Francis Billington was born ca 1606 in England, possibly the Lincolnshire area, the son of John and Eleanor (______) Billington. He was a boy of about 14 when he came to America on the Mayflower with his parents and younger brother John. I’m quite taken by the Billingtons’ colorful ways—they were a raucous family by Pilgrim standards, sometimes referred to as America’s first dysfunctional family, and caused a lot of headaches for the leaders. Every group needs some rabble rousers to question authority!
Gov. William Bradford referred to them as profane and father John was often at odds with the settlement leaders. He was obviously one of the “strangers” on the voyage—rather than part of the “saints” who settled Plymouth for religious freedom. John’s journey to the new world ended when he was executed for murder in 1630. I wrote about John here.
|Site where the John Billington family lived in Plymouth|
The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, as Francis developed an early reputation as a troublemaker. When the Mayflower was anchored off Provincetown, he fired off a musket in his family's cabin that nearly ignited a barrel of gunpowder which would have destroyed the ship and everyone aboard.
When the group landed at Plymouth, Francis Billington climbed a tree on Fort Hill and saw what appeared to be a great sea. No one seemed to take his claim seriously, but eventually one of the ship's crew accompanied him to take a look. What they found wasn’t the sea, but a lake of about five miles in circumference, which to this day is called the Billington Sea. The lake, with its vast amount of fish and fowl, must have been a great help to the settlement.
|Billington Sea Postcard|
Francis’s brother John also gave the Pilgrim leaders some headaches. In July 1621, the 16 year old lost his way in the woods. For five days he wandered aimlessly until he stumbled on the Indian village of Manomet, some 20 miles from Plymouth. He was passed onto the Nausets of Cape Cod, who had attacked the Pilgrims during the first encounter back in December and from whom the Pilgrims had taken corn and disturbed graves. When he heard of the news, Bradford ordered a party of 10 men to go for the boy with Squanto and another Indian as guides. They met with the Nausets in present day Eastham and promised to replenish their corn. More than 100 warriors armed with bows and arrows watched the discussion and John was carried in one of the men's arms, looking none the worse for wear, wearing a string of shell beads around his neck. The Nauset sachem Aspinet was presented with a knife and peace was declared.
|First Encounter Beach, Eastham|
Francis married at Plymouth, in July 1634, Christian (Penn) Eaton (widow of Francis Eaton of the Mayflower). Christian was born in England about 1607, the daughter of George and Elizabeth (_____) Penn. She came to Plymouth in 1623 on the ship Anne.
Their children were all born at Plymouth:
Elizabeth b. 10 July 1635, married Richard Bullock, Robert Beere (killed during King Philip’s War), Thomas Patey (drowned on Seekonk River).
Joseph b. before 2 Feb 1636/7, married Grace _____.
Martha b ca 1638, m. Samuel Eaton, Robert Crossman.
Mary b. ca 1640, m. Samuel Sabin.
Isaac b. ca 1644, m. Hannah Glass.
Child b. ___ and died young.
Rebecca b. 8 June 1648 and evidently died young.
Dorcas b. ca 1650, m. Edward May.
Mercy prob. as an unnamed daughter 25 Feb 1651/2, m. John Martin.
I have two Billington lines, one through their daughter Martha (and first husband Samuel Eaton) and another through son Isaac.
When Francis married Christian, he took responsibility for the three Eaton children, one of whom Gov. Bradford described as "an idiot," but who lived until 1651, presumably at home.
Francis was not made a Freeman at Plymouth. Possibly he never joined the church or paid the price for his family’s undesirability.
In 1642 Francis and Christian Billington "put Elizabeth, their daughter, apprentice to John Barnes and Mary, his wife, to dwell with them and to do their services until she shall accomplish the age of twenty-three years (she being now seven years of age...)" Their son Joseph was already living with John Cooke and in trouble with the court because he kept running away and going home. The court ordered that for every time he did this, Francis and Christian would be put in the stocks. Also, if 14 year old Benjamin Eaton (Christian's child from first marriage) enticed Joseph to run away, he would be put in stocks also. Their daughters Mary and Martha may have also been put out to other families.
This practice of putting out children occurred on a fairly regular basis in Plymouth. In part it may have roots in an English custom that dated back at least to the 16th century, when children were brought up in families other then their own due to the belief that they would learn better manners than at home. It also may have had to do with economic hardship of many families and the shortage of cheap labor. Children were apprenticed to learn a trade, obtain a general education in the household, or were simply servants. Some children put out were from reasonably well-off, educated famlies, some were orphans, others from homes where economic hardship necessitated it.
Francis received land from his mother, Eleanor Billington, widow, on 8 Jan 1637/8 for "natural love I bear unto Francis Billington my natural son." She conveyed to him all her land at Plain Dealing in New Plymouth, reserving enough of the land for her own use during her lifetime.
Francis and Christian lived at Plymouth until 1669, when they moved to Middleboro and occupied land granted to Francis as one of the "First Comers." They lived there until their deaths, except for a few years during King Philip's War when the family fled to Plymouth for safety.
Francis died at Middleborough in Plymouth Colony on 3 December 1684. The Middleborough records state he was 80 years of age, but an earlier deposition gives him a birth year of 1606, so he would have died at 78. Christian likely died the same year.
In his old age Francis was dependent on his son Isaac for support and died intestate. No probate record appears, although son Isaac petitioned the court in 1703/4 for title to all his father's Middleboro lands, stating he had, for seven years, sole care of his parents in their old age, which indicates Francis and Christian died around the same time.
A Plymouth County Court case of Sept 1722 brought by Isaac's daughter Desire (Billington) Bonney and her husband, James, shows that Francis died leaving issue of two sons and five daughters, viz sons Joseph and Isaac, daughters Elizabeth, Mary, Dorcas, Mercy and Martha. There was a total of 8 shares in the estate, with a double portion for Joseph as the eldest son. A 1719 quitclaim deed from Francis's grandson Francis Billington, reading "my father Francis and grandfather (unnamed) Billington" seems to imply a son Francis Jr, but in the absence of any mention of such a son in Plymouth records, it appears the deed was a clerical error. Original must have read "my father Joseph and grandfather Francis Billington." Indications are that the seven children named in the Bonney suit and their progeny were the only survivors of Francis.
Sources Not Listed Above:
Eugene Stratton, Plymouth Colony, It's People and History, 1986
Mourt’s Relation, 1622
James and Patricia Scott Deetz , The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love and Death in Plymouth Colony, 2001
Harriet Hodge, Mayflower Families Through Five Generations," Volume Five, Edward Winslow and John Billington, published by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, 1997
Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War, 2006