How tragedy on the Mayflower led to the first wedding of Plymouth Colony

It was an uncertain time for those who boarded the Mayflower some 400 years ago.

Many of the passengers were accompanied by their spouses and/or children, while others travelled alone.

Susanna White and Edward Winslow were married to other people when the ship arrived off Cape Cod in November 1620.

However, huge personal tragedy would subsequently bring Susanna and Edward together in a unity that would last until their final days.

This is the story of the first wedding of Plymouth Colony.

Who was Susanna White?

Recent research by Sue Allan and Caleb Johnson discovered that Susanna White’s parents were Separatist Richard and Mary (Pettinger) Jackson.

Susanna was born around 1595 and probably at Scrooby Manor, Nottinghamshire, where her father was once bailiff and receiver, as well as a leaseholder.

She married William White and together they had a son, Resolved, who was born in about 1615. All three sailed on the Mayflower.

Susanna was pregnant at the time of the voyage and gave birth to another son, Peregrine, in late November/December 1620 while the ship was anchored off Cape Cod.

Peregrine would become known as the ‘first born child of New England’ and went on to be a prominent farmer and military captain.

Who was Edward Winslow?

Edward Winslow was born in Worcestershire, in the town of Droitwich Spa, in 1595.

Winslow travelled on the Mayflower with his wife Elizabeth, his brother Gilbert plus a servant called George Soule and a youth named Elias Story.

Also in their care was a girl called Elinor More - one of four children from the More family of Shipton in Shropshire who travelled with the Pilgrims.

After arriving in Cape Cod in November 1620, Winslow was one of the 41 'true' Pilgrims who signed the Mayflower Compact.

Tragedy on the Mayflower

The first harsh winter in North America took a heavy toll on the group, with more than half losing their lives.

William White, Susanna’s husband, died in February 1621, and a month later, Elizabeth Winslow, Edward's wife also passed away.

Susanna, now with a newborn son and a five-year-old to care for, was the only widow who survived those perishing early months in America.

She was also one of only five women to survive - the others being Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster, Eleanor Billington and Katherine Carver. 

Marriage in the 17th century

Watch our short film to discover more about marriage in the 17th century

In the time of the Mayflower, women played a critical role within the colonial experience. Many of these women were married to men of power and played a key role in keeping secrets.

During this period, for reformed Christians, they were ground-breaking in the way they experienced marriage.

Traditionally, every woman would have understood that centuries-old concept that the head of the house was the husband.

He had the final word in all things and as a woman, her place would have been secondary within that household.

But reformed Christians married for companionship as well as shared labour.

So, a wise man was marrying a wise woman, and he may have taken her advice, but she needed to know that within this period, his say was final.

We may have been seeing marriages where men were respecting their wives’ opinions and insights, even though they retained the power and held all the decision-making strength.

The marriage of Edward Winslow and Susanna White

The group eventually settled in Plymouth at the beginning of a bitter first winter that would claim more than half of the population.

In February 1621, William White died, living his widow Susanna White and their sons Resolved and Peregrine, who was the first child born in the colony.

On March 24, despite surviving that harsh winter, Edward's wife Elizabeth died.​

Less than two months later, Edward and Susanna married in a civil ceremony held by Governor William Bradford - making theirs the first wedding of Plymouth Colony.

They had three sons, Edward, John and Josiah; one daughter, Elizabeth, and one unknown child who died young.

Susanna would certainly have been one of the more prominent figures in the Colony, with Edward being one of the leaders in the new community. 

What happened to Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow?

Edward Winslow was elected Governor of Plymouth Colony on a number of occasions and was deputy Governor every year he was not.

He travelled to England to trade and pay bills and negotiated the buyout of the Merchants in 1627.

In 1645 he was sent to represent New England in a number of Parliamentary Committees. Edward spent nine years in the UK and was sent by Olivier Cromwell on a mission to the West Indies with the aim of establishing new English settlements there.

This would have been a high honour and a new colony for him to be part of, and Cromwell wanted him to be the Governor of Jamaica.

However, he would never see it and died on board during the voyage.

Read more about his fascinating story here.

What happened to Mayflower passenger Susanna White?

In total Susanna had seven children: two with William White and five with Edward Winslow.

However, only four survived – two from each marriage - to adulthood.

Susanna had 22 grandchildren when she passed away. She is last known to be alive when recorded in a petition presented to Oliver Cromwell in 1656.

She is buried in Winslow Cemetery in Marshfield, Massachusetts, where today there is a large stone memorial bearing her name along with her children and second husband.

  • Discover more about the passengers of the Mayflower here.
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