I first stumbled across the name William Mullins while researching the Pilgrims and their journey to America. He came up a lot across several books, with some authors even dedicating entire chapters to him and his life. And, to be honest, I had a hard time figuring out why William Mullins and his time on the Mayflower are considered so important and interesting. The man himself was a seemingly everyday guy (even if the journey he undertook was a historic one).
But then it hit me – the reason his story is so fascinating is because he represents the impact we can all leave on the historical record. Through his will, which wasn’t even completed until days after his death, William Mullins left an indelible mark on history. In the quotidienne decisions we make as we go about our lives we all create an imprint on the historical record, even if we don’t realize it. And the story of WIlliam Mullins proves it.
The Six Degrees of William Mullins
Apart from his birth in Dorking, a town in Surrey County, England, we know nothing of Mr. Mullins until he became an adult.1 His life in England, though, has become a tool for historians to piece together how many of the passengers on the Mayflower knew each other. One can almost picture an academic holed up in their office, red yarn connecting names pinned to the walls, their eyes bloodshot from the effort and their mouth unconsciously mumbling the names of their subjects as they work.
But… back to William Mullins. He became a successful shoemaker in Dorking, before moving to London and investing heavily in the Pilgrims’ joint-stock company.2 Before the Mayflower voyage, Mullins pops in out of the record; a mention for his daughter’s baptism here, a note for his election to local office there. But these pieces have been enough for historians to piece together an interesting web of social interactions among the future passengers of the Mayflower in the years leading up to its departure for the New World.
Prior to his voyage to the Americas, a woman by the name of Jane Hammon made Mullins the administrator of her estate. In 1610, Jane Hammon had become the mother-in-law of another Jane, née Brown, who also hailed from Dorking. And as it turns out, our younger Jane’s brother, Peter, also boarded the Mayflower for its journey across the Atlantic. Mr. Brown would go down in history, in fact, for his role among the Pilgrims. On November 11, 1620, Peter Brown became a signatory of the Mayflower Compact (as did William Mullins), the document that dictated how the Pilgrims would govern themselves in their new home.
Finally, there was Robert Carter. In his will, Mullins instructed that its executors “have a special eye to my man Robert which hath not so approved himself as I would he should have done.”3 Carter was another Dorking denizen who worked for (slash maybe was indentured to?) Mullins for years. Presumably making the move with him to London, he later joined the voyage to America. Though it’s hard to tell given the laxness of record keeping 400 years ago, Robert could well have been the relative of Thomas Carter and Jane Bothell, who were married in Dorking in April 1648. This latest Jane was the daughter of one Ephraim, who purchased the house and manor of William Mullins in 1619, which he sold in preparation for boarding the Mayflower. Under 21 when he boarded the now famous ship, poor Robert died after reaching Massachusetts, becoming one of many casualties of the Pilgrims’ first winter in America.
William Mullins, the Mayflower, and Massachusetts
Like Robert Carter, William Mullins wouldn’t live long past his departure from the Mayflower. After putting pen to parchment to affix his name to the Mayflower Compact, Mullins, like so many other Pilgrims, must have found himself completely unprepared for life in the Western Hemisphere. Without enough supplies to go around or the means to get more, these English colonists found the climate of their new home far colder and more hostile than anything they’d experienced in England.
All told, about half of the Mayflower’s passengers would die, including William Mullins. In the words of William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony from 1620 until his passing in 1657, “that which was most sad and lamentable was that in two or three months’ time half of their company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting [lacking] houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases, which this long voyage and their inaccomodate condition had brought upon them, so as there died sometimes two or three of a day, in the aforesaid time, that of one hundred and odd persons, scarce fifty remained.”4
On February 21, 1620, William Mullins breathed his last. Not long after, his wife, Alice, and son, Joseph, would follow him to an early grave, leaving his daughter, Priscilla, without family in a seemingly doomed colony.5 Nevertheless, Priscilla would survive, and, much like her father, go on to be immortalized in writing. Spurning one suitor for another, she married John Alden in either 1622 or 1623, which was apparently an epic enough tale to inspire a poem by non-other than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.6
The Will That’s Made William Mullins Famous
Before his death, Mullins dictated his final wishes to another Pilgrim, John Carver. From this dictation, the will of William Mullins was officially drawn up a few days after his death, just before the Mayflower set sail on its return journey to England.7 The only known will from that first winter in Plymouth, he attempted to divide out the spoils he’d gained from cobbling and investing among his family and associates. No doubt hoping to leave his wife and children in good standing on the side of the Atlantic they now found themselves, he dolled out money, “the goodes that I have in Virginia,” and even asked “Mr John Carver and Mr Williamson” to have an eye over my wife and children to be as fathers and freindes to them.”
In case you have a penchant for old timey (mis)spelling…
The Full Text of the Will
“‘In the name of God Amen: I comit my soule to God that gave it and my bodie to the earth from whence it came. Alsoe I give my goods as followeth That fforty poundes in the hand of goodman Woodes I give my wife tenn poundes, my sonne Joseph tenn pounds, my daughter Priscilla tenn poundes, and my eldest sonne tenn poundes Also I give to my eldest sonne all my debtes, bonds, bills (onelye yt forty poundes excepted in the handes of goodman Wood) given as aforesaid wth all the stock in his owne handes. To my eldest daughter I give ten shillinges to be paied out of my sonnes stock Furthermore that goodes I have in Virginia as followeth To my wife Alice halfe my goodes & to Joseph and Priscilla the other halfe equallie to be devided betweene them. Also I have dozen of shoes and thirteene paire of bootes wch I give into the Companies handes for forty poundes at seaven years and if they like them at that rate. If it be thought too deare as my Overseers shall thinck good And if they like them at that rate at the divident I shall have nyne shares whereof I give as followeth two to my wife, twoe to my sonne William, two to my sonne Joseph, two to my daughter Priscilla, and one to the Companie. Allsoe if my sonne William will come to Virginia I give him my share of land furdermore I give to my twoe Overseers Mr John Carver and Mr Williamson, twentye shillinges appeece to see this my will performed desiringe them that he would have an eye over my wife and children to be as fathers and freindes to them; Allsoe to have a speciall eye to my man Robert wch hathe not so approved himselfe as I would he should have done.’
“This is a Coppye of Mr Mullens his Will of all particulars as he hathe given. In witnes whereof I have sett my hande
“John Carver, Giles Heale, Christopher Joanes.”8
Why It’s Fascinating
As I alluded to in the beginning of this post, what I find most fascinating about William Mullins, his journey on the Mayflower, and the will he left behind is the simple fact that we remember it. By committing his wishes to paper, William Mullins allowed the story of his life to survive for centuries. The sheer fact that we remember him even though he was never a king, president, warrior, or famous artist says volumes about the power of history.
By studying the past, we can uncover the stories of people who lived their lives simply to live their lives. They had no pretension toward fame or glory; not even the wildest dream that some dork would be sitting at his computer one day writing about them on his blog. They just did, within the confines of their day, what brought them joy and peace of mind. And isn’t that what we’re all trying to do?
Sources on William Mullins
- “Beyond the Pilgrim Story,” pilgrimhall.org.
- Caleb H. Johnson, The Mayflower and Her Passengers (Xlibris, 2005), 102.
- Johnson, The Mayflower and Her Passengers, 106.
- “‘In these hard and difficult beginnings’: Surviving the First Winter of the Plymouth Colony, 1620-1621,” from William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1656, nationalhumanitiescenter.org.
- Johnson, The Mayflower and Her Passengers, 195.
- M. Pierce Rucker, “Giles Heale, the Mayflower Surgeon,” Transactions of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the American Association of the History of Medicine, vol. 20, no. 2 (July, 1946): 216.
- Rucker, “Giles Heale, the Mayflower Surgeon,” 226.
- “The Will of William Mullins,” pilgrimhall.org.