Twist of fate

Pil­grim who fell over­board dur­ing Mayflower voy­age went on to pop­u­late the U.S.


John How­land may not be as fa­mous as Wil­liam Brad­ford, John Carver and Myles Stan­dish, no­table pas­sen­gers on the Mayflower that landed in Mas­sachusetts in 1620.

Yet How­land prob­a­bly had a greater im­pact on the history of the United States than any of them. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans are un­aware that they own their very ex­is­tence to How­land as they cel­e­brate Thanks­giv­ing, a hol­i­day that com­mem­o­rates a feast shared be­tween Na­tive Amer­i­cans and the Pil­grims of the Mayflower.

How­land boarded the ship as a ser­vant of Carver, the first gov­er­nor of the New Plymouth Colony, but he al­most never made it to the New World. He fell over­board in the mid­dle of the At­lantic dur­ing a gale but grabbed a trail­ing rope and was hauled back aboard by sailors us­ing boat hooks. His re­mark­able story is the sub­ject of a new chil­dren’s book, “The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower, or John How­land’s Good For­tune,’’ by Ir­ish il­lus­tra­tor and au­thor P.J. Lynch.

How­land and his wife, fel­low Mayflower pas­sen­ger El­iz­a­beth Til­ley, had 10 chil­dren and more than 80 grand­chil­dren. Now, an es­ti­mated 2 mil­lion Amer­i­cans can trace their roots to him.

How­land’s de­scen­dants in­clude three pres­i­dents _ Franklin Roo­sevelt, Ge­orge H.W. Bush and Ge­orge W. Bush _ as well as for­mer vice-pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sarah Palin; po­ets Ralph Waldo Emer­son and Henry Wadsworth Longfel­low; ac­tors Alec Bald­win, Humphrey Bog­art, and Christophe­r Lloyd; Mor­mon church founder Joseph Smith; and child care guru Dr. Ben­jamin Spock.

“The idea that the ex­is­tence of all th­ese peo­ple hinged on that one guy grab­bing a rope in the ocean and hold­ing on tight to­tally caught my imag­i­na­tion,’’ Lynch said in a phone in­ter­view from his Dublin home. “Many of th­ese peo­ple have made Amer­ica what it is.’’

There are so many How­land de­scen­dants that they have their own club _ The Pil­grim John How­land So­ci­ety _ with about 1,200 mem­bers.

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