"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Waifs of the "Mayflower"

"Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor," William Halsall

Although everyone has heard of the “Mayflower,” what is largely unknown is that the famed voyage is connected to a poignant historical mystery—one that went unsolved for over three hundred years.

For many years, historians were puzzled by the fact that among the Mayflower passengers were four young brothers and sisters who were unrelated to anyone else on board. The ship’s log listed Ellen More (aged 8,) and her siblings Jasper (7,) Richard (6,) and Mary (4) as “servants” of four different Pilgrim leaders. It was first assumed that these children were penniless orphans, or offspring of parents too poor to keep them. Then, it was discovered that according to the parish register of Shipton, Shropshire, that the father of these children, Samuel More, was a rich landowner.

This new information made the presence of these children on the Mayflower seem strange, even incomprehensible. Why would a man of wealth and standing ship all of his children to a foreign land, where they faced a dangerous and highly uncertain future? An English genealogist named Sir Anthony Wagner became so fascinated by the mystery that in 1959, he was able to persuade a descendant of Samuel More to scour the family archives for any clues as to what had caused More to virtually disown his offspring. Many clues were indeed found. And it all added up to a story that reads like something out of one of Thomas Hardy’s more depressing novels.

When Samuel More was only 17, he was married to his 25-year-old cousin, Catherine More. It was an arranged match, made in order to keep Catherine’s considerable inheritance in the More family.

Although Catherine quickly bore four children, the marriage was not a success. Catherine had been in love with another man whom she had planned to marry, and the teenage Samuel likely lacked any real affection for his much-older bride. The real trouble began when the children became older. It was “common fame” that Catherine was conducting an affair with her old love, Jacob Blakeway, “a fellow of mean parentage and condition.” As there had been a formal betrothal contract, she even referred to him as her husband “before God.” Samuel, studying the faces of his presumed progeny, became convinced that they all resembled, not little Mores, but little Blakeways.

There was, of course, no way for Samuel to confirm his suspicions about the children’s parentage--and whether or not he was right is something we will never know--but he was taking no chances. The four youngsters were packed off to London, and More paid the Pilgrim leaders to take them to Virginia. He would see to it that the children were given sufficient food, lodging, and other necessities, and at the end of seven years he would arrange for each of them to have 50 acres of land in Virginia, but other than that, he washed his hands of them. Catherine made numerous legal appeals protesting this action, but they were all dismissed.

Samuel, believing that his marriage to Catherine was invalid, wed one Elizabeth Worsley. Seven children were the product of this remarriage, and the second Mrs. More must have prayed that each of them would be the spitting image of her husband. As for Catherine, she subsequently disappeared from the historical record. Although we know nothing of her subsequent life, it's a safe bet that she went to her grave cursing Samuel More.

The harsh New World did not treat the More children kindly. Ellen--probably greatly weakened by the long and arduous voyage--died right after the Mayflower landed in Plymouth. Jasper soon followed her to the grave, a victim of “the common infection” (probably pneumonia or typhoid.) That same winter, Mary died of the same cause. That left only Richard, a small boy left utterly alone in the world.

Richard lived with the family of his guardian, William Brewster, until mid-1627, when he was 14. He then entered the employ of a trans-Atlantic trader named Isaac Allerton. During his apprenticeship, he became captain of numerous ships that provided supplies to the colonies. In 1636, he married a young woman named Christian Hunter. Soon after their marriage, they moved to Salem, where they eventually had seven children.

Richard seems to have inherited his mother’s taste for extra-marital intrigue. In 1645, Richard, who was then in London, bigamously married one Elizabeth Woolnough. The following year, Elizabeth appeared in court to answer a charge against More--who had apparently skipped the country--for being drunk in the company of a prostitute. As far as is known, Elizabeth never came to America, and her subsequent history is unknown. The couple had one daughter, another Elizabeth, who eventually settled in Long Island. After Christian died in 1676, Richard married a widow named Jane Hollingsworth Crumpton.

After such an unpromising beginning, Richard did quite well for himself in the New World. By the time he was 24, he was Captain of his own ship, doing a successful trading business between the colonies, the West Indies, and England. He also became a prominent landowner.

In 1654, More participated in naval battles against the French, and served in a successful expedition against the enemy country at Port Royal, where this French fort was “reduced to English obedience.” The following year, he headed the rescue of colonists at Cape Fear, who were reduced to starvation after a ship that was meant to bring them supplies never arrived. In his many years as a mariner, More never lost a ship, or had any sailor under his command bring charges against him.

Unfortunately for him, More fell on hard times in his final years. He began suffering financial losses, and in July 1688, he got into major trouble with the Salem church elders. The church records thundered, “Old Captain More having been for many years under suspicion and common fame of lasciviousness, and some degree at least of inconstancy...but for want of proof we could go no further. He was at last left to himself so far as that he was convicted before justices of peace by three witnesses of gross unchastity with another man’s wife.” More was excommunicated, but after making public repentance for his sin, he was restored to the church in 1691. (The pastor who punished More was Nicholas Noyes, who earned his own historical infamy by leading the persecution of the Salem witches.)

Richard More died in Salem, probably in 1696. He is believed to have been the last male survivor of the Mayflower voyage.

Richard More's gravestone. Photo: Max Anderson, via Wikipedia


  1. Interesting. I figured, after the second paragraph, that there was some sort of family turmoil involved. The New World was a long way to send children one didn't want, but I suppose that, one way or another, they were unlikely to come back.


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