Who was America's first murderer?

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.
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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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  • 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
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