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2004 Commentary: What if young John Howland had not survived ...

A historical drawing of the Pilgrim boy named John Howland, who was rescued after being washed overboard into the Atlantic Ocean during the 1620 voyage of the Mayflower.

Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks for the blessings we have received. Fate can truly be a fickle thing. I spent some time Sunday night thinking about one small "what if" that happened 381 years ago that has affected this country ever since.

A young Englishman named John Howland was contracted as a "man servant" at an early age in England. He would later travel with two other servants with along their master into the new world of North America. They sailed for America with other English seeking religious freedom during the reign of King James I. When these Separatists sailed with their ship from Southampton, England, along with the sister ship, the Speedwell, problems soon developed. The Speedwell was a leaky ship and they were forced to turn back to England. The group finally sold the Speedwell and the two shiploads of people squeezed into the first ship, the Mayflower, and set sail across the Atlantic for the new world.

They finally sighted shore soon landed near Plymouth Rock in what is now Massachusetts. Thursday Americans take their annual holiday which celebrates the coming of the Pilgrims to America and the many things we have to be thankful for this year.

Still, I cannot stop and wonder if not for the luck of one young Pilgrim, "what if"?

The Mayflower was a sizable cargo ship of 180-ton capacity, and around 90 feet in length. She had served many years in the wine trade between England and France. There were a total of 102 Pilgrims aboard the ship when the Mayflower sailed.

The Pilgrims' journey in the fall of 1620 was not an easy one. The 66-day voyage was actually quite stormy. At one point, the main beam of the ship cracked and had to be repaired using a large iron screw. The passengers were cold and sick which made the conditions below deck less than pleasant.

One fateful night young John Howland ventured up on deck during a storm to have a look around. While at the same moment a wave swept over the ship washing young John overboard into the north Atlantic. Luck was with young John that night for he landed upon one of the "topsail halyards which hung overboard and ran out at length," wrote William Bradford, a Pilgrim leader. Grabbing on for his life John held on as the rope pulled him "fathoms under water" until he was eventually hauled up by the same rope and then with boat hook back on board.

Young John's next life accomplishment was to be one of 41 signing the Mayflower Compact on board the ship before they first set foot a shore. This document would sow the seeds of a democracy which later became the United States of America. For these Pilgrims knew the power to govern came from the people and their consent, not from a king or a dictator.

Young John would grow to manhood in the Plymouth Colony. John Howland was married in 1624 to Elizabeth Tilley, who had also sailed on the Mayflower with her own parents, John and Joan Tilley. Howland would later serve as assistant governor of the colony and also as the colony's agent at the Kennebec trading post.

John Howland would outlive all the men who sailed upon the Mayflower journey in 1620. He died in 1672 at over 80 years of age. He had made many significant contributions in his day. But there is more to his legacy. John and Elizabeth had 10 children and from those children the Howland legacy in America flourished.

Among the descendants of John and Elizabeth Howland have been some of the most famous politicians in American history. Descendant Nathaniel Gorham served as Continental Congress President. Descendant Franklin Delano Roosevelt served as 32nd president and defended our country during WWII. Descendant George Herbert Walker Bush served as 42nd president and fought in WWII and led our country during the Gulf war. Descendant George W. Bush is now serving as 44th president and is defending the country during the war on terrorism. And let us not forget descendant Jeb Bush, the current Florida governor who played a role in the last election when his brother, George W., was elected.

And we cannot forget a couple lady descendants, first lady Barbara Pierce Bush, wife of George H.W. Bush, or first lady Edith Roosevelt, wife of president Teddy Roosevelt.

Other notable Howland descendants include stage actress Maude Adams, film actor Humprey Bogart, stage and film actress Lillian Russell, song writer Phillip Brooks who wrote "O Little Town of Bethlehem," American poet Florence Earle Coates, Esther Allen Howland who produced the first Valentine, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Joseph Smith who founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Finally, John Howland's brother would later follow him to America and included among his descendants are the 37th president Richard Nixon and 38th president Gerald Ford.

Now for my question: what if John Howland had not landed on the rope trailing the Mayflower in 1620 but had just fell overboard and drowned instead? That's what happened to a young sailor recently on board a U.S. warship near Afghanistan.

Surely John's brother wouldn't have followed him to America and Nixon and Ford might have been Englishmen. If young John had drowned, there would not have been an FDR or the Bush presidents. If he had drowned, the movies would not have had Bogart or Russell nor would there have been a poet named Longfellow to write the Song of Hiawatha.

On this Thanksgiving I am thankful that 381 years ago that young John Howland was lucky enough to land on the single rope trailing the Mayflower and then was strong enough to hold for his life. His impact is still making America a better place today.

West Central Tribune editor Kelly Boldan is a ninth-great-grandson of John Howland, who sailed on the Mayflower in 1620.

Kelly Boldan

Kelly Boldan has been the editor of the West Central Tribune of Willmar, since joining the newspaper in October 2001. He has previously worked as the editor at the Bemidji Pioneer, also part of Forum Communications Co., and other daily newspapers, online Web sites, and weekly agriculture newspapers in Wisconsin, Texas and Minnesota. You can follow via Twitter at @KellyBoldanWCT or read about the Tribune's newsroom blog at: or the Tribune's blog at:

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