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A chronicle of daily life in the 1627 English village at Plimoth Plantation from both a modern and historical perspective.

The Billington Boys Tried To Blow Up The Mayflower?

September 17th, 2008 by admin

Ah, the Billington boys, John and Francis. Much maligned by a number of authors of popular fictions, these two are often the subject of conversation in our 1627 English Village. In that I played their father, John Billington this year, I have been involved in many of these conversations.

I say much maligned because one author in Mourt’s Relation saw fit to mention them by saying, “The fifth day [of December, 1620] we, through God’s mercy, escaped a great danger by the foolishness of a boy, one of Francis Billington’s sons, who, in his father’s absence, had got gunpowder, and had shot off a piece or two, and made squibs; but there being a fowling-piece charged in his father’s cabin, shot her off in the cabin; there being a little barrel of [gun] powder half full, scattered in and about the cabin, the fire being within four foot of the bed between the decks, and many flints and iron things about the cabin, and many people about the fire; and yet, by God’s mercy, no harm done.”

Skipping over the fact that the author seems to have confused the elder Billington with his son, clearly this is a mischievous act but why didn’t all these people around the fire seem to be in any great panic about this event? Could it be that the author thought the deed more dire than the rest of the company? After all, boys will be boys. It just goes to show that the act of boys playing with firecrackers is hardly a new idea.

Elsewhere the lads have been accused of everything from “trying to blow up the Mayflower” (the above event) to torturing cats. The problem with these stories is that there aren’t any facts to back them up. While it might be fun for children to read these fictional adventures, it can become problematic for us playing their neighbors and loved ones. Children believe these stories and it becomes yet one more popular myth we have to explain away. But not to complain, that’s part of our job.

A side note to this: Above I made reference to people sitting around a fire. The problem with me saying that is I am making an assumption. Are there passengers sitting around an open flame on an old wooden ship with an open cask of gunpowder nearby? It seems like this might present a dangerous situation. Or did the boy start the fire that people were around. I simply don’t know with any certainty. I can’t completely discern the author’s intent of meaning here. It’s things like this that keep my work interesting. This, for me, is one of the reasons we are called Colonial Interpreters. I have to interpret what I think the writer is trying to say and give that spin to our visitors. But what I don’t do is make up out of whole cloth stories that might amuse children simply for entertainment value. John Billington and his family were real people. I owe it to them to portray them as honestly as I can. They deserve it.


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7 Responses to “The Billington Boys Tried To Blow Up The Mayflower?”

  1. not Xopher Joanes says:

    I can say few things ill about a man that survived that terrible first winter with his entire family.
    It is rather ordinary for boys to do dangerous things when they are bored and unsupervised.
    It is also ordinary for some men, especially married, middle-aged men, to speak their minds while enduring martial training.
    To me, being middle aged, married,and the father of two sometimes rather mischievous sons I probably have too much sympathy for John Billington to see him as anything but a rather ordinary fellow in with a group of rather extraordinary people, surrounded by a group of even more extraordinary people in a really weird place.

    not Xopher Joanes

  2. Golf Cart Steve says:

    If John Billington’s sons inherited any of the character traits of their father it’s a wonder they outlived him.
    I’d be more inclined to believe that John himself was the perpetrator of these dastardly deeds. lol.

  3. admin says:

    Really? Why is that? I’d need you to site your sources, Steve. The problem with believing popular fictions is that they are just that. Nathaniel Morton seems to give a very different view of Mr. Billington.

  4. sillama says:

    Might the author be referring to the fire(ing) of the fowling-piece? The flash of the shotgun? Mention of iron and flint in the area seem to imply the danger of sparks. Would not the author use the word ‘hearth’ for a ‘bonfire’ on a ship?

  5. lev olson says:

    if understand correctly, the elder billington was the first execution in plimoth, for murder. i whole heartedly agree that the characters are much misrepresented in popular literature… in both directions… i do think that there is a possibly deserved reputation in the billingtons. bradford does not easily speak ill of anyone, as he seems to understand that he is writing for history (he even speaks of himself in the third person) he seems to have little problem berating billington (is that a reference to what xopher joanas is talking about when he says “It is also ordinary for some men, especially married, middle-aged men, to speak their minds while enduring martial training.”) it is difficult to totally understand what was meant in 17th century writing, it is at times too easy to throw out perceived reputation. where is the line there? must be difficult…

  6. admin says:

    It is always dangerous to infer one thing from another when dealing with the past. And there is certainly a large gulf between the past and “history”. Bradford is as fallible as the rest of us and his opinions are only that. I doubt he feels he is writing for such a changeable thing that we call history. He is writing his history as he remembered it and through his particular cultural and personal filter.
    Perceived anything rely on perceptions, which are only in the eye of the perceiver.

  7. lev olson says:

    yes yes yes…

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