Elizabeth Tilley, child of the Mayflower

Elizabeth Tilley was 13 years old when she walked up the long wooden planks and boarded the Mayflower. Born about 1607, she had already lived in two countries and was now on her way to her third and final new country. This time though, she wouldn’t have to learn a new language and a new culture. Today it is thought that some of the problems the Pilgrims had with life in Holland was the idea that their children were becoming more Dutch than English. More worldly than Christian. When you really think about it, it is not so different from the fears parents have today of their children choosing today’s culture over the values taught by family.

So what was life like for 13 year old Elizabeth Tilley? There were a few other 13 year olds on the ship with her, they were Love Brewster (a boy), Mary Chilton, and John Cooke. There were two 14 year old boys, Francis Billington and Constance Hopkins and two 12 year old boys Samuel Fuller and Giles Hopkins. These were Elizabeth’s playmates and if you read the list there is only one other 13 year old girl, Mary Chilton.

Although history tells us very little about the children of Plymouth we can infer that whether they might have wished it or not, Mary Chilton and Elizabeth Tilley were likely often thrown together because of circumstances. And might have been confidants or in today’s vernacular, bff’s.

The passengers traveled below decks. Think about that for a moment. They weren’t in nice staterooms on Princess Cruise Line. They were in a dark, stinky, room filled with people and animals. This was Elizabeth’s home for 66 long days. Imagine no bath or bathroom, no privacy for months. And this was life for the children and their parents on the Mayflower.

I’m sure that there were times when the weather was nice and they were allowed on deck. Can you smell the ocean air? See the sunshine as the children would have? They must have been excited to walk out into that fresh air, maybe just to sit and read or listen to someone else read a book aloud. Those other days below deck would have been difficult indeed. Bad weather, animals to care for, sick people who needed tending. That is what would have taken up most of Elizabeth’s time on the Mayflower.

Elizabeth’s parents, John and Joan, died soon after landing in Plymouth. Elizabeth married fellow passenger John Howland sometime around 1623 when she was about 16. They would become the parents of 10 children and 83 grandchildren. John and Elizabeth Howland have millions of descendants today and have left a lasting legacy on the United States. Their descendants are preachers and presidents, actors and teachers leaving their own mark on our country.

Elizabeth Tilley Howland died December 21, 1687. Learn more about Elizabeth and John at Pilgrim John Howland Society and General Society of Mayflower Descendants.

Elizabeth Tilley is my 9th great-grandmother.

America: A Nation of Explorers

It’s November. That’s the month I choose to pester my family with Facebook posts about our Mayflower ancestors. It’s been my tradition the last few years to post tidbits once or twice a week to help inform the next generation about the trials and tribulations faced by those who paved the way for us.

I wonder sometimes why we have such a reverence for certain groups of people, such as those who traveled on the ship called Mayflower. What made them more special than those who traveled on the ship called Fortune? Nothing really. Each and every one of them faced the same hardships. Sickness, lack of food, winter. Hardships that I can’t even fathom as I sit here in my warm home typing away on my computer.

Thinking of those who forged the way in America reminded me of a conversation I had with a woman I had just met while I was living in Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville is a unique place of proud people. Some who still hold tight to the ideas of the Antebellum South. I met this woman one night while I was at work. We chatted for a couple of minutes while she was dropping names right and left. I’m sure you’ve met that type of person before. One who thinks their worth is made from who they know, not who they are?

The conversation was such that I was able to drop a few of my own by first naming my ancestor James Whitecotton who fought in the American Revolution under General George Rogers Clark (Clark is still a big deal in Louisville even today). After that I tossed in a couple of Mayflower ancestors and we turned the conversation towards the settling of America.

This woman made a comment then that struck me and has stayed with me even years later. She said that it was her opinion that the American people as a group are a people who are always striving for the next great thing, be it science or exploration. Always wanting to expand West. Her reasoning was that the earliest settlers were made up of mostly second and third sons who wouldn’t inherit land and so of necessity moved to the New World.

Thus she said, began a mindset that continued for each generation. Exploration. Land.

Looking at my family tree I see the truth of what she said. From those who traveled on the Mayflower and Fortune to America and created a New World, to those who moved from Germany to Russia to America to provide a better life for their families. I see the idea that things are always better over the horizon. I see in my family a single family line in which each generation moves a little further west until they finally end up in California.

So to begin my yearly Mayflower tidbits for my Facebook family I will share a story about a boy named John Billington, Jr. John was a mischievous young man of about 16 years old when he traveled on the Mayflower with his parents John Sr. and Eleanor and his younger brother Francis.

He and his brother were known for their pranks on board ship and once they landed in Plymouth they continued with their trouble-making ways. At some point, young John became lost in the woods outside of town and was found and returned by the local Indians. This was the setting for the book, John Billington: Friend of Squanto. John Billington, Jr became sick soon after this incident and died at a young age. His father John Sr. is another story for another day. All the Billington descendants are through son Francis.

My proven Mayflower ancestors are Allerton, Billington, Brown (2 lines), Cooke, Howland (2 lines), Tilley, and Warren. I’m always happy to meet new cousins so let me know if we share an ancestor.

Interruptions of Life

Yes, I know I’ve been gone a while, life interrupts. I’m sure I’m not the only one for whom life intrudes on plans and goals and at times makes complete changes to pathways and roads on which we travel. As I travel to my job out of town, I drive down an old highway that meanders over to the coast of California. I don’t get to travel that far, my stop is just forty miles from home. But in that forty miles, I travel from a populated, wi-fi, cell phone enabled area to an area that modern time has not yet found.

I see animals that still make their homes in Northern California, I see mountain creeks and trees that have grown in odd places. And I see wilderness. The wildness around me helps me to better picture how my ancestors lived in this same area 150 years earlier. I think of Marietta Henshaw Merritt. I think of Eujane and Roswell Graves. I think of those others I have yet to write about.

On my daily drive to work I see abundant game animals such as turkeys, geese, ducks, and deer. The water is plentiful. Eagles flying overhead tell me there are even more animals that I don’t see. In all that beauty I also see the hardships. Disease and hunger. Loneliness. Cemeteries.

I drive down this road that has twists and turns, hills and valleys. Times in which I don’t know what might be around that corner or over that hill, but I take the chance. The road on which I travel led men to seek out gold, and to create logging camps, to build cities and states. To build families and legacies. Today, I think of all those who came before me, sacrificing so much, working in conditions we will never truly understand, so that I have the freedom and luxury to choose where to live and where to work. And how to worship.

I think of my family tree and what it means to be just one small part of such a large group. Today, stop and look around, feel what life must have been like for your ancestors. And think on them.

Life is a Circus

When I first started researching my own family history I was excited to learn I had a “Mayflower” connection. This was early on, way before I learned that everyone doing genealogy was certain they had a “Mayflower” and/or “Native American” connection. So I was excited and I began to dig into what family records I could find. This led me to my 3rd great-grandparents Edwin B Allen and Mathilda Tinkham. Poor Edwin seems to have sprouted out of thin air, to date no records have been found to link him with his supposed brothers and sisters or any parents, aunts, uncles or grandparents. I’ll write more about Edwin B Allen in the near future. Mathilda Tinkham though, brought me a wealth of information by bringing me to her parents, Jacob Tinkham and Rebecca Nutting.

Ah, Jacob and Rebecca, nomads who ranged across the Midwest. They were both born in Vermont, they married in 1820 and had four children in Vermont and then moved to New York State where they had three more children. Then, sometime between 1843 and 1850 they packed up and moved to Wisconsin. To Baraboo, Wisconsin. Baraboo didn’t ring a bell with me. I didn’t know much about Wisconsin, just that most of my family lines passed through there at one time or another on their way West. As I researched Jacob and Rebecca Tinkham I noticed that although they always went back to Baraboo, they seemed to spend a great deal of time traveling in a circle. Going from one place to the next, visiting children and other relatives throughout Wisconsin and Iowa, back and forth it seemed.

Why did they always seem to be on the move? Maybe he’s a tinker or a traveling salesman, I thought. So, I did just a little research on the area and learned that Baraboo was the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus. Laugh out loud! Well, this might even be better than a “Mayflower” connection. However, I’ve looked and I’ve researched and I just can’t find a connection to the circus. I did however find my “Mayflower” connection. Through Jacob Tinkham, I have proven seven Mayflower lines from Allerton, Brown, Cooke, Howland, Tilley, and Warren. Jacob has given me a plethora of history and events to research that will take me a lifetime to learn. Even better than a circus, I now have connections to almost every major event in the Colonies.

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My Best Friend, the Library

I grew up with a love of books and libraries. I know now that it is a matter of genetics, this love of reading. It is something I have in common with many cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, and sisters. I enjoy the feel of a good book in my hands, turning the pages as I get absorbed in the story. And I like stepping into libraries and seeing all those books surround me. Some libraries are especially welcoming, giving the aura of home and family.

Two hundred years ago, during the War of 1812, the British destroyed both the U.S. Capitol and the Library of Congress. Tragedies of war, symbols of our country. The very thought of someone intentionally destroying books appalls me. On January 30, 1815 Congress purchased Thomas Jefferson’s personal library for $23, 950. At that time, Jefferson held the largest personal library in the United States, a collection of nearly 6,500 books. With this collection, the United States Library of Congress was officially back in the business of serving Congress.

Today, the Library of Congress in Washington, DC still follows its mission to support Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people. It is our nation’s oldest federal institution and is the largest library in the world.

Libraries are fascinating places, holding stories to our pasts. The Indiana State Library has a folder with letters written by a group of brothers and their sister, called the Messler Family Letters. In this folder I found answers to mysteries in my own family history helping me to understand the difficulties they faced. What answers will you find in your library? You will never know until you go there in person and search for your own answers. Libraries are a family historian’s best friend. Visit your friend today.

The Hammer

Growing up, I knew absolutely nothing about my paternal grandfather. I was told he died, which was true. What I didn’t know was that in 1941 he abandoned his wife and 5 children (with one on the way), left them in Idaho and went off to start a new life in California. His name was Carrol Raymond Messler and he died years later in 1959.

I knew very little about Carrol, in fact, I had never even seen a photo of him. I didn’t know what kind of work he did, I didn’t know about the events that led to his leaving. I didn’t even know what he looked like.

I grew up calling my grandmother Mildred’s second husband Percy “grandpa”. They married in 1956, long before I was born, so he is the one who I remember. Percy died in 1993 at the age of 91. I traveled back to Idaho for Percy’s funeral. Understandably, my grandmother was having a difficult day and it happened that for a short time, it was just the two of us in her house.

She sat on the sofa and pulled out an old cigar box that held photos and pulled one out and handing it to me she said, “That’s Carrol”. Oh my goodness, it was like looking at a photo of my own father. As I looked at the photo, grandma began telling me stories. Stories that I had never heard before. She talked about the difficulty of caring for six children, feeding them and clothing them during the 1940s. She shared memories of situations she faced.

And then she walked into the kitchen and sat at the old Formica table. Grandma’s kitchen was the center-piece of the house. Only guests used the front door, friends and family always came in through the back straight into the kitchen. Even now, as I write this, I can still picture the kitchen. As we sat at the table, drinking our Cokes, Grandma pointed over to the wall next to the basement door. “See that hammer? Hand it to me will you?” I reached over for the hammer and gave it to her.

She looked down at it as she turned it over in her hands and told me the story of how the hammer came to be.

“I was over at my folk’s house one day, out in the barn with my father, when Ramon found this old hammer head in the dirt.”

“Mommy, mommy,” he said, “I’m going to take this home and Daddy can make me…”

“He stopped talking and threw the hammer head down. After he left the barn I picked the hammer head up and stuck it in my pocket. Years later, Percy made this handle for me and put it together.”

I looked at the hammer. A normal, every-day hammer that was always leaning in the corner behind the basement door. But it held secrets. The secrets to a little boy’s pain at knowing his father was never coming home again. The secrets to a mother’s pain. And it held understanding for me.

I think about the secrets that families have. As researchers secrets are our goal. We dig into newspaper articles and birth, marriage, and death records looking for the secrets. How much easier our jobs would be if people didn’t keep secrets. Life is painful, life is beautiful and messy. Must secrets play such a big part?                                                                                     Featured image