America’s First Murderer

I gathered the following information from Plymouth’s Governor William Bradford’s Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation, 1606-1646, The Human Tradition in the Atlantic World, 1500–1850, and  America’s first murderer, his victim, and his execution are revealed in these histories:

My 12th paternal great-grandfather, John Billington, was a Mayflower pilgrim.  As one of the 41 signers of the Mayflower Compact, he committed himself and his family to “just and equal laws for the general good of the colony.” 

Billington was born in England in 1582. He married Elinor Lockwood in 1603 and had two sons: John, born in 1604 and Francis, born in 1606. Lincolnshire, England, was home to the Billington family.  In The Human Tradition in the Atlantic World, the Billingtons were described as poor, in debt, and had limited opportunities in the overcrowded England.

In the summer of 1620, London businessmen began recruiting families and individuals to help colonize northern Virginia. The prospect of a better life was enough to persuade the Billingtons to accept the men’s offer. In exchange for passage and shipboard provisions, Billington and his family signed a contract promising their labors on behalf of the colony until 1627. A partnership with the investors required the Billingtons and their fellow colonists to work six days a week for “the company”. All profits from ‘trade, traffic, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means’ would go into common stock. 

The Billington family (of the Catholic Church of England) boarded the Mayflower in the summer of 1620 only to discover that most of their fellow passengers were Dutch Separatist Puritans. He soon made enemies with many aboard the ship. He was known as a “foul mouthed miscreant” and “knave.”

It was English Puritan minister John Robinson who began recruiting non-Separatists like John Billington after he failed to find 150 volunteers among his church members. Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower on September 16, 1620. After 66 arduous days at sea, they landed at Plymouth on November 21, 1620.   John and his family miraculously all survived the first harsh winter in Massachusetts which claimed 45 of the first 102 pilgrims who had boarded the ship.

According to the book American Murder: Criminals, Crime, and the Media, Billington and his family began causing problems on the Mayflower when it anchored in Provincetown Harbor. Even before immigrants could move on to Plymouth Rock, teenage son, Francis almost sank the ship by firing a gun near an uncovered barrel of gunpowder.

According to Governor William Bradford’s journal, Of Plymouth Plantation:  “the non-Separatists began to utter “discontented and mutinous speeches” and insisted “when they came ashore they would use their own liberty; for none had power to command them, the patent they had being for Virginia, and not for New England, which belonged to another government.”

The author of The Human Tradition in the Atlantic World states that these protests came from colonists like Billington who were eager to walk away from the strict contract they signed and wanted to avoid living in a society dominated by anti-Anglican religious separatists.

Although Billington signed the Mayflower Compact, a social contract in which he promised to obey the colony’s laws, he continued to cause problems. When Billington challenged Miles Standish’s authority in March of 1620, he insulted him and was publicly humiliated by having his feet and neck tied together. 

Billington subsequently became the first person to commit a crime in America in 1621 when he refused to obey military orders.

During the 1623 land division, John Billington received three acres. In reality, Billington should have received four acres, one for each member of his family, but it appears that his son, John, was living with Richard Warren at the time. As a result, Billington received only three acres and Warren received one extra.

In 1624, Billington got into trouble again for sending political letters back to England that were aimed at undermining the colony. Since there was no evidence that Billington was a participant in the conspiracy, the colonists were powerless to act against him.

Less than a decade after the Mayflower landed in America, a terrible crime shocked the colonists.  In 1630, Billington immortalized himself in history after a bitter dispute with his neighbor John Newcomen.  Billington bushwhacked Newcomen by hiding in wait behind a boulder.  He shot him with a musket, an act which made him the first murderer in America.  He was subsequently tried for murder, found guilty and hanged on September 30, 1630–another first among the colonies.

Of the incident involving Billington and Newcomen, Governor Bradford wrote the following:  

“This year John Billington the elder (one that came over with the first) was arraigned, and both by grand, and petty jury found guilty of willful murder; by plain and notorious evidence. And was for the same accordingly executed.

“This as it was the first execution amongst them, so was it a matter of great sadness unto them; they used all due means about his trial, and took the advice of Mr. Winthrop, and other the ablest gentlemen in the Bay of Massachusetts, that were then newly come over, who concurred with them that he ought to die, and the land be purged from blood.

“He and some of his, had been often punished for miscarriages before, being one of the profanest families amongst them; … His fact was, that he waylaid a young man, one John Newcomen (about a former quarrel) and shot him with a gun, whereof he died.”

Billington’s wife, “Ellen,” was no stranger to unrest and was herself sentenced to sit in the stocks and be whipped for slandering a man named John Doane, (my 8th maternal great uncle and husband of Ann Abigail Perkins),a church deacon and politician who had arrived in America on another ship.

Elinor eventually remarried Gregory Armstrong in 1638, before passing away in 1643. 

The Billingtons’ first son, John, is believed to have died in Plymouth sometime between 1627 and his father’s death in 1630.

In July 1634, Francis married Christian (Penn) Eaton in Plymouth and had nine children. Prior to his death in Middleboro on December 3, 1684, Francis was living in New England in 1650.

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