For centuries, historians thought the four young More children who arrived on the Mayflower were homeless orphans. Not until 1959 did a document surface that revealed the truth. They were the Mayflower love children, landed gentry descended from King Edward III and banished by their cuckolded father.
What kind of person tears four little children from their mother and puts them in the hands of strangers? Then sends them on a difficult, dangerous 3,000-mile voyage, to a likely death in a forbidding wilderness? That person even had them indentured as servants – including little four-year-old Mary.
The short answer is an angry, bitter, self-righteous and well-connected Puritan. Samuel More, after banishing his children, would later cause the deaths of others in his charge.
The Mayflower Love Children
The story begins with Katherine More, the daughter of Jasper More, a Shropshire bailiff who built Larden Hall with his own hands.
Larden Hall sat on 1,000 acres of land, but Jasper More had no male heirs to inherit his property. His sons had died, and English law prohibited women from inheriting property. Jasper’s cousin, Richard More, was a respected parliamentarian who also owned an estate, Linley, in Shropshire, close to the Welsh border. And Richard had an unmarried son.
So Jasper and Richard made an arrangement. Katherine, 25, would marry Richard’s 17-year-old son, Samuel. Richard also paid Jasper 600 pounds for Larden Hall. Thus the estates would remain in More family hands.
But Katharine already had a partner closer to her own age, a yeoman farmer at Larden Hall named Jacob Blakeway. They later claimed they had a betrothal agreement.
But on February 4, 1610 (O.S.), Katherine More married Samuel More. Over the next six years they had four children: Elinor, or Ellen, baptized on May 24, 1612; Jasper, baptized Aug. 8, 1613; Richard, baptized Nov. 13,1614; and Mary, baptized April 16, 1616.
Samuel spent a great deal of time in London as secretary to Lord Edward Zouche, a family friend. Zouche was a diplomat and an investor with the Virginia Company. While Samuel was away, Katherine and Jacob did play—or so Samuel concluded. By 1616, he decided the More children looked a lot more like Jacob Blakeway than they looked like him. He accused Katherine of adultery.
Katherine didn’t deny the accusation. She said Jacob Blakeway was her husband. She then tried to get an annulment from Samuel. But unfortunately for Katherine, the witnesses to their betrothal contract had died. Had they survived and testified, the Blakeway family could have lived happily ever after.
Samuel, with his father’s help, went to court to cut the four children out of his will. Then he hatched a plan to get rid of them.
First, he sent the children to live with a tenant on his estate, out of the reach of their mother. Katherine tried and tried to get them back. She discovered the tenants’ cottage where Samuel had stashed them and went there to see them. According to court documents, she then tried to take them away. “[I]n a hail of murderous oaths, [she] did teare the clothes from their backes,” the record stated. However, she failed.
Between December 1619 and July 8, 1620, Katherine and Samuel took their custody battle to court 12 times. Unfortunately for Katherine, the ultimate decision rested with the Privy Council – and Samuel’s friend and employer, Lord Zouche, served as a privy counselor. And so, unsurprisingly, the Privy Council denied Katherine’s final appeal on July 8, 1620.
When Katherine’s appeal failed, Samuel had a cousin take the four little children to London. From there they’d be delivered to the group of Puritans who intended to establish a colony in the New World. Not coincidentally, Zouche had invested £100 in the Virginia Company, which financed the Mayflower’s voyage to North America.
In London, the More children stayed with the disreputable Thomas Weston, a merchant who dealt with the Pilgrims. Someone described him as “eager to reap quick profits from the New World, and not very scrupulous about the means.”
Weston took the children to Philemon Powell, later convicted as a smuggler. Powell delivered them to the Pilgrims’ agents in London. They were then parceled out as indentured servants. Elinor, the oldest at eight, went to Edward Weston. Jasper, seven, belonged to John Carver, the first governor of Plymouth. Richard, six, and Mary, four, went to the household of William Brewster, the Pilgrims’ spiritual leader.
Unbeknownst to their mother, the Mayflower love children set sail on Sept. 16, 1620. To some, it seemed like a death sentence.
To Samuel, it seemed the right thing to do to what he called “a spurious brood.” He justified his cruelty by claiming “great blotts and blemishes may fall upon them” at home.
The voyage to the New World took a miserable nine-and-a-half weeks. The Mayflower, about 80 feet long, was grossly overcrowded with 102 passengers and 30 crew, along with pigs and chickens. The passengers subsisted on hardtack, salt pork, pickles, dried meat, oatmeal and beer—even the children.
On good days, the passengers could leave the cramped, fetid cabins below to get fresh air on deck. But October brought few good days, as North Atlantic storms tossed the little ship. Seasickness plagued the passengers, and the stench of vomit joined the stinking slop buckets below deck.
The Mayflower anchored in Provincetown Harbor on Nov. 11, 1620. All the passengers had survived, except for William Butten, a servant who died three days before the Pilgrims sighted land.
But then others began to perish. It’s unclear exactly when the Mayflower love children began to succumb. Seven-year-old Jasper More probably died on Dec. 16 in Provincetown Harbor. Three others died during the weeks that the Mayflower lay anchored off Cape Cod.
Then in the terrible winter that followed, half the Mayflower voyagers perished. Scurvy had weakened many of them. That and other diseases carried them off, according to William Bradford.
Jasper’s older sister Elinor died in February. Mary, the youngest, died that winter as well, sometime before her fifth birthday.
Richard was the only one of the Mayflower love children to survive. He lived to a ripe old age, and his colorful life story is told in another post.
Why Those Two Girls?
Martyn Whittock, in Mayflower Lives, points out that 75 percent of the women, 36 percent of the boys and half the men died in Plymouth that winter. He notes that only two girls perished: Elinor and Mary, love children.
“That seems just too coincidental,” Whittock wrote. “One has a feeling that maybe, just maybe, one of the main reasons why Ellen and Mary More died was that they were not loved.”
Their mother in far-away England did love them. In 1622, Katherine More went to court again to find out what happened to her children. There she found out the terrible truth. Or at least part of it. She had no way of knowing that three of her children had died.
Of little Mary More, Whittock wrote,
[I]n the terrible upheavals and suffering that first disrupted, and then ended, the life of such a little girl we can see something of how a little innocent could get crushed between the turning iron wheels of legal and historical events; the determined actions of adults; and the cold ambitions of others.
In 1625, Samuel More married again. The next year, though, he had to get a royal pardon because, technically, he still had a living wife—Katherine.
After that, Katherine More and Jacob Blakeway disappear from the historical record.
Samuel More, however, reappears again causing the death of others. During the English Civil War, Samuel More held Hopton Castle for the Parliamentarians. A Royalist force 500 strong stormed the castle, held by only 30 men. The Royalists offered to let the garrison surrender, but More refused. The Royalists massacred the Parliamentarians—all except Samuel More.
In 1959, Jasper More went looking in his attic for old documents. His friend, genealogist Anthony Wagner, had suggested the search. More was a descendent of Richard More, the only Mayflower love child to survive to adulthood. More found the document of the 1622 court proceedings that tells the tragic tale of the Mayflower love children. Historians had their answer.
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With thanks to Mayflower Lives: Pilgrims in a New World and the Early American Experience by Martyn Whittock.
Images: Mayflower cabin By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57283684. Hopton Castle By Ostrich, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4360823. Mayflower plaque By Phil Revel, Shipton, Shropshire – https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/6809987125, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18269228. This story was updated in 2022.