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Who was pilgrim Samuel Fuller?

Updated: Nov 11, 2023

Official records show Samuel Fuller, son of Edward Fuller, owned an Indian slave. What could this mean? Steve Isham takes a close look at Samuel's family and friends to gain an insight into Samuel's character.

I was jolted when I first read that Samuel Fuller was the only Mayflower Pilgrim to become a ‘slave owner’. Samuel was so labelled because he had passed along ‘the Indian Joell’ in his will to his son.

We like to think the best of our ancestors, but I am not starry-eyed about that. Among my ancestors was a man whose wife accused neighbours of witchcraft in New Haven which led to their execution. But in Samuel's case, I think he wasn't what the label implies.

There’s not much in the early records about Samuel Fuller, son of Edward, so I can only surmise Samuel’s character based on the people he lived out his life with. And, if there’s any truth in the adage that we are known by the company we keep, Samuel's kindness of character seems to be a reasonable assumption. Here are things we know about seven of his friends and family.

Samuel’s childhood influences

Samuel’s Uncle Samuel. When young Samuel's parents both died in the wintery months following the Pilgrims' disembarking on the shores of New England, the highly regarded and compassionate doctor, Samuel Fuller, his uncle, became young Samuel's guardian. Uncle Samuel's comfort in grief and his example of self-giving over the following years was likely a significant influence on his nephew.

Samuel’s Aunt Bridget, Uncle Samuel's wife, encouraged education in the fledgling colony and gathered children around her to learn in something like a small school. Samuel's adolescence progressed in a household that had books on the shelves and valued reading.

Family friend, Roger Williams, who famously and continually advocated fair treatment and respect for Indians, spent two significant years in Plymouth. He was valued in the meetinghouse which Samuel also attended weekly, and valued in the Fuller household, so much in fact that uncle Samuel left a property to Roger in his will.

Samuel’s friends and family as a young man

Friend, Isaac. When Samuel moved from Plymouth to Scituate as a young man, it’s likely he was drawn there by what he found attractive in the life and reputation of Reverend John Lothropp. Samuel arrived with his friend of similar age, Issac Robinson, son of the hugely esteemed Reverend John Robinson, Pilgrim pastor, who had remained in the Netherlands when the Mayflower finally sailed. Was Rev. Robinson's generosity of spirit currency in his son's conversations with Samuel? That seems likely to me.

Wife, Jane. Maybe Samuel knew of John Lothrop's daughter before he came to Scituate. Or maybe he was met with heart-capturing surprise the first day he approached the rustic Lothropp house. In any event, the plucky young woman who had stood by her father through the prison years back in London became the wife with whom Samuel shared his life for the next forty-something years, mostly in Barnstable following Samuel's stint as Constable in Scituate.

Father-in-law, John. Rev. John Lothrop escaped England and found his way to Barnstable with several members of his London congregation and others from Scituate who joined them. His letter asking Plymouth governor Prince for assistance affirms the obligation to fairly compensate the Indians for the use of their land. It's likely that Samuel was well-disposed to this view and shared his father-in-law’s tolerance for those with whom he disagreed.

Samuel and Jane lived out their lives as members of the congregation in Barnstable, which first gathered in a house that still stands today, housing the Sturgis Library and displaying the famous Bible that Rev Lothrop saved from fire and restored.

Rev John Lothropp and Samuel & Jane's house in Barnstable

'Indian Joell'

Although Samuel bequeathed Joell to his son John in his will (as an indentured servant might have been), there is good reason that the presence of Joell in the family represents a compassionate rescue.

Douglas Leach, in the book Flintlock & Tomahawk, tells us that many captives were sold into slavery in the wake of King Phillip's War, but that children were rescued from that possibility.

"On July 22, 1676, the government of Plymouth Colony stipulated that the magistrates must assign such children only to families that will use them well and declared that their term of service would end when they reached the age of 24 or 25."

Joell was to be treated with legal rights similar to indentured servants who were attached to a family for a limited term. Joell's presence in the will suggests he would continue to assist the family until he was of age. King Phillip's War ended in 1678. Joell was likely still quite young when Samuel died in 1683. His presence in Samuel's will indicates that he had not yet reached the age of 24 or 25.

What does this say about Samuel Fuller?

I can't draw firm conclusions about the character of Samuel Fuller and his relationship to Joell. Wholesome associations through life do not ensure a noble outcome in a person, but it seems at least probable that Samuel's character mirrored that of friends and family.

And it seems likely in that sad, sad time at the conclusion of King Phillip's War, that Samuel rescued a young native and made him part of the household with rights and liberty at coming of age.

By Steve Isham, Australian Mayflower Society Elder and descendant of Edward Fuller

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