John Billington and his family were on the Mayflower and came to Plymouth in 1620. They all survived the first harsh winter of 1620-1621. They celebrated their first harvest with a feast which would eventually be known as ‘Thanksgiving.’
By 1622, John Billington expressed his dissatisfaction over the governing methods of Miles Standish, the hired military authority for the Plymouth Colony, was using. Billington’s form of expression was that of publicly insulting and stating malicious comments about Captain Standish. The colony’s governing body felt this undermined the authority they had granted Standish and wanted to punish Billington by having his neck and heels tied together for a set period of time. John begged for a pardon, stated he was sorry and in turn was forgiven.
A few months later, July 1622, young John Billington, Jr., wandered off into the woods, to be then captured by the Nauset Indians from the region. He was taken to an Indian village further away. Ten men formed a search party from Plymouth looking for the young Billington. After a month’s time, John was located and the Indians turn him over to the colonists.
In 1623, John Billington Sr. was allotted 4 acres of land in Plymouth. By 1624, John had become a close friend of Rev. John Lyford, who had recently arrived on the ship Charity to serve as the first ordained minister. Yet, Lyford’s loyally rested with the Church of England. Letters were secretly sent to England by Lyford to undermine the Plymouth Colony, especially the authority of the Governor William Bradford. These letters were eventually discovered and Lyford was banished from Plymouth. Billington was thought to be a part of this Lyford scandal also but John denied being a participant and with not evidence against him, he was never charged.
Over those first years of the Plymouth Colony, things never went smoothly between the Billington family and the other colonists. Yet, John Sr. continued to work the land and make a good living for his family. The only written records of the times came from Governor William Bradford who never liked Billington and his family referring to them as “one of the profanest families amongst them.”
The four members of the Billington family had survived the harsh winter on their arrival to Plymouth, but their oldest son, John Jr. did succumb to disease and died in 1627. He had not married yet.
By the late 1620s, more new colonists were arriving. One was John Newcomen, a young man, who had come to the Plymouth Colony as a ‘Saint‘ pure follower of the Pilgrim religious group. This seventeen-year-old was seen as young, impetuous and careless fellow by others. He thought he could hunt on anyone’s property. Newcomen had been warned many times about his poaching by Billington and others of the community, however, Newcomen paid no attention to the advice.
Finally John Billington Sr. had enough and confronted Newcomen, threatening him with a musket. The young fellow ran and hid in a tree. When he then moved to get a view of Billington, Newcomen was shot in the shoulder by Billington.
Billington quickly summoned assistance and helped the injured man into the village to get medical care. It was a wound but survivable. It may have been Newcomen’s own carelessness that he caught a cold. From there a major infection developed and then gangrene. After several days Newcomen died. Governor William Bradford then had Billington arrested and held on a murder charge.
The charge stated that Billington “waylaid” the young man and maliciously shot him in the woods. Both a grand jury and a petty jury heard the case against Billington. John Billington stated he took aim against Newcomen with regret, yet was found guilty of Newcomen’s murder.
The immediate sentence was that of hanging. John Billington became the first white colonist to kill another white colonist in the Plymouth Colony. When he was hung in September 1630 it was said that Billington’s blood covered the ground.
After the father’s hanging, the only remaining son, Francis married the widow, Christiana Penn Eaton and they had eight children that lived to adulthood. John Billington’s widow, Elinor, remarried in August 1638 to Gregory Armstrong.
John Billington Sr. supported individual choice and freedom of speech in spite of the Bradford references to John being “contentious, unmanageable, and undesirable.” Instead, John was the first rugged, American individualist who had the courage to speak out and say ‘no’ when he felt it was the right thing to do.
Billington’s story demonstrates that we never should be too unjust or think poorly of an ancestor.
Some Well-Known Descendants of John Billington through his son, Francis Billington:
U.S. President James A. Garfield
Actor Richard Gere
Countess Mercy Lainia Warren Bump (1841-1919), the wife of Tom Thumb