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John Carver (before 1584 – 1621) was a passenger on the historic 1620 voyage to America of the Pilgrim ship Mayflower. Carver was a Leiden Separatist instrumental in organizing the Mayflower voyage which resulted in the creation of New Plymouth Colony. He most likely wrote the Mayflower Compact, was its first signer and was the first governor of Plymouth Colony.
The ancestry of John Carver is unclear and makes research difficult as “John Carver” is a common enough name to have and many persons of the late-16th and early 17th centuries in England associated with that name. A good candidate location for his ancestry may be the parish of Doncaster in Yorkshire, northern England. The author Charles Edward Banks thought so in 1929 but may have chosen the wrong Carver family to give credence to his research. The area did have a number of parishes that would eventually comprise the Separatist church whose members escaped to Holland and later to America.
Author Jeremy D. Bangs does note that on February 8, 1609 John Carver and his first wife Mary de Lannoy, of L’Escluse, France were members of the French Walloon church in Leiden. Like the Separatists, who came to Holland from England about 1607/1608, the French Huguenot community was fleeing adverse events in their homeland. Mayflower passenger Francis Cooke and his French wife Hester Mahieu were also members of the French church in Leiden as was Philip de Lannoy (Delano), arriving in Plymouth in November 1621 on the Fortune. He may have been a relative of Carver’s wife Mary. John Carver was a deacon in Leiden about 1609 at about age 25, and is believed to have been born sometime before 1584. Leiden records of St. Pancras Church state that Carver buried a child on July 10, 1609. Sometime shortly after the death of the child, Carver’s wife Mary died.
John Carver married secondly Katherine White, who was a prominent member of the Leiden English Separatist church. She was originally of Sturton in Nottinghamshire, eldest daughter of Alexander White. After his marriage to Katherine, Carver became much more involved in the Leiden church, making close associations with the leaders of the church, especially the Separatist pastor John Robinson, husband of Katherine’s younger sister Bridget. The exact marriage date of John Carver and Katherine White is not known, but she, under the name “Katherine Carver,” was witness to a betrothal in Leiden on May 22, 1615, so the marriage was sometime prior to that date.
John Carver’s name appears in Leiden church records for the first time in witnessing a betrothal on May 13, 1616. And on May 19, 1617 Katherine Carver witnessed the betrothal of Robert Cushman and Mary Singleton. Robert Cushman was a deacon of the Leiden church and would play an important part, as chief agent for the church, in preparing the Mayflower for her voyage.
With the forces of King James I searching for Elder Brewster who was in hiding, the Leideners depended on deacon John Carver for guidance. Sometime in 1617 both Carver and Robert Cushman, he being assigned as chief agent in London for the Leiden church, began negotiations with officials of the Virginia Company in London for land in the Colony of Virginia under which they would be self-governing. They came in contact with Sir Edwin Sandys, an acquaintance of church Elder William Brewster and a leading member of the Virginia Company. To satisfy the Company that they were not supporting religious Leiden dissidents who were giving the English problems, they had to put together seven articles for the Council for Virginia, signed by all the senior Separatist church members. The articles basically acknowledged the supremacy of the king and the Church of England. Sir Edwin Sandys reported back to Pastor John Robinson and Elder William Brewster that Carver and Cushman had “carried themselves” with “good discretion.”
On November 11, 1617, at St. Pancras in Leiden, Katherine Carver buried a child, probably an infant.
By late 1618 Carver and Cushman had finally received a patent from the Virginia Company. And although King James would never put in writing that they would be free from his censure regarding their religious beliefs, they did receive a private indication that he would cause their congregation no problems.
To fund the Mayflower voyage the Leiden congregation turned to Thomas Weston and the Merchant Adventurers, London businessmen interested in supporting the voyage in the name of profit. John Carver had the task of organizing the voyage, and along with chief agent Robert Cushman, the very burdensome task of negotiating funding with Thomas Weston and the Adventurers. By June 1620, John Carver was in Southampton purchasing supplies for the Mayflower voyage, along with Christopher Martin, who made Carver’s task much greater with actions bordering on theft of the Pilgrims scarce funds, causing much distress among them. And due to lack of sufficient financial cooperation from the Weston and the Adventurers, funding for the voyage became so critical that they sold off supplies meant for the trip which were meant to support them after landing.
Boarding the Mayflower with John Carver and his wife Katherine were five servants: Desire Minter, a teen-age girl from the Leiden church whose father was deceased; two servants, John Howland and Roger Wilder; an eleven-year old boy William Latham and another teenage maidservant named Dorothy _____. Desire Minter returned to Europe after a few years. John Howland lived a long life in Plymouth. Roger Wilder died early that first winter. William Latham died of starvation in the 1640s on a desert island in the Bahamas. Dorothy died about 1626.
Bradford’s later recollection of this family boarding the Mayflower (Bradford (Ford) 2:399-411): “Mr. John Carver, Katherine, his wife; Desire Minter; and *2* manservants, John Howland, Roger Wilder; William Latham, a boy; and a maidservant, and a child that was put to him, called Jasper More.”
Also boarding the Mayflower were four children of the More family who were sent in the care of senior Pilgrims. John Carver was entrusted with a seven-year old boy by the name of Jasper More. The story of these children was strange and tragic, but at that time probably no one on the Mayflower knew their background. Jasper and three siblings were probably the result of an illicit romantic relationship between his mother, a woman of the Shropshire gentry and a lover. Katherine More's husband, Samuel More, believing that the four children were not his own, arranged to send them as indentured servants to the Colony of Virginia, the Mayflower’s original destination. All four children were sent via Thomas Weston, who passed them on to Robert Cushman and John Carver for the Mayflower voyage. Ellen, age eight, went to the Winslows and both Richard, age five, and Mary, age four, to the Brewsters. In early December Jasper was among those first to die. A memorial marker with the name of Jasper More and others who died at that time is displayed in present-day Provincetown. Two of Jasper's other siblings, Ellen and Mary, also died that first winter. Only his brother Richard More survived to live a long life.
The small, 100-foot ship had 102 passengers and a crew of about 30-40 in extremely cramped conditions. By the second month out, the ship was being buffeted by strong westerly gales, causing the ship‘s timbers to be badly shaken with caulking failing to keep out sea water, and with passengers, even in their berths, lying wet and ill. This, combined with a lack of proper rations and unsanitary conditions for several months, attributed to what would be fatal for many, especially the majority of women and children. On the way there were two deaths, a crew member and a passenger, but the worst was yet to come after arriving at their destination when, in the space of several months, almost half the passengers perished in cold, harsh, unfamiliar New England winter.
On November 9/19, 1620, after about 3 months at sea, including a month of delays in England, they spotted land, which was the Cape Cod Hook, now called Provincetown Harbor. And after several days of trying to get south to their planned destination of the Colony of Virginia, strong winter seas forced them to return to the harbor at Cape Cod hook, where they anchored on November 11/21. The Mayflower Compact was signed that day.
John Carver may have been the actual author of the Mayflower Compact itself, and was also its first signer. Following the Compact signing, Carver was “chosen, or rather confirmed” governor of the new political body that was his creation.
When the Mayflower was anchored off Cape Cod, expeditions to explore the surrounding area commenced with two expeditions in November to search out a place to establish their settlement. It is believed that Carver was not part of these earlier missions, but he is named as being on the exploring party of December 6 when he was among eighteen men who undertook the third and final exploration to search out a place for a settlement. Captain Myles Standish, the military commander, was in charge of security for the exploring party, with John Carver accompanying him to advise on Standish’s often impatience for military-related action by providing “cautions, direction and instructions.” They recorded “but it was very cold, for the water froze on our clothes, and made them many times like coats of iron.” Along the way they found, and took, Indian seed corn that had been buried until planting next year and were attacked in a small skirmish by the Nauset Indians. They continued on their exploration until reaching what is now Plymouth Harbor, took a look at what appeared to be a satisfactory settlement area, and with harsh winter weather on them and supplies low, decided this was a good place, returning to the Mayflower with the news that, after about six weeks of exploring the area, they had found a place to build their settlement.
John Carver would later be highly criticized by the Merchant Adventurers in London, who had hoped for quick profits from the venture, in wasting too much time in meetings rather than making decisions. It was the very end of December before the Pilgrims had brought supplies ashore and started building the first settlement structures. It had taken them two months just to understand their environment and decide where to settle. And the deaths of many ship-bound persons, mostly women and girls working in squalid conditions, may have been caused by the long delay in getting everyone off the ship.
The conditions ashore would also be a problem, trying to build structures in the rain and snow while women, children, elderly and sick were forced to remain in the unsanitary shipboard conditions. And immediately after landing, persons started to die swiftly.
On January 13, 1621 John Carver himself lay sick in bed, onshore in a small newly constructed storage building, when the roof suddenly caught fire from a spark: “the most loss was Master Carver’s and William Bradford’s who then lay sick in bed, and if they had not risen with good speed, had been blown up with (gun) powder: but with God’s mercy they had no harm.” By mid-February the deaths became greater with two or three persons dying some days, February 21 being such a day with William White, William Mullins and two others dying. By this time half the colonists were either sick and dying or dead. The first Will drawn up in New England, that of William Mullins, was written by John Carver for him while Mullins was on his deathbed. It was signed as the last will and testament of Mullins by Carver, Mayflower Captain Christopher Jones and its surgeon Giles Heale. Carver’s only known signature is that which appears as a witness on the Will of William Mullins as well as the writer of that document. The original copy of the will exists today.
John Carver wrote on March 7 that the day was “cold, but fair,” and that he and five other men went to the “Great Ponds” just west of their settlement, and found the area “beaten and haunted by deer,” with good fishing and wildfowl hunting areas.
By mid-March half the settlers had already died and the remainder were slowly recovering their health. But Governor Carver did not feel that it was yet time for the Mayflower to return home as the presence of the ship provided a measure of security that the ship, in an emergency, could take them back to England if need be. He did not want the ship to leave at least until the health of the survivors was much better. But the costs being incurred for the Mayflower and its crew were known to the Pilgrims and were using up monies from their joint-stock fund.
On March 16, an Indian leader named Samoset surprised the Pilgrims by coming to their settlement and greeted them in broken English. He requested beer and English food and said he leaned some of the language of English fishermen who had come to the area in the past. He told the Pilgrims that the local people had abandoned the area after a plague and the nearest natives were led by an Indian leader named Massasoit. He informed them that they had been attacked earlier by the Nauset as they were angry about the kidnapping of twenty-four of their people by the Englishman Thomas Hunt. Samoset stayed overnight at the home of Stephen Hopkins and was sent away the next day with a knife and other items with a promise to bring some of his men to trade furs.
After that encounter with Samoset he and his men came again, but the circumstances were not right due the date falling on the Sabbath. But on March 22 the Pilgrims first met the man they called “Squanto” (Tisquantum), who translated for Governor Carver. The Wampanoag leader Massasoit and his brother paid a visit to Governor Carver that day and worked out a peace treaty and mutual alliance of protection. The following day, March 23, 1621, John Carver was reelected as Plymouth governor, “a man well approved amongst us.”
This treaty was one of America's most successful Indian treaties, lasting for over half a century After the peace treaty with the Indians was concluded and the winter sicknesses were coming to a close, John Carver finally approved of the departure of the Mayflower for England. The Mayflower departed Plymouth Colony April 5, 1621 and with good westerly winds arrived on May 6 at her home dock at Rotherhithe on the Thames in London. But the arrival brought bad news for the Merchant Adventurers as the ship carried little cargo. The Adventurers questioned how a company could turn a profit and resupply the settlers if they did not receive any goods from the Plymouth venture. The Adventurers put the blame for the situation on the Pilgrim leadership, and primarily John Carver. The ship Fortune would arrive in Plymouth the following November bringing more men which would need support and food that winter but without any foreseeable resupply of food and supplies. The Fortune would also bring a packet of letters from London investors who had reached the limit of their patience with events at Plymouth Colony, directing their anger at John Carver. But John Carver never saw those letters, as just a few weeks after sending the Mayflower back to England, he passed away, dying sometime in April or May, 1621, aged fifty-six years, with his wife following him in death five or six weeks later.
Ill-prepared and poorly supplied, the Mayflower lost over half of its passenger through starvation, scurvy, the terrible epidemic and first winter. All of the people helped gather supplies for food and shelter as well as burying the dead. In the spring of 1621, Carver and the others attended what would become known as the first Thanksgiving.
When the Mayflower returned empty of cargo for their investors, Thomas Weston complained that it was due to the selfishness of the Pilgrims and their leader John Carver. The new governor William Bradford answered him by blaming Weston for their ill-preparedness and for the unnecessary deaths and stated that Governor Carver ... had worked himself to death that spring and the loss of him and other industrious men lives cannot be valued at any price. After Carver’s death, William Bradford, age 31, had been unanimously elected governor the following month, an office he held with distinction for thirty-three years.
Carver was a gentleman in every respect, nevertheless during the first winter in Plymouth, Carver he worked alongside common laborers. He died of exhaustion in April 1621 and William Bradford was named his successor as governor. At the time of his death the whole number of survivors in the colony was fifty-five.
Per Johnson, John Carver married twice:
The will of Katherine’s mother Eleanor White as a widow, on April 7, 1599, named “daughter Leggatt (Katherine)” and “to my sonne (son-in-law) Leggatt and his wife (Katherine) 10 (pounds) and to their daughter Marie ten (pounds) for her best advantage when she comes to age of 10.” This indicates that Katherine White Leggatt Carver had a daughter Marie by her husband George Leggatt, and she was not yet ten years old in April 1599. There is no further information on her. She did not accompany John and Katherine Carver on the Mayflower and so may have died young or been married by that time and/or not been a member of the Separatist church. John and Katherine Carver buried a child at St. Pancras in Leiden November 11, 1617.
John Carver had no known surviving descendants.
In April 1621, after working in his field on a hot day, Governor Carver complained of a pain in his head. He returned to his house to lie down and soon fell into a coma. Within a few days, not long after April 5, 1621, he was dead. William Bradford was “chosen” to replace him, but as he was still recovering from illness, Isaac Allerton was chosen to be his Assistant.
Bradford ((Ford) 1.216) wrote in April 1621 “whilst we were bussie about their seed, their (Gov. John Carver) came out of his feild very sick, it being a hot day” he complained greatly of his head, and lay downe, and within a few howers his senses failed, so as he never spake more till he dyed, which was within a few days after…he was buried in the best maner they could, with some vollies of shott by all that bore armes; and his wife, being a weak (frail or depressed), dyed within five or six weeks after him.” 
After all the secret burials that were performed all winter, the settlers wished to bury the governor with as much ceremony as they could possible – “with some volleys of shot by all that bore arms.” Carver’s wife Katherine, in possible grief over her husband’s death and in weak condition already, died about five weeks later. John Howland, the Carver’s only surviving male servant, was left without a master or mistress and in addition to being a free man, may have inherited some of Carver’s estate. This may have helped make Howland the prominent Plymouth citizen he later became.
John Carver was buried at Coles Hill Burial Ground in Plymouth. The burial place of his wife Katherine is not recorded but may have been where her husband was buried. Their names are memorialized on the Pilgrim Memorial Tomb on Coles Hill in Plymouth as “John Carver and Katherine his wife.”
|Wikisource has the text of the 1885–1900 Dictionary of National Biography's article about Carver, John.|