First Englishman Sought Family before Fame

            If you do an internet search for the first English child born of Mayflower Pilgrims, Peregrine White’s name will pop-up. He was the baby boy born to a couple that took a leap of faith in the 1600s, boarded a ship in Amsterdam, and sailed toward an unknowable land and an equally unknowable future.

            So, how does one research the lives of early colonists when there are scant documents and few if any written accounts of a person’s daily life? Ask Stephen C. O’Neill, author of the monograph “The Life of Peregrine White – The First Englishman Born in New England.” On March 21, the Mattapoisett Public Library, in partnership with the Mattapoisett Museum and sponsored by the library trustees as part of their Purrington Lecture Series, gave O’Neill the virtual floor to tell his story of seeking Peregrine White.

            A graduate of Boston College and Boston University, O’Neill is certainly well established to ferret out details of this long-ago colonist. He is currently the Hanover Historical Society’s executive director and has also been the associate director and curator of collections at Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth.

            O’Neill began by saying that, although White never became a great leader, never distinguishing himself during his lifetime in ways other male family members would do, White had the distinction of being the “first” infant born to Pilgrims while harboring off Provincetown on the Mayflower. Slight clarification: There had been another infant, but that child did not live, leaving White with the title of “first” Englishman born in New England.

            O’Neill said that the pandemic hindered a great deal of the research he normally would have undertaken combing dusty old archives in libraries that have been entrusted with early colonial ephemera. Yet what little he did find is intriguing while at the same time “begging more questions than answers,” he said. So, what is there to read and absorb of New England’s own first child? To answer that question, O’Neill found evidence of his birth, maps of his farm and homestead in Marshfield, several legal and court documents, and a notice of his death.

            To weave the story of the man, however, one has to be a storyteller.

            O’Neill said that White had been born to his mother, Susanna, and father, William, sometime in late November 1620. Amazingly, a wicker cradle attributed to the family has survived through the centuries and today is on display at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth. O’Neill said that shining a light on White’s life means “filling in the gaps from cradle to grave.… His life had to be complicated.”

            White would become a captain of the local militia at the age of 16 and in 1648 would marry Sarah Bassett, whose own family is well documented as several members held positions of power and authority. Bassett was also related to the Winslows, another family of influence and governance in the colony. Yet White never seemed to be ambitious, O’Neill has concluded.

            The Whites would know a bit of documented drama, however, and it’s interesting to peek back in time and find this juicy little gem. O’Neill said that in 1648, Sarah, not yet married to White, was very much with child. The couple was fined for the crime of “fornication before marriage.” They paid the fine, and thus, “the matter was cleared,” court documents revealed. The following year, White would be found guilty of fighting with a neighbor and, upon admitting his guilt, “He was admonished to take heed – the matter was cleared,” another court document ascribed. Presumably, Mr. and Mrs. White would live happily ever after with their seven children and 29 grandchildren between the years of 1648 and 1704.

            A good storyteller always draws the audience into the tale, and O’Neill was able to do that, especially when he asked everyone to imagine the “travails of Susanna White in the third trimester of her pregnancy – cold, suffering uncomfortable conditions aboard the Mayflower and with child.” Yet they made it. The Whites arrived in the New World not only awaiting the birth of their second child but also with a five-year-old son named Resolved. Within the first year in the colony, Susanna would give birth and become a widow. Two servants who also traveled on the Mayflower with their employers, the Whites, would also be claimed by death. She was totally alone, at least for a little while.

            Another first for the White family would come when the widow Susanna would marry the widower Edward Winslow. Theirs was the first marriage in the Plymouth colony. White’s stepfather would one day become the mayor of the colony.

            O’Neill said that step-dad Winslow was a literate man, educated, and most assuredly would have educated his children. Given Winslow’s literacy and upward mobility, “Peregrine must have felt pressure to take on duties.” But what those might have been are unknown. In a follow-up, O’Neill said that, although correspondence to or from White was lacking, records of his life do exist and, given his long lifetime basically in one location in Marshfield, parts of White’s history are accessible.

            What is documented is that White was given land by his stepfather Winslow along the South River in Marshfield and most likely was a lifelong farmer. A glorious map of his deeded lands rests in archives. And although he seems to have settled into farming and being a family man, he did become a “freeman” at the age of 31, gaining the right to vote. It’s easy to surmise that having the distinction of being a freeman was important to White, especially considering there were only 11 other freemen in Marshfield at the time. The term “freeman” simply meant a man was a full citizen of the colony with the right to vote or hold office as outlined in the first Massachusetts charter.

            Going back to the beforementioned wicker cradle that was in use through the mid-1800s, its existence after so many centuries is amazing unto itself. O’Neill illustrated its historical provenance by showing a painting from a Dutch master from the era in which a wicker cradle is pictured; it is a nearly identical model to the one now on display at Pilgrim Hall formally belonging to the White family. O’Neill said that it was easy to carry aboard the ship, given its lightweight construction compared to solid wood construction.

            And speaking of wood, the Marshfield Historical Society has an engraving done by Marcia Thomas in 1854, depicting an apple tree planted by their famous native son, Peregrine White. A piece of the actual tree is now in the collection of the Hanover Historical Society.

            While much remains unanswered of New England’s first Englishman’s life, more pieces may be found when studying other more prominent family members such as White’s older brother, Resolved. Records indicate that the older brother would travel to Barbados to handle business affairs for his sister-in-law. Younger brother White, our Peregrine, “may only have gone as far as Middleboro in his entire life,” O’Neill guesses. But, pray tell I, he now travels in our thoughts.

            To learn more, contact O’Neill at the Hanover Historical Society at 781-826-9575.

By Marilou Newell

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