Languishing in the New World: Depressed Pilgrims

Erin Taylor and Kristin Luce, December 2015

We think of the Pilgrims as resilient adventurers upheld by unwavering religious faith, but they were also human beings in the midst of what was, and continues to be, one of the most difficult emotional challenges a person can face: immigration and exile.
(Philbrick, 76)

Depression, although not named as such, was a recognizable symptom in colonial America, described by terms such as “dropsy,” “lethargy,” and “languishing.” Most, if not all, first-generation Plymouth Colony residents no doubt suffered some feelings of despair and trauma simply by coming to New England. Transatlantic voyages were arduous — physically, mentally, and emotionally — with family members and friends dying on board, and others left behind, likely never to be seen again. As William Bradford recalled of the Mayflower,

Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles…they had 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.

In fact, Bradford’s first wife Dorothy fell off the Mayflower (when it was moored in Plymouth Harbor) and drowned, and many speculate that it was not an accident but a suicide, Dorothy’s grief at leaving their three-year-old son behind in Holland unbearable. 

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The Elusive George Clarke

Erin Taylor, August 2014

Identifying the origins and family of our George Clarke has been frustrating, often more a matter of eliminating who he is not. George Clarke does us no research favors by having a prevalent first and last name; Clarke (with the “e” at the end) was a common English surname associated with the profession of being a clerk for bureaucratic functions. We certainly know nothing of the education of our George Clarke, but such literacy skills had limited use in early Plymouth Colony. Men were needed to build, farm, manage livestock, and stave off Native Americans.

We are left with very few direct primary sources that identify our Clarke. Later in this post, we will provide sources of Clarkes that should not be confused with the George Clarke who was Alice Martin’s first husband. The earliest mention for this George Clarke is in the Plymouth Court Records (PCR) for 1637 (vol. 8, March 1637), where he enters into a series of disputes with Edward Dotey, a servant who came over on the Mayflower and then, once he completed his term, clearly had issues with Clarke and other Plymouth men. The records indicate that the two were likely farming neighbors as Clarke drags Dotey into court claiming the latter is denying him access to his lands (vol 8., October 1637). In June of 1638, Dotey is fined for physically assaulting Clarke (vol. 1), and the bad blood continues for another four years, when Clarke is ordered to pay Dotey four bushels of corn for some infraction (vol. 2, February 1642).

These court matters provide some clues about George’s age and position in Plymouth. For instance, we can assume he was over the age of 21 and no longer (if he ever was) a servant by 1637 because he is mentioned as owning land. That means his date of birth would have to be well before 1620, possibly before 1616. The disputes with Dotey indicate he had landholdings — not just in Plymouth Colony, but also in the actual town of Plymouth — and are re-evidenced by George Clarke’s landholdings in 1641 (vol. 2, December 1641). We do not know if George Clarke was a Freedman by his death in 1642, and Stratton reminds researchers that one did not need such status to own land in Plymouth (Plymouth Colony, 145).

George Clarke is not on the Plymouth Colony Tax Lists for 1633 or 1634 (the only dates available for this decade), and so we can presume he had not yet arrived from England or, a lesser possibility, resided in another American colony. We know Clarke marries “Allis Martin” January of 1639 (vol. 1, 1638 using the older, Julian calendar system) in the midst of his turf war with Dotey. He is also on the 1643 List of Men Able to Bear Arms (ages 16 to 60) for the town of Plymouth. However, his name is crossed out, probably because he is dead within a year.

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Team Pilgrim vs. Team Puritan

Pilgrims and Puritans are not interchangeable terms, nor is one a subset of another. They shared a common faith, the Anglican Church (aka Church of England) and, as colonial neighbors, often collaborated. Both believed in purifying and simplifying Anglican practices and that Scripture was the guiding source for a community’s moral codes. Both groups also advocated literacy, so that each person could read the Bible.

Pilgrims settled Plymouth Colony beginning in 1620 with the arrival of the Mayflower. They continued to settle Plymouth towns into the 1630s.

Puritans were the founding families of Massachusetts Bay Colony (Arriving 1630 onward, Boston, western Massachusetts and into Connecticut.).

Pilgrims insisted state and church should be separate, and were known as Separatists. To be clear, as an astute reader pointed out, the Pilgrims earned the name Separatists because they had dissociated with the church of England — not simply over their stance that church and state not bleed into one another’s activities.  At this point, we can’t go much further without clarifying a few things. Not all passengers on the Mayflower were religious dissidents. The passengers who left England to separate from the Church of England referred to themselves as Saints. The Saints referred to the other passengers as Strangers. For our purposes here, we’re referring to both groups as Pilgrims

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Alice’s Arrival

Erin Taylor & Kristin Luce, August 2014

Aside from the obvious mystery as to why Alice murdered her child, the questions that keep us up at night are who were Alice Martin Bishop’s (AMB) parents and from where and when did she emigrate? Unfortunately, we simply don’t know. Not until 1646 were Plymouth towns ordered to record every birth, death, and marriage (Davis, 83), and so we’re fortunate to have a record of Alice’s marriage to George Clarke in 1639 and to Richard Bishop in 1644. But where was she in the years before her first marriage? Considering the vast scouring done, across multiple centuries, to locate Plymouth records, we must concede we’ll likely never know the parentage, birth date, and birth location for AMB. This is the part of her story where we have to make our best educated guesses. I already issued a mea culpa for positing that AMB was the daughter of Christopher Martin and Marie Prower, who came over on the Mayflower and died that first winter. And while AMB-as-Mayflower-orphan can’t be definitively disproved, there are other, more likely scenarios for AMB’s existence in late 1630s Plymouth Colony.

Before we explore those scenarios, let’s step back and look at some numbers. According to Martin E. Hollick on the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS) website, between the years 1620 and 1640, about 20,000 English men, women, and children crossed the Atlantic to settle New England. Of those crossings, we have exactly zero official passenger lists. “What lists we do have were reconstructed by careful analysis of other sources, such as letters, diaries, court records, port books, licenses to travel overseas, admiralty records, and other state papers. However, as a rule, finding the specific ship for any emigrant to New England in the seventeenth century is the exception and not the rule” (

Not satisfied with those odds, we continue to look for anyone named Alice Martin (or even something similar), but as of August 2014, we are still batting .000. We have a couple of potential George Clarkes, although they aren’t perfect fits, and a Salem-residing Richard Bishop who reminds us that, unless your ancestor had a really unique name, you often need more verifiable evidence. That’s why we’re thankful for ancestors named Sally Sixkiller and Dorcas Buckminster — they make our work much easier!

Most emigrants came over as part of a family. We assume AMB didn’t have any family in Plymouth because we haven’t found anything in the Plymouth Court Records or other primary sources that link her (or the orphaned Abigail Clarke) to other Martins. But it is very unlikely that a young, single woman, using her own financial resources, could have set off for the New World on her own. So how DID she get here?

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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 Mayflower passengers Christopher Martin and Marie Prower, and that theory colored all of the contextual sources I brought to telling her story. Notably, I started with the assumption that she was a 4-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 her daughter Martha Clarke 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. Second, I want to deconstruct how I made that mistake.

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