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Uncovering a Mayflower Ancestor: An Australian Perspective

When researching her ancestors, Australian Lisa Apfel discovered a surprising American connection which led her all the way back to the Mayflower. Lisa shares what she's learnt about her American ancestors and what being a Mayflower descendant means to her.

Likely James William Tibbetts (1851-1911) Lisa’s great great grandfather and a Richard Warren descendant

Growing up in Australia, my goal when I started researching 30 years ago was to find out how all of my ancestors arrived in Australia. As one would expect, I discovered a mix of people who had come to Australia as convicts, free settlers and subsidised immigrants from England, Scotland and Ireland.

As my research progressed, I had fewer and fewer ancestors left whose arrival in Australia remained a mystery. One however, was my great great grandfather James William TIBBETTS. Having exhausted all freely accessible resources, I invested in the purchase of his death certificate. Much to my surprise I discovered that he was born in Boston, America! As you can imagine, I was stunned. I had assumed all my ancestors would be from England, Ireland and Scotland.

Armed with this new fact, I started on a completely new adventure. My goalposts had moved to include finding how all my ancestors arrived in America!

1700s & 1800s: Massachusetts

One generation back from James, I discovered James' father, William TIBBETTS. William was an American Civil War veteran who died at the respectable age of 80 in 1905. He had fought with the Union Army as part of the 43rd Massachusetts Militia Infantry Regiment, (also known as the Tiger Regiment) D Company.

Civil War envelope with Tiger Regiment stamp

Two more generations back and I was with James’ great grandfather Ephraim who had fought with the Massachusetts Continental Regiment in the Revolutionary War. It was Ephraim’s father Ichabod then aged 54 who had been drafted to serve, however the young (16 year old) Ephraim stood in his place.

Late 1600s: From Scottish soldier to American iron worker

The journey back through James William’s mother’s family initially proved harder to track. Eventually, I was back in the 1600’s. I met my 9th great grandfather Robert DUNBAR, a Scottish prisoner of war (SPOW) who had been captured by Cromwell’s army in the Battle of Dunbar. As with many of the SPOWs, Robert was seen as too much of a threat if released, so he and 5100 other SPOWs were marched about 170km south to Durham Cathedral in what has been described as a death march. Through disease, escape and being executed, less than 3000 arrived.

After nearly two months at the cathedral, Robert was shipped to America as an indentured servant for between six and eight years. He was based at the Sagus Iron Works, in Lynn Massachusetts.

Digital facial reconstruction of a SPOW from a 370 year old skull discovered at Durham. This is the face of a young soldier who fought against Cromwell with Robert DUNBAR.

I also met another 9th great grandfather Thomas PRATT who was 'killed by Indians'. Titled Sargent, he was killed during the Sudbury Fight of King Philip’s War. His death left his five children orphaned. The eldest daughter was severely disabled and was to be 'provided' for by her brothers when they reached 21 years of age.

The Destruction of Sudbury

Discovering my Mayflower connection

Then the discovery which led me to the Mayflower - finding my 11th great grandfather Richard WARREN. Richard was not one of the Leiden contingent and according to Mourt’s Relation he was 'of London'. The facts around Richard’s life are scarce. Richard had sailed without his family and Governor Bradford alluded to the fact that they may have stayed in England after the Speedwell was pronounced unseaworthy, leading to the Mayflower’s solo journey.

His wife Elizabeth and their five daughters arrived almost three years later on the Anne in 1623. How she supported herself and her daughters as a single mother for this time is unknown. It is unknown if they had sold all their belongings to fund their journey. It is also unknown where she went and what she did.

Richard Warren signed the Mayflower Compact and went ashore with the third exploring party that came under attack from the Nauset people at what is now known as First Encounter Beach. This attack in 1620 became known as the ‘First Encounter’. Richard died in 1628.

What I learned about the Mayflower's significance

So how do I view this discovery of a Mayflower ancestor and what does it mean to an Aussie such as myself? Initially, I was excited as I had thought that the Mayflower was like our First Fleet! Obviously, this is completely wrong but having no knowledge of America’s history, this naïve Aussie was starting from scratch.

With research, I learned of the Mayflower Compact and its significance as a precursor to the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. I learned of the colonists’ hardships; that some were religious Separatists who disagreed with the established Church of England and were fleeing persecution, and others were merchant venturers looking at the enterprise as a profit-making undertaking. I learned that some were craftsmen, and some were indentured servants with no choice in sailing to America. I learned that modern Thanksgiving celebrations are an evolution from the first harvest celebration at the Plymouth Plantation. I learned of the disease that was wrought on the indigenous populations at the time of the ‘Great Dying’. I learned that the pilgrims and Wampanoag nation had a largely diplomatic relationship that lasted fifty five years before the deadly conflict known as King Philip’s War broke out.

It has been stated that King Philip's War was more than twice as deadly as the US Civil War on a population percentage basis. Arguably the main contributing factor that led to the conflict was the displacement of the indigenous Americans from their land. The same story was repeated here in Australia with the dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land. In both cases the inevitable result was conflict.

At this point in my research alarm bells were going off. I know from my Australian research that the Australian Aboriginal peoples’ voices are nearly non-existent in the historical records and that all written accounts of history have come from the colonists. I know the history I had been taught was biased and sanitised and did not tell the whole story. I suspected this would be the case with this Mayflower story too.

As such, I knew I had to look deeper and try and hear the other side of this from the Wampanoag, the native Americans of the Pautuxet and Nauset lands whose lives were impacted by the arrival of the Mayflower.

Squanto and the Wampanoag prior to the Mayflower's arrival

I discovered that the Plymouth settlers were not the first arrivals to the area. In 1614, twenty Pautuxet and seven Nauset native American men were kidnapped and sold as slaves in Spain.

One of them was Tisquantum (Squanto) who returned to America in 1619 working as an interpreter. On reaching his homeland of Pautuxet, he found all of his tribe had died during the ‘Great Dying’. It is estimated that up to 90% of the local indigenous tribes had perished between 1616 and 1619 due to disease.

Squanto is known to have taught the Mayflower settlers how to plant corn, where to fish and hunt beaver. He was also the initial liaison between the English and Ousamequin (Massasoit) the chief of the Wampanoag. Thanks to his intervention, the crop in autumn of 1621 was substantial and led to the colonists celebrating with three days of prayer.

Also, in the years prior to the colonist’s arrival, the Wampanoag had lost land to neighbouring tribes. It has been argued that the reason that Massasoit negotiated with and tolerated the English was because he could see the potential benefit of forming an alliance to protect further loss of land to neighbouring tribes. Whatever, the reasoning, it appears as if the two parties tolerated each other and negotiated together for the fifty five years of peace.

The 'First Encounter' with Mayflower settlers

On arrival in America in 1620, The Mayflower didn’t initially land at Plymouth (Pautuxet), but rather Provincetown on the opposite end of Cape Code. This area was the land of the Nauset people. When the Mayflower arrived after 65 days at sea they were out of firewood and nearly out of water. They were about to enter the coldest time of the year with no chance of growing crops.

The first and second exploring parties had found water and various sand mounds. They dug the mounds up and discovered that those clustered together were graves, whilst the sand mounds near house sites were food stores containing about 250 kg of corn as well as a bottle of oil, beans and wheat. The colonists took the corn, and from the graves they took 'the prettiest things' (jewellery, bowls, plates, a bow and knife were some of the items listed). They justified it as 'God’s good providence, that we found this corn'.

As far as the author is aware, the only participant named in the first two exploring parties was Myles STANDISH. The third exploring party which included Richard WARREN set out three weeks after the Mayflower laid anchor. At the end of their first day exploring, they set up camp on a beach (now known as First Encounter Beach). They had seen a group of 'Indians' during the day who had been collecting meat from a beached whale.

It is clear the Nauset were watching the English. During the night, the exploring party had awoken to 'a great and hideous cry' that turned out to be the Nauset. The next morning, two or three of the Englishmen fired their guns because they doubted whether they 'would go off'. Shortly after the Nauset took the opportunity to drive off the intruders and they attacked. The English returned fire and the skirmish ended with no reported injuries. This was the ‘First Encounter’ and was successful for the Nauset in driving away the English who had pilfered their corn and desecrated their graves.

What my Mayflower ancestory means to me

As an Aussie, Thanksgiving has no significance to me, and the resilience of the Mayflower settlers is not unique amongst my ancestors. The Mayflower settlers were devoutly religious, but this didn’t stop them desecrating the graves of the Nauset people. The passengers had been through some extraordinarily hard and testing conditions and were facing death through starvation due to their winter arrival. They resorted to stealing food.

For this Aussie descendant finding pride in Richard WARREN has been hard. The research doesn’t indicate he had an outstanding personality, or he was extraordinarily brave. My reason to have pride in Richard lays in his signing of the Mayflower Compact.

This remarkably succinct document was extraordinary and should be celebrated. It established self-government for the first time in human history. That meant the colonists could elect a leader and make rules that they all agreed to abide by. It allowed them to set up a court that allowed for decisions to be made by the elected representatives. It meant that they were not relying on the King of England to make decisions for them, they were making decisions for themselves.

This amazing document was the seed of all democracies, including Australia. My reason to have pride is in being a descendant of a Mayflower Compact signer rather than simply a Mayflower passenger.

Richard Warren's descendants in Australia

The first of this line of Richard Warren’s descendants who came to Australia was my great great grandfather, James William TIBBETTS, who arrived in 1877 with his brother. James William had seven children (five surviving to adulthood).

One of James William's sons migrated to New Orleans whilst the other three sons remained in New South Wales. All of them served in the Australian Imperial Army during WWI. Stanley, who made the ultimate sacrifice, left a widow and two sons. Stanley’s brother James married his widow on his return to Australia, and they had one son that I know of. James also had a child prior to going to war with a lady named Trixie REED. The third son and serviceman was Allan. He was awarded the Military Medal for 'Devotion to duty and coolness under fire, rendering valuable services as company runner'. He married and had a daughter and son.

Finally, my line from James William Tibbetts

James’ daughter Millicent is my great grandmother. Millicent is also the granddaughter of my 3rd great grandmother who was an Irish orphan sent to NSW to help boost the female population, and the 2nd great granddaughter of my Third Fleet convict ancestors.

Millicent had eight children (seven surviving to adulthood) before her untimely death at the age of 34. She tragically had a seizure and fell into the fire. She fought on for three weeks, after my grandfather, then aged ten had found her and raised the alarm - a trauma he carried with him all his life.

Millicent TIBBETTS and Alfred KNIGHT on their wedding day in Bathurst, NSW. (1907)

James William TIBBETTS died in Bathurst in 1911 and is buried in an unmarked grave. This preeminent 'Mayflower' descendent in Australia chanced his hand in another new world and has become the link for so many Australians to the story of the 'Mayflower'.

By Lisa Apfel Richard Warren descendant and Australian Mayflower Society member

Note: The proof of James William Tibbets lineage from Richard Warren was researched and submitted by the author, and as such any Australian descendants from this line simply need to prove their link to him.

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Unknown member
Oct 12, 2021

Lisa,. I also am a descendant of Richard Warren as he is my 11th great grandfather. I am a member of the Florida Mayflower in the US . My family also includes Myles Standish, John Alden, Priscilla Mullins and Peter Brown , all of whom were not Pilgrims but were the “Adventurers” and the staff of the ship. Your article was published in The Mayflower Quarterly Magazine . Great job. I try to read everything about the Mayflower. My favorite book on this subject is The Mayflower by Kate Caffrey. Phyllis Kepler.


Unknown member
Mar 12, 2021

I found this an engaging read about your ancestral explorations and in particular your discovery of the Richard Warren link. The sense of surprise reminds me of my own discovery of a Mayflower link just a couple of year ago. Like you I am proud of the Mayflower compact signing and the significance of that document as an important step toward self government and the later famous documents that in turn had some influence on Australia's government institutions. You can read historical interpretations that want to play down the significance of the Mayflower Compact. So we have to approach all historical information with caution and humility realizing that is some sense the past is "another country", and we unavoidably …

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