Saturday, July 11, 2015

Connections: John Irish and John Howland

When records of our ancestors locate them in some place at the same time as better-known historical figures there's always the question: Did they know each other? All too often, even though it's very likely, there's no proof.

But that's not the case with John Irish and John Howland, both residents of Plymouth Colony in the 17th century.

John Howland arrived in New England on the Mayflower in 1620, survived the first brutal winter, and went on to play an active role in colonial life. He's famous (and not just for being the man who fell off the ship on his way to the New World) and there's even a society created in 1897 composed of his descendants that has about 1,200 members.

A generation younger, John Irish came to Plymouth in 1630 having signed a five year indenture. He appears in various records over the years but he was never prominent.

So how can we be certain that these two men met?

Plymouth Colony received a patent in 1628 which gave them the sole right to set up trade with the Native People on the Kennebec River in what is now Maine. The chief commodity they sought was fur and the trade became very profitable which tempted men from other colonies to trespass on Plymouth's monopoly.

In April 1634, a man named John Hocking (or Hockin) from Piscataway (in New Hampshire) sailed his ship upriver past the Plymouth trading post with the intention of finding somewhere he could make his own deals with the Native People before they got to the trading post.

Naturally the Plymouth traders, led by John Howland, responded to what they considered an act of piracy by going upstream to cut the anchor cables of Hocking's ship and force him to leave. In the altercation Hocking killed one of the Plymouth men and was immediately shot himself.

Three accounts of the event have come down to us.
[Bradford's history of the Plymouth settlement, 1608-1650 by Bradford, William, 1588-1657; Paget, Harold, 1876-; published c.1920.
Source: Internet Archive, original source: New York Public Library.]

[Winthrop's Journal, "History of New England," 1630-1649 by John Winthrop, James Kendall Hosmer, Published 1908.
Source: Internet Archive, original source: University of Virginia.]

Google Books.]

On the first page of final extract above, the only account to give the names of the men in the attacking boat, the first named is John Frish, which scholars have determined could only be John Irish. And there's the connection!

Because Hocking was backed by influential people in England, Hocking's death caused a lot of trouble but the Plymouth men were finally exonerated when it became clear that the New Hampshire man had killed one of theirs first. The name of the man who shot Hocking is never mentioned in any report of the event.

You can read the Pilgrim John Howland Society's take on the event here.

© 2015 Copyright, Christine Manczuk, All Rights Reserved.


  1. I haven't looked at your tree to see if John Irish is your ancestor, or only Howland. We know that Howland was mine, but I don't recall John Irish in my tree. I should look but you could just tell me!