Mayflower’s Billington Brothers: America’s 1st Juvenile Delinquents?

Introduction: In this article – to celebrate 2020 being the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower – Melissa Davenport Berry tells a wild story about two of the youngest passengers onboard that famous ship. Melissa is a genealogist who has a blog, AnceStory Archives, and a Facebook group, New England Family Genealogy and History.

This is the year of the Mayflower – and here is a little history about two of the youngsters who traveled to Plymouth’s shores. All in good humor!

In 1959 the witty reporter Hugh A. Mulligan gave readers across the country a humorous account of two young Mayflower passengers: John Jr. and Francis Billington. The story seemed fitting for the season as Thanksgiving was just around the corner.

An article about the Billingtons who arrived onboard the Mayflower, Omaha World-Herald newspaper article 22 November 1959
Omaha World-Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 22 November 1959, page 103

According to Mulligan:

“The Mayflower, history shows, was a floating kindergarten, loaded to the gunwales with wailing small fry. Of the 104 passengers aboard, 33 were children. They came in all shapes, psyches and volumes, but none wilder or woolier than the Billington boys, John and Francis.”

Mulligan claimed “these two pint-sized Pilgrims… were America’s first juvenile delinquents.” Their antics must have taxed the nerves of every tired Pilgrim.

Even before the Mayflower landed ashore, Francis Billington almost blew up the ship and her crew! Mulligan recalled the incident from Mourt’s Relation, a journal written by William Bradford and Edward Winslow:

“The fifth day [of December, 1620] we through God’s mercy escaped a great danger by the foolishness of a boy, one Francis of Billington’s sonnes, who in his father’s absence had got gun powder and shot off a piece [musket] or two and made squibs [small fireworks], and there being a fowling piece charged in his father’s cabbin, shot her off in the cabbin. There being a little barrell of [gun] powder halfe full scattered in and about the cabbin, the fire [discharge] being within foure foote of the bed [bunk] betweene decks and many flints and iron things about and so many people about the fire. And yet by God’s mercy no harme was done.”

Within a few months brother John Billington Jr. showed up in the journal as missing in action. As Mulligan reported:

“‘About the latter end of this month (April, 1621),’ Bradford wrote, ‘one John Billington lost himself in the woodes and wandered up and downe some five days, living on berries and what he could finde.’”

The event created chaos and an aggravated Miles Standish (we can only assume this was not the first stunt pulled by little John) rounded up 10 men to locate the lost boy. John was found about 50 miles away from the Pilgrim settlement. He had been taken by the Nauset tribe of Cape Cod, and that posed a problem due to prior skirmishes over some ransacked corn taken by Pilgrim hunting parties.

Illustration: “John Billington Brought on the Shoulders of an Indian” from “Good stories for great birthdays, arranged for story-telling and reading aloud and for the children’s own reading.”
Illustration: “John Billington Brought on the Shoulders of an Indian” from “Good stories for great birthdays, arranged for story-telling and reading aloud and for the children’s own reading.” Olcott Frances Jenkins (1922), page 137. Credit: Internet Archive; Library of Congress.

Bradford stepped in and resolved the conflict. He promised to make good on the stolen corn and Chief Aspinet handed over John: “behung with beads and made his peace with us” (from Bradford’s journal). The whole ordeal must have roused them all, but John was saved – and as Mulligan speculated: “Perhaps the chief was glad to get the lad off his hands.”

Mulligan mentioned that juvenile behavior is an offshoot of parental delinquency. Yes, the apple does not fall far from the tree – which brings on the next story.

In an article published in the Richmond Times Dispatch in 1979, journalist Bill Ryan recorded his visit to Plymouth Plantation. We have more on the Billington’s, but this time it sheds light on the parents John Sr. and Eleanor “Nell” Bellington. All fault could not be pinned on the little tikes.

In his article, Ryan noted that children’s books portray the Plymouth Pilgrims as bland, dull, and pious – but he asserts that they were anything but. He saw the plantation members as a mixed potpourri of humanity. Just like today, some were more pious than others, but as Ryan noted:

“The Billingtons were not the kind of next-door neighbors you wanted in any century.”

An article about the Billingtons who arrived onboard the Mayflower, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 18 November 1979
Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 18 November 1979, page 187

Ryan reported that Nell was charged with being a common scold, but her husband topped her (and sons) in the criminal department. The Bellington boys were the first juveniles, but Daddy Billington was the first among the adults to commit murder. He was hanged 10 years after the Mayflower landed.

There are debates on how the squabble went down between him and his victim John Newcomen; you can find more information in the sources listed below.

Despite the bad rap on the first Billington line to come to America, the family can boast of famous kin, including celebrities, a United States president, and an Apollo astronaut. Among these figures are Richard Gere, John Lithgrow, Taylor Swift, Alfred Wordon, James Garfield, and Wilson brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl of the Beach Boys.

Check out GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to learn more about your Mayflower ancestors, and I would love to hear from BELLINGTON descendants!

Thanks to Libby Needham of Descendants of the Mayflower

Sources and Further Reading:

28 thoughts on “Mayflower’s Billington Brothers: America’s 1st Juvenile Delinquents?

  1. Melissa, great article. The Billington’s and all their antics are hilarious. I am sure years ago all of the citizens living with them did not find it as funny as we do 400 years later. All the best, Elizabeth “Libby” Needham

  2. Fantastic, little-known story of the darker side of the Pilgrims. Nonetheless, the line has contributed more than its share of upstanding citizens! Which goes to show: even scoundrels can contribute to society… eventually…

    1. Jack, I think that some of biggest scoundrels turned out to be great men — even Ben Franklin admitted he had too much fire and fun. 🙂 Obviously the Billington boys were too early for Ben’s warning: “If you lie down with dirty dogs, you get up with fleas.” 🙂 Thanks for posting and love your history shares too!

  3. I’m a descendent of the Billingtons. I have to say, my children have been rambunctious, hard to handle at times and strong willed. However, they all turned out to be good people. Oh, and my grandchildren still have that same fire.

    1. Jeanetta, thanks for the comment! I think all work and no play makes for dull boys (and girls). It was fun researching this line. 🙂 GenealogyBank is loaded with Mayflower stories!

    1. Susan, thanks for posting. I am not sure, but good observation. As I recall that was a kidnapping where the ransomers actually paid to have the tikes taken off their hands. 🙂

  4. As a Billington descendant, I can only conclude that Billington genes must have been powerful, as they seem to continue cropping up in various of my ancestral generations. Thank goodness the Billington genes have been somewhat balanced by genes from Governor Sam Bradford, and John and Priscilla Alden. My particular line goes from John and Elinor to son Isaac to his daughter Mary. In other material I have found on John, it seems that he may not have been a member of the church that spawned the Pilgrims; it appears that no one is really certain how the family came to be on the Mayflower in the first place. Thanks for your article.

    1. Hi James, thank you for sharing! I love to hear feedback from Billington lines! I am glad that the posse was sent out to gather little Billington and he returned to marry and carry the line forward. There are speculations on why the Billington family came; I believe Caleb Johnson’s My Mayflower site may have some info. What about the Great Migration? I will be doing more Mayflower research in the future to see what I can find.

      1. I do not know for sure that we have any Mayflower ancestors, but if we do it is a sure bet that they would be the Billingtons! You are familiar with the phrase “there’s one in every crowd”? Yeah, that was my kid. His friends have greatly enjoyed relating their memories of “the good old days when your Dad…” to his kids. I love the comment made by his then 9-year-old son, “Gee Gramma, I’m lucky I’m here huh? Dad could have killed himself a bunch of times!” This man’s folder at the emergency room probably weighs about 5 pounds. For real!

        1. Shelly, Thanks for sharing! Maybe you should take the tree and see if there is Billington blood!

  5. Melissa, My great-grandmother was a Billington and my grandmother (her daughter) insisted, until the day she died, that her ancestor was the first person to ever be hanged in the colonies, although I’m not sure it is true. We are still working on our family tree to determine if my grandmother’s John Billington is the same John you mentioned in this blog article. It may not be too far-fetched, since my grandmother’s great uncle (a Billington) stabbed his son to death and her grandfather died after blowing off his arm by setting off homemade fireworks. In any event, thanks for the great article about the Billingtons. They certainly were a colorful family!

    1. Barbara, what is the name of the ancestor? I would love to look this up. Yes, the Billington’s were spirited! I suspect they kept the colony on their toes! Thank you for sharing and I will be doing more Mayflower stories again.

  6. Melissa, We are reading your great story of the Billingtons! I’m Ken Crocker, owner of the Old Decovin Farm at 326 Mere Point Road! Love to show it to you.

  7. I, too, am a Billington descendant. I have rambunctious boys who grew to be fine men, thankfully. I am also grateful to have descended from the Fullers, Tilleys and John Howland. The Pilgrims and the Strangers, to which group the Billingtons belonged, certainly had their differences in how to manage life. Sounds kind of like our country now, and sometimes our families too. How to manage conflict for the best of all is always a difficult process it seems to me. I love your article. It is fun to share it with boys who have had their own escapades.

    1. Thank you so much, Julie! You have some great insight here and yes, there will always be a “Billington”-like child in every generation and there are many among us now! 🙂

  8. It’s always fun to read comments about the Billington family. I am a descendant and my three-generation family had hoped to visit Plymouth, Massachusetts, this summer.
    Thanks to COVID-19 we won’t make the trip.

    1. Alice, I hope you get to Plymouth sometime soon! Maybe someone can do a virtual tour for you until then. It is beautiful! I loved Woods Hole too! Thank you for sharing. Stay well.

  9. Great Grandpa Billington was quite a stinker, and unfortunately I can imagine my busy little son getting into all sorts of mischief after being cooped up on a ship for months, and having access to guns and gunpowder! Thanks for sharing this great article and for making it possible for people to comment.

    1. Thanks Charlotte, and thank God the Billington boys did not have enough gunpowder to blow the ship and our ancestors to the bottom of the sea! Plus we have added color for tales of the Pilgrims!

  10. My husband’s family is from the Billington line. His mother’s maiden name is Billington. It’s very believable they could be related to these juvenile delinquents.

  11. I am also a descendant of the Billington’s. John Sr. and Francis his son are my 11th and 10th great grandparents, respectively.

  12. I just found out today that I am a descendant of the Billington’s. Francis is my 11th Great Grandfather on my Mother’s Father’s side. I had no idea and it’s an honor to be a part of America’s first Dysfunctional Family.

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