By Robert F. Huber
For 15 years—or almost 20 percent of her life—Elizabeth Tilley Howland was a widow.
She never remarried after her husband and fellow Mayflower passenger died on Feb. 23, 1672/3 and instead played the useful role of grandma while living with her daughter Lydia Brown in Swansea.
Elizabeth was 65 when John died, probably still vivacious and attractive enough to say “yes” to a second husband, but she preferred to remain a widow until she died on Dec. 22, 1687.
The Brown household was ideal for a grandma. When Elizabeth was widowed, the Brown children included James who was 17 years old, Dorothy who was six, and Jabez who was a lively five. Daughter Lydia was born in 1633 so she was 39 when her father died.
Elizabeth had barely settled in at the Brown home when King Philip’s War erupted in 1673. She was forced to flee as Swansea became the storm center of the war. At one point the little community founded only a few years before was almost deserted as residents scurried to safer places such as Barnstable which boasted a population of 3000 compared with 2600 for Plymouth.
Three of Elizabeth’s children—Desire, John and Hope—lived in Barnstable when the Widow Howland moved there. Not far away in Plymouth were three other offspring of the Mayflower couple—Isaac lived in nearby Middleborough and Hannah made her home in Swansea, but Elizabeth had gone to far-away Oyster Bay, Long Island.
There were many other Howlands in Barnstable, including scores of grandchildren who kept Elizabeth busy with her grandmother duties.
Desire Howland was born in Plymouth about 1625, married to John Gorham about 1643 and moved to Barnstable after 1652. Gorham owned a grist mill and tannery there. He was a captain in the militia during King Philip’s War and died in 1676 as a result of war wounds. Five of the Gorham children were born in Barnstable—Jabez, Mercy, Lydia, Hannah and Shubael.
John Howland, second child of John and Elizabeth, was born in 1627 and in 1651 he wed Mary, daughter of Robert Lee of Barnstable. Of their 10 children, the last eight were Barnstable babies. They were Isaac, Hannah, Mercy, Lydia, Experience, Anne, Shubael and John. Both John Howland Jr. and his wife Mary Lee died in the cape town.
Hope Howland, who was born in 1629, married when she was about 17. Her husband was John Chipman who came in 1630 from Barnstaple, Devonshire, England. (Note that the English spelled Barnstaple with a P while the Americans spelled it with a B.)
All of the 11 children probably were born in Barnstable. They were Elizabeth, Hope, Lydia, John (he lived only about 15 months), Hannah, Samuel, Ruth, Bethia, Mercy, John and Desire.
So many grandchildren must have taxed Elizabeth’s memory for there were three Lydias, three Hannahs, three Mercys, three Johns, two Isaacs and two with the name Shubael. How could she keep them all straight?
And just imagine Grandma Howland baking birthday cakes with magic candles for all these grandchildren.
Elizabeth’s son-in-law, James Brown, was one of the most prominent of the early settlers in Swansea. He was a leader in the war against Philip, serving as a major. He also was one of the original members of the Swansea church and was fined five pounds for setting up a Baptist church in Rehoboth.
He tried his best to bring peace to Plymouth Colony and went twice to see the Indian leader but found Philip “very high and not p’suadable to peace.”
Large families usually have their tragedies and the Howlands had theirs. Three of Elizabeth’s children—Desire Gorham, Hope Chipman and Ruth Cushman—died before she did.
The war didn’t last any great length of time and in the end Philip lost his head. The Indian chief was shot by another Indian and his head cut off. The bloody skull was taken in triumph to Plymouth where it was mounted on a pike. It remained there for 20 years, a souvenir of savagery. Birds made it a favorite resting place and finally the Rev. Increase Mather took the jawbone.
With fighting over, Elizabeth returned to Swansea where she kept busy helping with the cooking, sewing, cleaning, gardening—caring for family members.
Everyone dies once in a lifetime and for Elizabeth death came on Dec. 22, 1687. She was buried in Little Neck Cemetery in what is now east Providence, Rhode Island. The monument and grave are maintained by the Pilgrim John Howland Society.
In her final will Elizabeth Tilley Howland gave her possessions to her children and grandchildren and expressed her deep religious faith:
“And first being penitent & sorry from ye bottom of my heart for all my sins past most humbly desiring forgiveness for ye same I give & commit my soule unto Almighty God my Savior & Redeemer in whome & by ye merits of Jesus Christ I trust & believe assuedly to be saved & to have full remission & forgiveness of all my sins & that my Soule wt my Body at the generall day of resurrection shall rise againe wt Joy & through meritts of Christ’s Death & passion possesse & inherit ye Kingdome of Heaven…”
“It is my Will & Charge to all my Children that they walke in ye Feare of ye Lord, and in Love and peace towards each other…”