Nobody’s Daughter

Erin Taylor, June 2014


Fear not the things thou suffer most.  Governor William Bradford

History isn’t brain surgery. Even when it’s done poorly, it’s not fatal.

Jill Lepore


In the 2011 edition of this blog, I worked from the presumption that Alice Martin Bishop (AMB) was the daughter of Christopher Martin and Marie Prower, and that colored all of the contextual sources I brought to telling her story. Notably, I started with the assumption that she was a four-year-old Mayflower orphan, the only surviving child of the despised Christopher Martin, forgotten in the records but somehow folded into another Plymouth Colony family. I needed to make meaning out of her life beyond the brief, documented months between the murder of Martha and the resulting trek to the hanging tree.

Eager, amateur genealogists make mistakes and I made a big one. First, I need to apologize to anyone I led astray. Secondly, I want to deconstruct how I made that mistake.

There are no Plymouth Colony Martins connected to AMB for the appropriate time frame (1639-1648). Therefore, I looked to other “armchair genealogists” to see whom they considered AMB’s parents to be. There, I found debate brewing: Christopher Martin/Marie Prower versus Francis Martin/Prudence Deacon.

The Martin/Prower story is well known. Christopher Martin was the Mayflower‘s treasurer, tasked with gathering and managing funds and supplies for the voyage and initial settlement—a job he did poorly and in ill-tempered fashion according to Governor William Bradford. Martin, his wife, Marie Prower, and stepson, Solomon Prower, all died aboard the Mayflower that first winter. So says the Mayflower Society, and I have zero credentials or basis to question them. There has never been one primary source found that states Martin and Prower had a daughter and that she traveled with them to Plymouth Colony or came alone at a later date.

The argument that Francis Martin and Prudence Deacon produced AMB is easily dismissed. The only Francis Martin I can find on any passenger lists is an 18-year-old who sailed on the 1635 Falcon to Barbados—ironically, the same ship that AMB’s first husband, George Clarke, may have crossed the Atlantic aboard. At that age and date, this Francis Martin would be too young to be the father of AMB. Similarly, two 19-year-old Deacons sailed to Virginia colonies in 1635 (Thomas on the Assurance and Avis on the Alice). Again, this makes them too young to be a parent of AMB. Nor do I find a mention of a Prudence Deacon anywhere. (If one wanted to go far, far out on a limb and with no evidence to back it up, the 18-year-old Francis Martin sailing with George Clarke may have been Alice Martin, disguised as a male and taking the name Francis because it sounded similar to Alice. But I think I’ve learned my lesson from making assumptions.)

Granted, Francis Martin and Prudence Deacon could have emigrated in the early 1620s without being recorded on any passenger lists–as well as any children who came with them. But, let’s do the Plymouth math: if the Martin/Deacon union produced a daughter circa 1624, Alice would have been 14 years old—at the oldest—when she married. This age doesn’t meet English or colonial standards where women typically married after their nineteenth birthday. I’d be happy to see more primary source evidence on Francis Martin and Prudence Deacon, but I have not been able to locate any.

My mistake (the premise that AMB was a forgotten Mayflower daughter of Christopher Martin and Marie Prower) was both indicative of my amateur and wishful research. I assumed she had to be someone’s daughter and that there were surely records about her life. When neither could be found, I picked the parents who worked the best.

More than two years later, I think I am much closer to the truth. I will write more in depth on this in other sections, but for now let me share where the primary source evidence and respected Mayflower-Plymouth Colony historians have taken me. There is ample evidence to indicate that AMB could have come over as someone’s servant, not worthy of being named on a ship passenger list. These lists of the three dozen-plus ships that came to New England (prior to 1635) are incomplete but tantalizing. One Higginson fleet of 1629 brings to the colony 350 men, women, and children—many of whose names are not recorded. This is much more likely indicative of AMB’s immigration. In this scenario, she would have come to New England, likely in adolescence, as someone’s servant and married George Clarke once her service term ended in 1639.

This storyline makes the lack of evidence about AMB elsewhere much more palatable. If she had been a Mayflower orphan, someone, surely, would have taken note that this murderess was no less than the daughter of Christopher Martin who had so poorly mismanaged their divine voyage. If her eyewitness neighbor, Rachel Eaton Ramsden, was mentioned in the 1627 Cattle List when we know Rachel was but a young child, then would not her peer, Alice Martin, have been included as well?

There is simply zero evidence that Alice Martin lived in Plymouth Colony (or Massachusetts Bay Colony) before 1638. I give her this one year before 1639 simply because we know she married George Clarke in January of 1639. Perhaps she had lived in Plymouth Colony for a full seven years (the typical contract time for an indentured servant) but that still means she would have arrived circa 1631.

But back to the 2011 blog…Much of the research I did then has been incorporated with new resources I’ve since pored over. I did not remove any data that I felt was still relevant to the immediacy of AMB’s life. Most significantly, a collaborator has guided the relaunch of this blog – another 10X AMB great granddaughter and my cousin, unknown degrees apart, Kristin Luce.  Kristin read the original blog in 2014 and her questions and encouragement were the impetus I needed.  With her keen research and editing skills, the second iteration of arrived.

AMB is not a Mayflower child. She came to America by passage unknown, was married, became a mother, widowed. Married and mothered again. The three decades of her life before she killed Martha in July 1648 must be reconstructed. I am reminded that the right questions are paramount to finding right answers. What can we infer, making the best use of primary sources and scholarly history? More importantly, what are the assumptions we cannot make?

For me, alongside all of the questions, there remains something sorrowful—probably because I am a mother and daughter myself. Was Alice loved as a child, as a wife? Often, I have to remind myself, don’t forget she murdered her girl.

The Knife


Look at these two images of seventeenth century kitchen instruments:

Jamestown kitchen instrumentsJamestown kitchen instruments

Granted, these images come from Jamestown, VA excavations.  However, if we can assume Plymouth Colony had carving and piercing tools similar to these, we have a grim look into how much it took to kill Martha Clarke.  These tools do not appear razor sharp nor very large.  While the diameter of Martha’s neck was, likely, no more than five inches, knives like these would have required focused hacking to get the job done.

Research into Plymouth Colony tools reveals the presences of axes, daggers, a few swords and shears. But AMB likely used what she had in her kitchen — a smaller knife forged of iron.  All metal ware was costly and difficult to procure in early Plymouth.  Indeed, the 1681 will of wealthy Plymouth colonist Nicholas Nickerson reveals he owned only three knives. As noted in the court records, Martha was found with multiple cuts across her windpipe.