can look at is Naturalization records. These can be found in and other websites.

      1. You are most likely related to Tia and Tamera mowry. Their 13th great grandfather is William Brewster as well. Small world indeed. So many of our American stories began at Plymouth.

    1. John Tilley is also in my family tree, as his daughter Elizabeth married my ancestor, John Howland. Im related through my mother’s mother, Ella MARY Macy.

      1. I am also related to the TILLYS ON MYMOTHERS side my grandmothers. Maiden name was Tully she married my Grandfather Tom Gushard

    1. That’s terrific Denise.
      We’are cousins!

      Let me suggest that you document and add your family tree to the online ‘Tree’ sites – like FamilySearch and Ancestry.
      Putting your documentation and conclusions online will make it easy to permanently show who who are members of the family.

      Keep up the good work.


    1. Good to hear from you cousin.
      My key advice to you is that you add your documentation and family tree details to the online ‘Tree’ sites – like FamilySearch and Ancestry.

      Putting your information online makes it easy for all Mayflower descendants see how they are related.

      Do you have special plans to celebrate in 2020?
      Keep up the good work.


  4. I’m a descendant of John Tilley through Elizabeth. Interesting to find he was in a profession dealing in cloth. I have, until recently, been a professional seamstress. It makes me wonder if our skills are in our DNA.

    1. Juanita,
      I’m also a cousin, descended through the Tilleys. I can’t sew a lick! But just wanted to say hello!

  5. I had an ancestor at Jamestown who was a silk grower, but he sadly lived only 3 years after coming to the Colony.

  6. I too am related to John Howland, an indentured servant, (a white slave) who married Elizabeth Tilly. They had 10 children & 88 grand children.
    My Great uncle, on my mothers side, did all the research without the aid of the internet.
    My dream would be to attend the 400 year anniversary of the Mayflower landing.

  7. belong to The Tilley Family Genealogy Group.
    Watching the American Experience The Pilgrims and heard Elizabeth Tilleys not sure if directly related to this Tilley line though.

  8. I descend from Stephen Hopkins through his son Giles. He is an interesting character as he tried to go to Jamestown but was shipwrecked in Bermuda on the Sea Venture. That shipwreck is what Shakespeare based His play The Tempest on.

  9. It’s a small world. I, too, am related to Elizabeth Tilley. Family Search is where this information came from. Glad to have found this site on Pinterest!

  10. This is so very interesting! After doing research Elizabeth Tilley who married John Howland are my 10th great grandparents. This stems from my mother father’s side. It has been amazing to find out this information.

  11. This is so very interesting. But, what about the undesirables I understand the Brits gathered and sent to America. All of us cannot relate to the Mayflower’s passengers list. It is my understanding that the Brits emptied the jails of criminals as well as those in debtors prisons and gathered all the prostitutes off the streets and all of these were shipped to America. What ships were they on? Is there a passenger list for them?

    1. My Mayflower connection was my ancestor John Alden. He was a hired hand on the ship. Worked as a cooper. Not necessarily an undesirable, but not a notable back then either.

  12. Many ancestors are from Mayflower survivors on both sides of my tree. Many of you then are my cousins. I have done extensive research for two decades. I am on ancestry, FamilySearch and few others some from DNA tests to confirm.

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