John Howland: How One Pilgrim’s Miracle Rescue Created One of America’s Greatest Family Trees


Consider this diverse list of notable Americans:

  • U.S. politicians and leaders H.W., G.W. and Jeb Bush, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Sarah Palin
  • Poets Henry Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • Actors Humphrey Bogart, Alec and Stephen Baldwin, Chevy Chase, Anthony Perkins and John Lithgow
  • Childcare expert Dr. Benjamin Spock
  • Founder of Mormon religion Joseph Smith, Jr.

Amazingly, they are all descendants of a Mayflower immigrant named John Howland.

On September 16, 1620 a group 102 “pilgrims” (actually English separatists) immigrated to America on the Mayflower ship to begin a new life. Their desire was to create a biblical community in the new world and serve, teach and evangelize the Indians in the area. John Howland was among them, as a servant to John Carver.

It was 66 days and 2,750 miles of travail and trouble.

Storm after violent storm pummeled the pilgrims and tossed their ship helplessly upon the white-capped waves. One gale was so fierce it splintered their primary mast, a critical piece for the sail that propelled them through the waters. The crew managed to scrounge up a “great iron screw” to hold the massive mast together.

One night the Mayflower was caught in yet another raging Atlantic storm.

Howland was working the deck when a rogue wave suddenly swept him overboard. The night was dark. The rain relentlessly pounded the ship. The ocean foamed with large white-crested waves. And the wind howled. Howland gasped for air and struggled to keep his head above water in the freezing cold Atlantic. Fortunately, someone had witnessed his accident and the  Mayflower crew quickly rushed to the ship’s side to look for him.

It was a moment of deadly desperation. And every second counted.

As the Mayflower slowly slipped further away, Howland swam for his life and prayed to God to spare his soul. And then it happened. His hand sensed a rope! Howland grabbed the lifeline–which proved to be the trailing rope the Mayflower pulled behind the ship exactly for moments like this one.

All Howland knew was his prayers were answered. God had sent a miraculous lifeline!

Holding on for dear life, he was now dragged through the rough ocean waters. Between waves that drowned him, Howland screamed for help, praying now to be spotted. The darkness gave little hope but the crew somehow sighted the drowning Howland dragging behind their vessel. They quickly pulled him to the boat and safely back on deck. For the next several minutes Howland gasped for breath, spitting up salt water that had filled his lungs.

Evidently that night was not Howland’s night to die.

In fact, miraculously, the young Howland lived to tell the tale…and many more.

John Howland was among the men who signed the historic Mayflower Compact and helped found the Plymouth colony. He also survived the first winter when pilgrims died at a pace of one to two persons per day (over half of the colony did not survive to spring).

He married Elizabeth Tilley a few years later and fathered ten children.

And then those ten kids had more kids and their grandkids had more kids…and, well, you get the picture…a family tree was planted.

John and Elizabeth Howland founded one of the three largest Mayflower families and their descendants have been “associated largely with both the ‘Boston Brahmins’ and Harvard’s ‘intellectual aristocracy’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” Besides the descendants already named, there are even more, including country music artist Mary Chapin-Carpenter; U.S. Senators Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. and Sam Ervin; S.C.O.T.U.S Justice Robert Jackson; actors William Macy, Christopher Lloyd and Lillian Russell.

Millions, even billions of people, have been influenced by this single life…who somehow found a life rope in a tempest while drowning…then lived to change the world.

John Howland was also the last original adult pilgrim to die, at over 80 years of age. His tombstone reads “he was a godly man and ancient professor in the ways of Christ.” A pretty good epitaph for a life well lived…and a Mayflower miracle too.

It’s quite a pilgrim tale. And one worth sharing with your friends and family this Thanksgiving.


  1. Sloan Rodgers on February 19, 2024 at 1:29 am

    A great article on my ancestor and one that i know well. Thank you.

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