Pilgrim Justice 



They had arrived in the area in December, 1620, on board the Mayflower. There were about one hundred of them altogether. Most had come primarily for religious reasons. Some--collectively called the "Saints"--were Puritans, those Protestants who wanted to purify the Anglican church of its Roman Catholic vestiges. All the higher clergy should be done away with, they thought. In addition to these Puritans, the "Saints" were made up of a more radical group called the "Separatists," who thought the English church too corrupt for salvage. They believed that each congregation ought to run its own affairs without any hierarchy at all controlling it. They were especially anti-Catholic. This Separatist viewpoint was that of William Bradford, a person who served thirty terms as governor of the new colony called Plymouth Plantation.

Another group of these early settlers was called the "Strangers," a diverse number of people who did not share the radical Protestant views of the "Saints." Their primary motivation for resettlement was economic rather than religious. They had been haphazardly selected in England by the sponsors of the trip to fill up the ship and insure a profitable voyage. There is even some evidence to suggest that a few Catholics had come aboard as part of the "Stranger" group. Many more Anglicans or Church of England adherents were on board. One such person was a well-to-do Anglican  named John Billington.

While all of the "Strangers" were seen as a threat, it was Billington and his family who were singled out as responsible for some tensions on board the Mayflower crossing the Atlantic. First, the ship was small causing considerable crowding. The Billingtons, however, had sufficient wealth to live in a private cabin angering the cramped and crabby anti-Catholic Pilgrims. Second, when the ship was taken off course Billington was a member of a group threatening mutiny. Third, while off shore expeditions set out to explore possible settlement areas in the New World one of the Billington children accidentally set off a small explosive charge almost destroying the ship. Fourth, during one of these expeditions when her husband was gone, the wife of William Bradford mysteriously fell over board and drowned. It was never clear whether this was suicide or an accident. While the Billingtons were not directly responsible, Bradford blamed the mischievous and inattentive behavior of the Billington boys for the incident. Fifth, due to illness and death at sea, by the time the Pilgrims landed the "Saints" were beginning to be outnumbered by the "Strangers." Upon landing there were 32 "Saints" and 51 "Strangers." The entire experiment of settlement was threatened to dissolve into "the Devil's hands" after they came ashore. Since there were so many apparent fractures in the cohesion of the settlers it became even more important that the immigrants organize the civilizing process along stricter Calvinistic lines. Therefore, a covenant, the Mayflower Compact, was drawn up and subscribed to prior to the landing.

In a real way these settlers had created a government. When they left England they were to settle in Virginia, a royally sanctioned colony. If they had landed there the royal charter proscribed all the rules and regulations of political and social intercourse. But they were blown off course, landing in what is today Massachusetts. Therefore, having no legally approved colonizing power or governmental authority--with all of its laws and punishments--the settlers were free to create their own theocratic society. That is why before disembarking the Mayflower these Pilgrims drew up a compact pledging to cooperate in creating a peaceable kingdom and a "City on the Hill."

That is why, also, that the minority of "Saints" needed to solidify their power. One solution was to make sure that the governorship of the colony was in their hands and so they constantly elected and re-elected William Bradford, the stalwart Separatist. He would be governor (and a virtual religious dictator) of the Plymouth colony from 1621 to 1656. His History of Plimmouth Plantation would be the sole official history of the early years of settlement. Another way to insure the "Saints" power and influence was to systematically eliminate the leaders of the "Strangers."

Conditions were very hard for the first several years. The settlers had to endure a winter of desperate cold and hunger with about one half of them dying. Friendly indians helped somewhat and by the following November a bountiful harvest called for a feast of thanksgiving. By the end of the decade several plots of land and a village, called Plymouth, had been established. The end of many external threats allowed for the emergence of some internal ones, such as crime. Criminal justice was in the hands of Bradford and the "Saints;" they could choose the types of people and punishments to be emphasized. There were no laws (aside from the Bible and the English Common Law) or lawyers in the colony in these early years. These "saints" could be merciful as long as the felon was not a threat. For example, in September, 1630, Walter Palmer beat to death Austin Bratcher. Palmer, however, was convicted only of manslaughter and released on bond. No more was ever heard of him. And then there was the Billington incident.

 The Incident

John Newcomen, a seventeen year old "Saint," had made a practice of hunting in the woods. Of course, as the colony matured private property rights became more important, a concept that seemed to allude young Newcomen. The owner of the land frequently visited by Newcomen was John Billington. Newcomen was constantly warned away from his poaching by Billington and others of the community, but such threats and advice went unheeded. Several accounts, particularly those of Bradford and his family, stated that Billington and Newcomen were enemies. Newcomen was seen as young, impetuous and careless by these friendlier accounts but he was not seen as a crook. But Bradford called Billington and his clan "one of the profanest families amongst them." According to the "Saint," Billington "way-laid the young man" in the woods and without warning brutally shot him dead due "to a former quarell." Some even painted the incident in Biblical terms.

" So when this wilderness began first to be peopled by the English where there was but one poor town, another Cain was found therein, who maliciously slew his neighbor in the field, as he accidently met him, as he himself was going to shoot deer. The poor fellow perceiving the intent of this Billington, his mortal enemy, sheltered himself behind trees as well as he could for a while; but the other, not being so ill a marksman as to miss his aim, made a shot at them, and struck him on the shoulder, with which he died soon after."

 In short, according to this account, Billington maliciously and intentionally murdered Newcomen. "Strangers" had a different story to tell, however, declaring that Newcomen had been "interfering with Billingtons [sic] hunting" by robbing his traps and chasing away the game upon which the Billington family relied. This was not an isolated event; on numerous occasions Newcomen had been warned away. At this particular time Billington came across Newcomen poaching on his land and threatened him with his gun. Indeed, Newcomen fled and hid behind a tree. Billington, an excellent marksman, actually fired a scare shot never intending to actually hit the youth. But, due to his own carelessness, the boy allowed a shoulder to protrude from its shelter and was struck with a superficial wound. Billington quickly summoned assistance and helped the injured man into the village to see a doctor. It was a slight wound but through his own recklessness and exposure Newcomen took cold. Infection and gangrene followed and after several days he died. Shortly after, Bradford had Billington arrested to be held for trial.

Thus begun the most important trial, to date, in American history.


Questions to Ponder

1. To what extent is the Biblical mindset of the settlers important in this story?

2. What are Biblical "typologies" and how might they be seen in this incident?

3. What is the "City on the Hill" and how important is it to this story and the history of America?

4. What should happen to John Billington?

5. What did happen to John Billington?

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