Who was America's first murderer?

William Bradford, long-time governor of Plymouth Colony (seated) reads the Mayflower Compact. This document established the first white government in America and quelled a potential mutiny. See more pictures of the Mayflower.

­­­On a d­ay late in Sep­tember 1630, John Billington -- an original Plymouth colonist, a landowner, a father to two sons, a signatory of the Mayflower Compact -- stood with a noose around his neck. He was sentenced to hang. When he died that day, John Billington left behind a legacy of grim historic firsts for the New World.

John Billington was the first person to commit a crime in the colony. He had the dubious honor of being the first European to be convicted of murder in this new place. And he was the first to be executed by the state in the New World.

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Earlier that same year, John Billington shot a young man named John Newcomen, who had recently migrated to Plymouth. Billington “waylaid” the man and shot him in the woods. Governor William Bradford, in his historical treatise “Of Plymouth Colony 1620 - 1647,” doesn't mention the reason for the shooting [source: Morison].

­T­he hanging death of Billington was a result of a long, tense history between his family and the Puritan leaders. The Billingtons (John, his wife Eleanor and sons, John and Francis) were part of the Strangers -- a group of people who came to America on the Mayflower with the rigidly pious Separatist Puritans. Billington is believed to have been a Catholic, the branch of Christianity that the Puritans disliked the most.

On the voyage to North America, John Billington was involved in an attempted mutiny aboard the Mayflower. With tensions already high, one of John Billington’s sons nearly blew up the ship. In a cabin full of people, the unidentified son fired his father’s gun beside an open barrel half-filled with gunpowder. Despite the risk of the muzzle flash of the shot igniting the gunpowder, no one was hurt.

Once in the new world, Billington’s bad reputation continued to develop, after he scoffed at being pressed into military service by Captain Miles Standish. He was threatened with being hogtied, but is said to have begged for forgiveness. The records show that the leaders chose not to carry out the sentence since it was, after all, Billington’s first offense. It would hardly be his last.

Billington apparently disliked how the Puritan leaders governed the colony, for he is said to have spent a lot of his time involved in what would be considered anti-government subversion. He was implicated in a plot to overthrow the Plymouth Colony's religious governance. When pressed, however, he denied having been a participant and wasn't charged.

Over the course of the 10 years that the family worked its plot of land at Plymouth, accorded to them by the British crown as members of the first settler party, the Billingtons appear to have continued to make trouble for their fellow colonists.

John Billington Jr. ended up lost in the woods and wandered 20 miles before happening upon a Native American village. From there, he was taken to another village farther away. A group of 10 men set sail to find the boy and found him at what is now Cape Cod after a couple of days. When he returned to the colony, he was “behung with beads” [source: Fiore].

William Bradford especially disliked the family. The long-time governor of Plymouth said the Billingtons were “one of the profanest families” to come to the colony [source: Morison].

From these accounts, it may seem that John Billington and his family were the scourge of the early Plymouth Colony. But not so fast. John Billington may serve as a cautionary marker to remind us that history is never so clear-cut. Read the next page to learn what other colonists thought of Billington.

Billington as a Voice of Reason

Court records from Plymouth Colony, shown recreated here in 2003, contain an array of poorly documented offenses.
Court records from Plymouth Colony, shown recreated here in 2003, contain an array of poorly documented offenses.
Michael Springer/Getty Images

Even after the hanging of John Billington, his family continued to get in trouble with the authorities. In June 1636, Eleanor Billington was locked in the stocks and whipped. She also had to pay five pounds sterling after she was found guilty of slandering one of her neighbors. John's granddaughter Dorcas was sentenced to whipping after being found guilty of fornication when she was about 22.

These events seem incriminating, but many of the details are missing. The record for Eleanor's slander case doesn't contain what was actually said or why. And while the charges against Dorcas Billington are especially tantalizing, the crime wasn't uncommon. Many other offenders were charged and sentenced for fornication, some of whom were later married. And the Plymouth court records are rife with other sexual charges, including bestiality, rape and sodomy. These crimes seem unusually rampant considering they took place in a town with a population that reached just 775 people by 1690 [source: Deetz].

And while the authorities were concerned with John Billington Jr. wandering in the woods and meeting with the Native Americans on Cape Cod, his hike may have inadvertently set up the first peaceful contact between the colonists and the people native to the area.

In historical accounts such as these, it's important to remember that even original sources should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, the famous "Mourt's Relation," written in 1622 by William Bradford's cousin George Morton, also a Separatist, is used as one of just a few primary sources for the study of Plymouth Colony. It should be noted, however, that "Mourt's Relation" was written to attract more funding for the fledgling colony.

Governor William Bradford was perhaps the most ardent critic of John Billington. In a 1625 letter to a Mr. Cushman back in England, Bradford mentions that "Billington still rails against you, and threatens to arrest you, I know not wherefore; he is a knave [scoundrel], and so will live and die" [source: Johnson]. Bradford, as governor, was the man who ordered Billington's death.

There is a great lack of primary sources left by the Strangers and other minorities in Plymouth Colony. But one of the few surviving documents casts Billington in a different light. In 1637, the English trader Thomas Morton wrote in "The New English Canaan" that Billington "was beloved of many." He also implies Billing took aim against Newcomen with regret, and that perhaps Newcomen may bear a little more of the blame for the run-in [source: Morton].

Was John Billington simply a troublemaking murderer, a knave -- or scoundrel -- as the leader of the Plymouth Colony wrote? Or are Billington's subversive acts a glimpse at unrest in Plymouth that isn't prominent in the history of the colony? It's difficult to say. Bradford clearly disliked Billington. And Bradford himself literally wrote the history. We will never know exactly what kind of person John Billington actually was. But he reminds us to be deliberate and to examine history with open minds.

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­Sources

  • Borowitz, Albert. "Mayflower Murderer." The Legal Studies Forum. Vol. 29, No. 2, 2005. http://tarlton.law.utexas.edu/lpop/etext/lsf/29-2/mayflower.html
  • Johnson, Caleb. "William Bradford's Letter Book." Mayflower History. 2003. http://www.mayflowerhistory.com/PrimarySources/BradfordLetterbook.pdf
  • Stratton, Eugene Aubrey. "Plymouth Colony: Its History and People, 1620-1691." Ancestry Publishing. 1986. http://books.google.com/books?id=17zCU76ZtH0C&pg=PA245&lpg=PA245&dq=john+billington&source=web&ots=Tj9-QeyBFv&sig=IEewV-1PWL1da1NQqFTMSZ2EQmE
  • "John, Ellen and John (2) Billington in 17th century records." Pilgrim Hall Museum. July 14, 1998. http://www.pilgrimhall.org/billingtonjrecords.htm
  • "Pilgrim Justice." Illinois State University. http://www.ilstu.edu/~ftmorn/cjhistory/casestud/billingt.html
  • "Sexual misconduct in Plymouth Colony, appendices 1 and II." The Plymouth Colony Archive Project. December 14, 2007. http://www.histarch.uiuc.edu/Plymouth/Lauria2.html#II