I promised I would reveal all about how I chose Mary Allerton Cushman as the subject for my novel The Last Pilgrim. Actually, the decision was not terribly difficult.
I happened to read that Mary Allerton Cushman was the oldest survivor of the First Comers, as those who had arrived on the Mayflower were called. That meant that she lived through the entire duration of the Plimoth Colony, which was subsumed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.
There are not many facts about her.
She was the daughter of Isaac and Mary Norris Allerton, born in 1614.
Isaac Allerton was the assistant to John Carver, the Separatists’ first governor, then to William Bradford.
Mary Allerton married Thomas Cushman in 1635.
Thomas Cushman became the Elder of the Separatist church after Elder Brewster died and someone who was central to the colony.
Mary and Thomas had eight children who survived to adulthood. She died in 1699 at the age of 83.
Those who died during the first winter and spring were buried on Cole’s Hill, which faces Plymouth Rock, They were buried without markers and grass sown over the graves so that the Native American tribes in the area would not know how many of their numbers had died. At the southern end of the hill stands a granite sarcophagus erected by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants in 1921. It contains skeletal remains accidentally disinterred from the hill in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The first rediscovery of Pilgrim remains occurred in 1735 following a heavy rain, which washed many of the bones down the hill and into the harbor. Remains found nearby during the digging of sewer lines in 1855 and 1883 were sent to Boston to determine if they were Europeans or Native. Pronounced European by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., four skeletons were returned to Plymouth and placed in a lead-lined casket in the top of the old Hammatt Billings canopy over Plymouth Rock in 1867. The casket was retrieved when the old canopy was torn down, and it was interred in the present memorial, erected by the Society of Mayflower Descendants on May 24, 1921.
The sarcophagus on Cole’s Hill
Mary and Thomas were buried on Burial Hill, the hill at the top of First (later Leyden) Street. The exact date as to when this ground became used as a cemetery is not known. There are no written records of the earliest burials. The earliest grave markers were made of wood, and none exist today. The site was used as a fort from 1621 until 1676. The earliest engraved headstone marks the grave of Edward Gray, who died in 1681. There are only 7 headstones that precede 1700.
Burial Hill (originally Fort Hill)
Thus the exact site where Mary and Thomas were buried is not known. However, there is a 25 foot granite column, erected by Cushman descendants in 1858 that honors Robert Cushman and his sons, with a small mention of Mary on one of the plaques.
Isaac Allerton ——Mary Norris
(1586-1639) ( 1587-1621)
Bartholomew Remember Mary —- Thomas Cushman (m. 1635)
(1613-1638) (1615-1656?) (1616-1699) (1607-1691)
Thomas Mary Sarah Isaac Elkanah Lydia Fear Eleazar
(b. 1637) (b ?) (b.1641) (b.1648) (b.1651) (b.1652) (b.1653) (b.1656)
These bare facts about Mary told me that she would have been central to the development of the colony, which would form the backstory of my book. And I noted that she had survived eight childbirths, no doubt due to the skill of the colony’s midwife, Bridget Fuller. Only two of her children, Mary and Fear, predeceased her.
But with so little information, I could create Mary as I saw her, which is a gift to a writer.
A few words about other candidates for my main character:
Bridget Fuller: Bridget Fuller was the wife of the physician Samuel Fuller, who had basically taught himself medicine prior to the voyage to the New World. Shew arrived on the Anne in 1623, already with a reputation as a midwife and teacher. She figures prominently in my book.
Priscilla Mullins: Priscilla was 18 when she embarked with her family on the Mayflower. The entire family except for Priscilla died the first winter. In 1622 0r 1623, she married to John Alden, the Mayflower‘s cooper, who had decided to remain at Plymouth rather than return to England with the ship. John and Priscilla lived in Plymouth until the late 1630s, when they moved north to found the neighboring town of Duxbury. John and Priscilla had ten or eleven children, most of whom lived to adulthood and married. In my book, Priscilla and Mary share a life-long friendship.
Elisabeth Warren: Elizabeth Warren was the one Pilgrim woman who broke through the patriarchal conventions of 17th-century society. Nothing is known of her English background, apart from her marriage to Richard Warren, who sailed on the Mayflower without her. Warren was reunited with his wife and five daughters when the Anne arrived in 1623 but died in 1628, leaving Elizabeth a widow with 7 children (five young women, ranging from early teens to probably early twenties, and two small boys under the age of 5). She never remarried.
Her name appears regularly in the records of Plymouth Colony during the long period of her widowhood, first as paying the taxes owed by all heads of household and then as executor of her husband’s estate. She also became one of the ‘purchasers’ of the colony’s debts to the Merchant Adventurers who had financed the colony, since her husband had agreed to do this before his death. In 1635, Elizabeth Warren appears in the Records of Plymouth Colony as a totally independent agent, the only Pilgrim woman to be such.
When she died in 1673, this remarkable woman received the unprecedented but well–earned tribute of a eulogy in the Records of Plymouth Colony:
Mistress Elizabeth Warren, an aged widow, aged above 90 years, deceased
on the second of October, 1673. Who, having lived a godly life, came to her
grave as a shock of corn fully ripe.
While Elizabeth Warren would have been a good central character, her life did not span the life of the colony, and while she was a remarkable woman, she would not have been in a central position in Plymouth. She is mentioned several times in my book, however.
In my next post, I will tell you about some of the research I did for the book.