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” (AmericanAncestors.org).
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?
She was an orphaned child in the colonies. In this scenario, we don’t know who her birth parents were, but upon their death, she was adopted into a Martin family. There are some Martins connected to the Massachusetts Bay Colony (and its numerous towns), but the dates do not correspond seamlessly. Stratton’s Applied Genealogy discusses orphaned children in genealogical research (79-80)and surnames they may have assumed, which may be convoluting our AMB lineage research. Mayflower families such as the Tilleys were known to have left some of their minor children behind in England with the intention of sending for them later, only to die soon after arriving in Plymouth. Did children in these situations continue on to the New World or stay in England?
She was an illegitimate child born in the colonies. Despite our historical myopia about the Puritans and Pilgrims, plenty of premarital canoodling took place. (Indeed, AMB may have been pregnant with her third child Damaris before her marriage to Richard Bishop, possibly bringing into question who the baby daddy was.) Unintended pregnancies did occur to engaged and unengaged couples, and were also the result of rape. Plymouth Court Records note that many men and women were brought before courts when these pregnancies came to light, but certainly some of those couples managed to avoid discovery or prosecution. The same can be said for Massachusetts Bay Colony. Again, I turned to Applied Genealogy (102-103) to learn more about illegitimate children and the surnames they assumed upon birth. Even when the mother publicly identified the father by name, the illegitimate child did not necessarily assume that man’s surname. So it is possible that Alice Martin is a Martin solely because she did not have a father willing to claim her, or who even knew of her existence. Consideration should also be given to the possibility AMB was in the belly of her mother when that woman crossed the Atlantic as an indentured servant in the 1620s. This would mean AMB’s father, a Martin, remained in England and was likely not married to AMB’s mother. However, because the traditional age for a first marriage for women was 22 (Ward, 156), and AMB’s first marriage was in 1639, it is unlikely that she was born in the colonies.
She came as convict labor. This theory helps foreshadow the murder of Martha: once a criminal, always a criminal. As early as 1630, English captains couped financial rewards in transporting female criminals to any of the American colonies (Cahill, 12), notably because women were in such great demand. But England was also dealing with urban moral decay: “Cruelty and blood is on our streets, the land aboundeth with murders, slaughters, incest, adulterers, whoredom, drunkenness, oppression and pride.” (Robert Ryece to John Winthrop in an August 12, 1629 correspondence.) Criminal behavior meant anything from vagrancy, prostitution, and petty theft to more serious crimes. What strikes me is that many of these crimes are those of survival — trying to feed and shelter oneself. I suspect that Plymouth Colony in the 1630s was in no mood to bring in anyone of questionable morals. They had already seen the debauchery and mayhem to come out of the Weymouth experiment. Also known as Wesagusset, this was another 1620s English settlement established entirely of single men who couldn’t tend to their basic needs. Eyeing neighbors’ food and female “supplies,” they quickly antagonized nearby Native American and English colonies. If AMB were sent abroad as a result of her actual or perceived criminality, her first port of arrival would not have been Plymouth. Possibly, she was one of the thousands of passengers who arrived at Massachusetts Bay Colony in that decade.
This leaves researchers with the most likely possibility:
AMB emigrated to the Plymouth/Massachusetts Bay Colonies as an indentured servant. We are working on a lengthy piece about the colonial indentured servant and apprentice systems where we consider the potential context of AMB’s life. By studying the circumstances by which women arrived to 1630s New England, passage-as-servant makes the most sense for AMB. Women were in great demand in early colonial life and not simply to provide spouses to the hundreds, if not thousands, of bachelors. Women’s labor was critical to the colonies’ survival — child care, churning, weaving and mending, ale making, preserving meat, gardening, processing grain, toting water, and so on. With men often meeting community demands — building, hunting for pelts (to ship back to England), fending off or antagonizing Native Americans, as well as caring for livestock and managing community crops — women were instrumental to the micro economies of each home. Without women’s at-home labor, men would have had to rely on the colony’s ability to feed, clothe, and house them — not feasible in often lean times.
Women also served as the medical caretakers in these colonial communities — quite a task given the relentless epidemics in the 1620s and 1630s. Women were essentially nurses, pharmacists, and surgeons for those struck by injury or illness, as well as midwives.
Certainly, suitable women were sought after by Plymouth Colony. With an eye to “be fruitful and multiply,” married, family units were a cornerstone to their settlement vision. The colony was unwilling to support young men who, without their own encumbrance to support a family, might stray toward laziness and debauchery. However, we must also recognize that the presence of marriageable women spurred the economy and strengthened community kinship. The transference of wealth came in part from what a bride financially brought to a marriage as well as any payment the groom made to the bride’s father. When multiple marriages occur in a community and these marriages are tied to transfers of wealth, the local economy is energized.
Marriages also forged alliances. When Joseph Ramsden married Rachel Eaton (AMB’s neighbor who testified that she returned from running an errand for AMB to find blood in the house, and Martha missing from the bed), he established a bond with her powerful and wealthy father, Francis Eaton, one of the Mayflower passengers. The same does not appear true for George Clarke or Richard Bishop when they married Alice Martin, as she appears unconnected to any family. Nor does it appear Clarke or Bishop provided Alice with any in-law bonds. But marriage should have secured community acceptance for both couples — they were married, they had children, and, during their earlier days at least, appeared to have kept on the right side of the law.
In this indentured servant scenario, Alice would have arrived in Plymouth or Massachusetts Bay as a younger adolescent and served approximately seven years with a family. It is very unlikely that Alice would have lived any significant time as a single woman not in service to a family. Because we know her Clarke marriage date is 1639 — at which time she would have been about 22 — and taking into account her seven years of indentured service, she would have been born about 1617 and emigrated about 1632 at 15 years old.
However, it’s possible Alice was younger and married at 20. This is the age researchers at the Great Migration Project suggest for first-time New England brides. She may have worked as an indentured servant for just five years, or started younger than the customary early adolescent age. Especially if AMB emigrated already under a contract to a master, she may well have been younger than thirteen. In that case, she may have been married before her twentieth year.