Learning about a Pilgrim Ancestor’s Life through Newspapers

My ancestor William Brewster (1566-1644) was driven out of Europe for his Separatist activities and for speaking out against the Church of England. He eventually immigrated to America aboard the Mayflower and was an original signer of the Mayflower compact. In Plymouth, William was a minister and was regarded as an honorable man who cared for the sick and needy. In fact, there are few Mayflower pilgrims who have been so glowingly written about as has William Brewster.

I had been researching William with the keyword “Mayflower,” but now I wanted to learn more about his life and reputation as a minister, as a Reverend in the Plymouth colony, so I refined my search in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to include his first and last names and the keyword “Reverend.”

A screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page showing a search for William Brewster and "Reverend"
Source: GenealogyBank

In a 1916 issue of the Boston Herald, I discovered a transcription of the eulogy Governor William Bradford gave William Brewster upon hearing the news of his death:

“He was tender harted, and compassionate of shuch as were in miserie, and espetialy of shuch as had been of good estate and ranke, and were fallen into want and poverty, either for goodnes and religions sake, or by the injury and oppression of others; he would say, of all men these deserved to be pitied most…

“About the 18 of Aprill dyed their Reverend Elder, and my dear and loving friend, Mr. William Brewster: a man that had done and suffered much for the Lord Jesus and the gospells sake, and had bore his parte in well and woe with this poore persecuted church above 36 years in England, Holland, and in this wildernes, and done the Lord and them faithfull service in his place and calling. And notwithstanding the many troubls and sorrows he passed throw, the Lord upheld him to a great age. He was nere fourskore years of age (if not all out) when he dyed.”

An obituary for Mayflower Pilgrim William Brewster, Boston Herald newspaper article 21 August 1916
Source: GenealogyBank, Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 21 August 1916, page 8

It is easy to imagine their heartfelt sadness at his passing, as he was such a good friend and neighbor to all.

The Old Colony Memorial newspaper gives us more detail about his dedication to serving God and his fellow men.

An article about Mayflower Pilgrim William Brewster, Old Colony Memorial newspaper article 16 August 1823
Source: GenealogyBank, Old Colony Memorial (Plymouth, Massachusetts), 16 August 1823, page 1

This article describes Brewster’s life after he came to New England:

“…he began a new course of living, in which he was no ways unwilling to take his part and bear his burden with the rest, living sometimes without bread many months together, having often nothing but fish and sometimes even destitute of that and drank nothing but water for many years together, yea, until five or six years of his death; and yet he lived (by the blessing of God) in health until very old age…”

He lived meagerly and was often nearly destitute, but he still labored with his hands as long as he was able, in addition to performing his religious duties:

“Yet when the church had no other Minister, he taught twice every Sabbath, and that both powerfully and profitably to the great satisfaction of the hearers, and their comfortable edification, yea many were brought to God by his Ministry, doing more in this respect in a year, than many that have their hundreds per annum, do in all their lives.”

I don’t know if I ever heard these details before about Brewster’s life: his poverty and his faithful service in the ministry. I am proud to be descended from such a person.

Genealogy Tip: In addition to providing the vital facts about your ancestors’ lives, newspapers can also help you know what kind of people they were – and help you gain a new appreciation of the difficulties they faced. Learn more about your own ancestors using GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

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