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.