My Willis Ancestor’s First Thanksgiving…
The Mayflower arrived in Plymouth Bay on December 20, 1620. During their first winter, half of the 102 passengers died.
Fifteen years after the Mayflower voyage, 29-year-old John Willis sails on the ship Paul from Gravesend situated on the south bank of the Thames River near London.
John Willis arrives in St. Christopher (a.k.a. St. Kitts) in the West Indies, on April 3, 1635. Within days he made his way to the New World—America—in Plymouth Colony carrying dreams that would be passed on to subsequent generations, including my family.
It is there that John Willis becomes friends with the Governor of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford.
A century later, John Willis’s direct descendant, Joseph Willis, would marry a direct descendant of William Bradford, Rachel Bradford. Joseph Willis would go on to preach the first evangelical sermon west of the Mississippi River in 1798. I’m the 4th great-grandson of Joseph Willis and Rachel Bradford Willis.
As a result of hard work and assistance from local Native Americans, the Pilgrims reaped an abundant harvest after the summer of 1621. Bradford served as Plymouth Colony’s Governor, intermittently, for 30 years between 1621 and 1657.
In 1623, Governor William Bradford proclaimed November 29, as a time for Pilgrims, along with their Native American friends, to gather and give thanks. His proclamation contained these words: “Thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.” It would later be known as Thanksgiving.
What brought these men and women to the New World—America?
In 1620 a small group of Separatists would flee England via Plymouth Sound, situated between the mouths of the rivers Plym to the east and Tamar to the west, in the county of Devonshire.
Besides fleeing religious persecution and searching for a place to worship, they wanted freedom from tyranny. They were not the same as the Puritans, who had many of the same objections to the English church but wanted to reform it from within. Separatists chose to separate and are commonly referred to as Pilgrims today.
The Mayflower was the aging ship that transported them. They sailed from Plymouth, on the southern coast of England, bound for the New World, seeking their new Plymouth. There were only 102 passengers and a crew of about 30 aboard the tiny 110’ ship. They found their new home and named it Plymouth Colony. Five died during the voyage, and another forty-five of the 102 immigrants died the first winter. There, they signed the Mayflower Compact, which established a rudimentary form of democracy.
The Mayflower Compact was an early, successful attempt at democracy. It undoubtedly played a role in future colonists seeking permanent independence from British rule and shaping the nation that eventually became the United States of America. William Bradford is believed by many historians to have written it.
John Willis (a.k.a. Deacon John Willis), was the first deacon in Plymouth Church. Reverend James Keith was the first settled minister in the area. The church parsonage, sometimes called the Keith House, was built for him. It is preserved and maintained by the Old Bridgewater Historical Society (OBHS), in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts. It is the oldest parsonage in America.
The population was about 400 when John Willis arrived in 1635. He held offices in Duxbury in 1637 and at Bridgewater in the 1650s. Bridgewater was created on June 3, 1656, from Duxbury, in Plymouth Colony. In 1648, John Willis was a juror at the murder trial of Alice Bishope, who was hanged for killing her daughter, Martha Clarke.
There are many who have descended from the original passengers on the Mayflower like Myles Standish, John Alden, and William Bradford. They include Humphrey Bogart, Julia Child, Norman Rockwell, and presidents John Adams, James Garfield, and Zachary Taylor, and others like me.
From our family to yours, have a blessed Thanksgiving!
Excerpted from Destiny by Randy Willis