The Other Mayflower

Lost ship, found democracy: the legacy of the Speedwell (and its personal ties to Local history)

❓What’s up with the Pilgrim statue on Kelly Drive at Lemon Hill? Philly is Quaker country, after all. But in 1905, the New England Society of Pennsylvania presented it to the People of Philadelphia. More than 200 descendants of the Mayflower Pilgrims attended its unveiling at City Hall, where it remained until 1920 when it was moved its current location.

Truth is, many Philadelphian families have roots stretching way back to our country’s original European settlers. My 12x Great-grandfather, William Ring, was close friends with many Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower. Only a suspiciously leaky hull kept him from joining them at Plymouth Rock in 1620. That same sinking ship would inadvertently help seed the American colonies for democracy. Hang on, this month’s story covers a lot of ground…

William was born in 1572, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when Shakespeare played the Globe and big ruffled collars were all the rage in England. He grew up to become a renowned weaver, with a thriving business in tablecloths. He and his wife were also staunch followers of a Christian Separatist movement, after becoming disgusted with what they perceived to be blatant corruption in the Anglican Church at the time.

Persecuted for their beliefs, they and others in their group fled to Holland in 1608 where they enjoyed religious freedom but found few recruits (and many elders worried they were starting to assimilate). In 1620, word reached them that English merchant investors were sending a ship to start a colony in the New World. Sensing an opportunity, William and his religious community procured a ship, the Speedwell, and arranged to sail along with the merchants’ Mayflower, which transported investors, tradespeople, and assorted laypersons seeking financial and/or political gain.

When the ships met up at Southampton, England that July, though, the Speedwell was found to be taking on water. William’s crew had to sell off half of their provisions to pay for needed repairs, only to spring a leak again. More repairs, more delays. Third time was definitely not a charm, as they once more encountered trouble while docked at Plymouth, England where the Speedwell was officially declared unseaworthy. ⚠️❌👎

William’s luck got even worse: there was only room on the Mayflower to take 20 passengers from the Speedwell, and he failed to make the cut. He went back home to Leiden, where he died shortly after. ⚰️

TRUE STORY: The leaks were sabotage! 😮 Seems Speedwell’s crew was squeamish about making the trip – trans-Atlantic sails were a major undertaking at the time – and also the captain knew he wouldn’t get paid if he quit outright. But if the ship can’t sail, then whoever hired him usually still had to pay the contracted salary (as you’d expect, it wasn’t uncommon back then for worker disputes to be “settled” this way).

Meanwhile in Southwark, England (about 80 miles to the north, near London), my 11x great-grandfather Stephen Deane was 16 years old and dreaming of crossing the ocean to find fortune and adventure. He arrived on the second ship to land at Plymouth Colony, in November of 1621. Right off the bat, things did not look promising. In the year since the first landing, the settlement had been decimated by hardship. More than half of the Mayflower Pilgrims were dead, and many of the remaining 48 people were barely holding on.

To add insult to injury, the ship that brought Stephen and 33 other settlers failed to bring any significant supplies or provisions, so their arrival essentially halved the Pilgrims’ resources at the worst possible time of the year, when everyone was having a hard enough time trying to prepare for the brutal Massachusetts winter ahead. On top of everything, there wasn’t even female companionship. Literally dozens of single men eager to start families were competing for exactly one eligible maiden in the whole colony: nineteen-year-old Priscilla Mullins.

Now Plymouth at this time was just one street with a handful of family homes, three public storerooms, and a big dormitory for dudes, where Stephen bunked with Miles Standish and John Alden – names you might recognize from a famous Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” Priscilla was one of Longfellow’s ancestors, and indeed her story inspired his artful retelling.

You know how it goes: Miles was a great military leader who’d lost his wife the past winter. As brave as he was in battle, he was equally shy with the ladies. He persuaded his friend and roomie John to speak to Priscilla for him, unaware that John himself had fallen for her. Pals before gals! John did his best to hide his feelings, delivering a passionate speech to Priscilla that extolled his friend’s virtues and the benefits of becoming his wife.

Priscilla was not fooled, though. Longfellow’s poem describes what happened next:

“Archly the maiden smiled, and, with eyes running with laughter, said, in a tremulous voice, ‘Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?’” 💓

The rest, they say, is history. John and Priscilla married on May 12, 1622 (Miles wed a woman named Barbara a year later). Stephen Deane and the rest of the colony’s single men would have to wait patiently as new ships of settlers trickled in, each with — at most — a scant few young women of marrying age.

In the meantime, to boost food resources in the colony, every adult male was given one acre of free land per family member, to be used to cultivate a garden and rear livestock (which they divided up between them). Over a course of five years, Stephen set up a sweet homestead by a wooded brook with two nanny goats and a big white cow. All he needed was a wife…

Remember poor William Ring? His widow Mary never forgot his dream to bring the family to the New World. She and their three kids arrived at Plymouth Colony in 1627 – their oldest, Elizabeth, was a comely lass of 25 years. Evidently, there was quite a love connection. 💘👀✨

Stephen and Elizabeth were married that September; the couple settled on Stephen’s acre plus another acre they purchased on which to build a new house to live in. He also built a corn mill – the first in New England, and business was thriving when he died suddenly in 1634 at age 29, leaving behind three children under 7 years old (who’d grow up to continue his lineage in generations of Philly progeny like yours truly).

POSTSCRIPT:  The Loss of Speedwell and the Foundation of Democracy (excerpted from worldhistory.org)

When the Speedwell’s voyage was cancelled, those 20 Separatist Christian passengers who were transferred to the Mayflower joined a diverse population of 82 other travelers who did not share their values or beliefs. In fact, the Pilgrims were specifically moving halfway across the planet to get away from these sinful “Strangers” (as they called them).

Now, suddenly, they were all forced to share close quarters and minimal provisions for over 2 months. Their very survival depended on their ability to work out differences and respect each other’s rights.

Who would’ve thought that this uncomfortable journey across the ocean would become a melting pot of tolerance and cooperation? Without the loss of the Speedwell, Pilgrims would’ve never had a reason to connect with other colonists outside their radical faith. But this voyage had changed them.

When they landed in New England and set forth to create the first colony here, it seemed only natural to include those they’d worked together with on the ship. To this end, they created the Mayflower Compact, a legal document that introduced the idea of democratic self-government to Plymouth Colony, which paved the way for the United States Constitution. 🗽

Today in Philadelphia, our Pilgrim statue calls to mind this early American history worth remembering as forces seek to divide us.

What do you think? 

This article is a Local summary of Bob McNulty’s original “Philadelphia Story” that you should definitely read here for more of Bob’s unique perspectives and lots of great details: names, addresses, and American history. First published November 24, 2016 and featured in November 2023’s Local paper (thanks, Bob!)

Read Bob’s last Local column HERE.  Don’t miss the next great tale from local history, follow @PhiladelphiaStoriesbyBobMcNulty on Facebook.

Comments welcome! Please leave below, or email editor@nwlocalpaper.com.

About Philadelphia Stories By Bob McNulty 22 Articles
Philadelphia Stories by Bob McNulty. Lifelong Philadelphian Bob McNulty tells fascinating tales about ordinary citizens and extraordinary events from the city’s long history. Ranging from whimsical to tragic (sometimes in the same story!), Bob’s tales are meticulously researched and bring to life figures and events largely forgotten today. Philadelphia Stories is a dramatic archive that spotlights everyday Philadelphians of all kinds -- men and women, Black and white, immigrant and native-born, many of whom, in Bob’s words, “didn’t have anyone to tell their story.”

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