My American Origin Story: Elizabeth Tilley

When I began writing the Refugee Collection here on my blog, it also got me thinking once again about my own ancestry in this country.

My American origin story is unoriginal. I came to America in 1620 on the Mayflower with Elizabeth Tilley, mother of ten, grandmother to 88, and ancestor to more Americans than any other immigrant in our history. Thirteen years old when she first stepped down onto Plymouth Rock, she was too young to choose this continent, but because of her, I am here.

Elizabeth, youngest of five children, was even younger when she left Bedfordshire in England with her parents John Tilley and Joan Hurst, and her Uncle Edward to join other Dissenters in more tolerant Holland. Influenced by Calvinism like the Puritans, the Tilley’s were Separatists, believing that it was better to leave the Church of England than attempt to reform it, but failure to attend Church of England services had become a crime punishable by weekly fines. The Tilleys joined the Leiden Separatist Congregation, plain-dressing Christians with an iron faith who worshiped in an unadorned church, but like many of their fellow congregants, were worried that by staying in the Netherlands they would lose their English culture.

In September 1620, shortly after Elizabeth Tilley’s thirteenth birthday, she boarded the Mayflower with her parents, Uncle Edward and Aunt Ann, a niece and a nephew in their care, 94 other self-styled Pilgrims and their servants, soldier Myles Standish, and over 30 crew. If Elizabeth’s siblings were still alive, they did not join the party. The Mayflower‘s destination was the mouth of the Hudson River, which they deemed close enough to the recently established settlement of Jamestown, Virginia Colony, to be a viable trading partner, but far enough removed to not be tainted by their politics and religion.

They didn’t call themselves refugees, of course. It was two centuries before the UN Convention on Refugees, two centuries before the United Nations itself or even the League of Nations, sixty years before the word refugee even came into the English language. They did, though, leave England and then the Netherlands seeking freedom from persecution.

When I was in elementary school, my family went to Old Plymouth Plantation and boarded the Mayflower. At 100 feet long, she was only two and a half times the size of my father’s sailboat, where six of us felt like a crowd by the end of a long weekend on the placid Chesapeake.

The Mayflower‘s Atlantic crossing was anything but placid, with the autumn gales beginning across the North Atlantic, and the Mayflower housing twice the passenger manifest for which it was intended, plus pigs, goats, poultry, cats, pet birds, a mastiff and a spaniel. Two women were pregnant, and one gave birth to a son Oceanus during the crossing. The ship leaked and most of their vegetables rotted. Just past the halfway point, they nearly sank. John Howland, a young indentured servant, was swept overboard, managed to grab hold of a halyard in the water, and was rescued.

Cooped up in tiny, dim cabins in the middle deck of the ship, the passengers developed scurvy and other diseases, and one child died. The hold must have stunk something terrible, and with little ones like Oceanus, Elizabeth’s year-old niece Humility, and four children six to ten years old among the indentured servants, it was never quiet. Imagine if that grumpy toddler on your six-hour trans-Atlantic flight were confined with you on a three-month trans-Atlantic voyage in a ship two thirds the size of a 747.

Weakened by hunger, scurvy and disease when they landed, too late in the year to harvest much of the forest’s bounty even if they knew what they were looking for. Some exploratory expeditions led by Myles Standish robbed some native graves for maize and other foods. The Plymouth Colony, as they called it, was buffeted the Atlantic winds throughout the hard winter, and disease was rampant. Elizabeth’s parents, uncle and aunt died, along with half the colony. Elizabeth was taken in by the Gov. Carver and his wife, who died during the second winter, leaving their home and Elizabeth to their manservant, the death-defying young John Howland.

Whether it was love, proximity or convenience, Elizabeth married John, who served in the General Court, precursor to the Massachusetts legislature. They raised all ten of their children to adulthood, and John lived to be eighty. The younger Elizabeth would outlive him by a decade, one of the last founding Pilgrims to die, also at eighty years old. It seems our family has always been long-lived.

National Geographic/David Bloomer; Elizabeth Tilley (played by Jessica Sutton) and John Howland

Thus begins a long legacy of Boston Brahmans and Harvard elites. Among Elizabeth’s descendants are three United States Presidents, two First Ladies, two governors, poets Emerson and Longfellow, actors Bogart and the Baldwin brothers, figureheads of Mormonism John Smith and Brigham Young, and many more.

Because of Elizabeth Tilley, I am a Daughter of the American Revolution, and not a Daughter of the Confederacy. Because of Elizabeth Tilley, I have been an American almost since the beginning of immigration here, part and parcel of all our triumphs as a people, and all our sins, too.

These are weighty thoughts, as a white woman in these times. Elizabeth’s father John Tilley was a member of the first party of Pilgrims to shoot at and rob the graves of the Wampanoag people, who were decimated by the diseases brought by the Mayflower party. As an adviser to Gov. William Bradford on the General Court, Elizabeth’s husband John Howland would have been part of many other decisions that disenfranchised, injured and marginalized the indigenous tribes. There’s no doubt that Elizabeth’s descendants included captains and merchants in the triangle trade that included the transport of African slaves in conditions far worse than the miserable, cramped hold of the Mayflower. All those Harvard intellectuals in my pedigree are part of a uniquely American hegemony of legacy admissions implemented and upheld to keep Jews and other undesirables out of the Ivy Leagues. As a landholding family for 400 years, Elizabeth’s descendants tend to come out on top of the wealth gap.

Where am I going with this? I don’t know for sure yet. For now, I’m sitting with it, listening to what it has to tell me about who I am and how I got here.


  1. Having read this I thought it was really informative. I appreciate you spending some time and energy to put this article together. I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!|


    • I don’t trust AncestryDNA … when you give them your DNA, they are buying the right to do whatever they want with it in perpetuity, and I’m not comfortable with that kind of blanket permission. But I’m lucky to have extensive documentation that I am a descendent of the Tilleys and other original Pilgrims. Several generations of my grandmothers and great-aunts have spent extensive time and resources tracing our Mayflower and DAR ancestry.


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