Alice Martin Bishop’s (AMB) childhood is as unknown as the circumstances of her death are certain. Genealogists often cite her birth as 1616 in Essex, England but there is no birth record or conclusive data to determine who her parents were. In genealogy forums, there is considerable debate whether Christopher Martin (1575-1621)/Marie Prower (1577-1621), Mayflower passengers, were her parents. After doing considerable research of primary documents, I am operating from the premise that Alice Martin was the daughter of Christopher Martin and Marie Prower. I could, for the record, be wrong. But I have yet to find better evidence for how she ended up in Plymouth Colony in the mid-1630’s with the last name Martin. Here is a more complete discussion of the AMB lineage issue.
Christopher Martin and Marie Prower were likely born between 1577 and 1582 in or near Great Burstead, Essex. Richard Carpenter’s fourteen page pamphlet makes the best use of Great Burstead records to reconstruct Martin’s personal and professional life. Martin and Prower married 26 February 1607 after Marie’s first husband died (she had a son from that union, Solomon Prower). A Martin-Prower son, Nathaniel, was baptized on the same date in 1609. There is no mention of Alice’s birth (presumed to be 1616) and her parents would have been in their late thirties when they had her. Richard Carpenter is explicit that Nathaniel, then eleven, was left behind when his parents boarded the Mayflower in 1620. Others have claimed Nathaniel travelled to America with his parents. However, Nathaniel (just like Alice) is not listed on the Mayflower passenger list and there is no record of him dying aboard or living in Plymouth (unlike Alice).
Christopher Martin was an Essex merchant who began his vocation under the accusation of “unlawful trading” – essentially practicing as a merchant without the proper apprenticeship. It wouldn’t be the last time Martin would disregard the expectations of others. By the time Nathaniel was born, Christopher Martin had respectable land holdings in Great Burstead and two years later he was appointed a church warden. Martin concluded his term, which normally ran for twelve months, in dramatic fashion as Carpenter notes:
At the end of [the church wardens’] stewardship it became plain that they did not accept the church as it was. They then made a very public and dramatic expression of disagreement. It was made all the more striking by the occasion on which it was made – the Easter celebration of Holy Communion when all parishioners were expected to receive Eucharist. The events give the first recorded display of Christopher Martin’s puritan views (p.4).
On that holy day, Martin and another church warden refused to kneel for communion before their vicar. When later questioned by the archdeacon, Martin reiterated his choice to not kneel before what he felt was a corrupt representation of his faith. In 1620, Martin was summoned again by the archdeacon for “shortcomings” found in his son, Nathaniel, accused of back talking the vicar about the function and authority of catechism (p.7). Stepson Solomon was also in trouble for mouthing off at the vicar. Martin got into even further trouble with the church for failure to produce financial records as a warden – something he would also be accused of as the Mayflower’s treasurer (p. 5).
In the years leading up to the Mayflower voyage, Martin bought shares in the Virginia Company of London and, by 1620, was tasked with purchasing Mayflower provisions. Right off the bat, Martin was deemed bullish, duplicitous, a bad accountant and one who did not play well with others (Stratton, 323).
Technically, the Martins came to the New World as “Strangers,” contracted by English merchants and not as religious dissidents known as “Saints” (or, as we came to know them, Pilgrims). But I believe Martin was a Saint in Stranger clothing. As “treasurer-agent of the colonists,” he was brought on board for his financial acumen (despite his inability or unwillingness to share account information) and as one of the voyage investors. But Martin had made it clear with his earlier Great Burstead outbursts that he was Puritan-friendly.
Martin was not, by the accounts of his fellow voyagers, a well-liked man and was known for his arrogance and temper. Governor Bradford had less-than-fond memories of Martin writing that the treasurer treated fellow passengers as if they “were not good enough to wipe his shoes. It would break your heart to see his dealing.” Furthermore, Martin “regards not counsel, may better be a king than a consort.” One can only imagine what sort of father Martin was to a young daughter – dismissive, lavish, holding excessive expectations, kind, frightening? We do not know because as far as the historical records we do have, AMB did not even exist before her first marriage at the age of twenty-three.
102 passengers (not including crew) sailed on the Mayflower departing from Plymouth, England on September 6, 1620 and arriving at Cape Cod in mid-November after a storm diverted the ship from her original Hudson River destination on the northern side of the Virginia colony (AMB would have been four years old). The transatlantic voyage was utterly miserable and William Bradford wrote of sailors bullying passengers, unrelenting, en masse sea-sickness and people dying in “desperate manner.” The ship barely weathered fierce storms and leaked constantly – a terrifying prospect for a child who knew the ocean could promise death – by drowning, pirates or starvation.
William Bradford wrote of the Mayflower passengers as they arrived in the New World:
But here I cannot but … pause and stand half amazed at this poor people’s present condition; and I think will the reader too, where he considers the same. Being thus passed the vast ocean…they now no friends to welcome them, nor inns to entertain or refresh their weather beaten bodies, no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succor…[W]hat could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men?
The Pilgrims were, as Bradford eloquently wrote, between two worlds: their English past on the other side of an unforgiving ocean and a future that now seemed hardly welcoming. First on their list was drafting a document of governance which came to be known as the Mayflower Compact. Christopher Martin was the ninth person to sign it.
The Mayflower passengers wintered aboard ship but epidemics, exposure and exhaustion soon overtook them. On Christmas Eve, 1620 Solomon Prower died. Christopher Martin died January 8, 1621 to no one’s surprise (given his sickly appearance) and to the relief, surely, of some. AMB’s mother, Marie, died the following week. All told, approximately half of the Mayflower passengers died before settlement work could begin the spring of 1621. Historians believe scurvy, pneumonia and TB – each coupled with near starvation — took most of them. For Alice, she would never again see the loved ones who had taken her on this terrifying voyage. She was truly alone.
We should dissuade ourselves of the notion that our ancestors who did survive the first winter were well-prepared for the New World. Eagle Scouts they were not. By trade, Nathaniel Philbrick writes, “They were weavers, wool carders, tailors, shoemakers, and printers, with almost no relevant experience when it came to carving a settlement out of the American wilderness” (p.19). They did not know how to properly grow corn or beans, catch fish and fowl or navigate the waterways and woods. Governor Bradford recalled that during this first year there were often less than a dozen healthy (healthy enough) persons to tend to the sick and keep the community alive with minimal food and firewood (Hodgson 90).
Of the fewer than fifty persons who survived 1620/1621, Alice must have been placed with someone, possibly as their adopted daughter. She had already suffered a great deal of trauma: her parents and siblings died, not to mention all the other people Alice witnessed dying in such cramped quarters. Alice may have well wondered, constantly, if she would be next. We can fairly presume that the ship’s voyage had been physically and emotionally taxing for the child. Certainly, stories of marauding Indians (obviously, an inaccurate portrayal of a people’s land that had just been invaded) and exotic wildlife could have frightened her young mind. By November 1621, fewer than one dozen women (or near adult women) survived. Who was caring for Alice?
The damage such events had on a child’s psyche can only be estimated from our contemporary lenses hued by psychological studies and measurements of trauma. However, just because her colonial peers do not mention Alice as a child or note any psycho-social maladaptation, we should not presume those were not present in Alice. Certainly, the Pilgrims had greater concerns, namely trying to stay alive and building their new community. Yet, it is precisely because Alice was likely without concerted and consistent, nurturing adult care that deep psychic wounds did not heal.
If we momentarily place Alice in twenty-first century America, the evidence of trauma would seem obvious. She was abandoned in unfamiliar territory, defenseless save for the largesse of adults she did not know well, and had watched her family die – all at the tender age of four. Today, Alice would have the benefit of social welfare agencies and counseling to help her navigate her grief and fears. In 1621, Alice had none of these. Of course, all of the Mayflower children (“all” being the handful who survived the first year) lived in dire circumstances, witnessed violence and death and none of them later engaged in filicide. But if Alice had an underlying mental illness, these events could have antagonized it.
The Mayflower Society does not recognize Christopher Martin or Marie Prower since they died before the actual settlement of Plymouth began. Alice Martin Bishop is also not listed.
Christopher Martin is buried on a hill near the original Plymouth landing site.