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Alden, Johnlocked

(1599?–12 September 1687)
  • Mark A. Peterson

Alden, John (1599?–12 September 1687), farmer and magistrate, was one of the original settlers of Plymouth Colony, arriving in New England on the Mayflower in 1620. No definite information exists about his birth, parentage, childhood, or education. In 1620 he lived at Southampton, England, where the migrating Pilgrims stopped for provisions on their way from the Netherlands to the New World. There he was hired as the ship’s cooper in charge of its supply of beer and drinking water. Upon landfall, Alden joined in signing the now famous Mayflower Compact. After the colonists’ arrival in Plymouth, Governor William Bradford (1590–1657) wrote that Alden, “being a hopeful young man, was much desired, but left to his own liking to go or stay when he came here; but he stayed, and married here.”

Sometime between 1621 and 1623, Alden married Priscilla Mullins (or Molines), the orphaned daughter of prominent Plymouth colonists. The couple had ten or eleven children. By 1627 Alden’s fortunes had advanced to the point where he could join seven of his fellow colonists as “undertakers” in assuming the debt the colony owed to its English creditors. In return, the undertakers gained control of the colony’s fur trade. Land, however, was the more significant economic attraction to Plymouth’s settlers, and sometime after 1627 Alden moved with his family to the nearby settlement of Duxbury, where he received a grant of 169 acres. He established himself as a farmer and in the 1650s built the house in which he lived until his death and which his descendants occupied until the early twentieth century.

The extant records of Plymouth Colony begin in 1632 and show Alden served as an “assistant,” a member of the colony’s advisory council to the governor, from 1632 to 1640. During the 1640s Alden was chosen as Duxbury’s deputy to the lower house of Plymouth’s legislature, and in 1650 he returned to the upper house as an assistant, where he remained until his death. During the 1650s he served for three years as the colony’s treasurer and acted as deputy governor in 1664–1665 and 1677. He was also a frequent adviser to the colony on military affairs. In addition to these formal offices, Alden accepted a variety of lesser responsibilities, ranging from surveyor of highways to supervisor of trading stations set up by the colony along the Atlantic Coast. In 1634 the latter duty put Alden at risk, when he joined a party sent to stop illegal trading activity along the Kennebec River in present-day Maine. The ensuing confrontation resulted in two deaths, and although Alden had not taken part in the violence, he was arrested and held by Massachusetts Bay authorities in Boston until Governor Bradford dispatched Captain Myles Standish, Alden’s Duxbury neighbor, “to procure Mr. Alden’s release.”

The known facts of Alden’s life suggest that he was a significant figure in the establishment of the small Plymouth Colony, one of a number of public-spirited colonists who contributed to the success of the venture while making modest fortunes for themselves and their families. The Plymouth minister John Cotton’s eulogy, Upon the Death of That Aged, Pious, Sincere-Hearted Christian, John Alden, Esq. (1687), outlined Alden’s career as follows: “With all the governours he did assist; his name recorded is within the list of Plymouth’s pillars to his dying day… . He set his love on God and knew his name, God therefore gives him everlasting fame.” Since his death in Duxbury, Alden has enjoyed everlasting fame, but his career was no more remarkable than that of hundreds if not thousands of other early American colonists. His fame is derived not from his own actions but from the mythologies that his descendants have built on them.

In the early nineteenth century, President John Adams (1735–1826), an Alden descendant, claimed that Alden was “the stripling, who first leaped upon [Plymouth] rock,” a family tradition that itself was connected to the specious idea that Plymouth Rock was the Pilgrims’ original landing place in the New World. In 1814 the Reverend Timothy Alden, John Alden’s great-great-grandson, first published the family legend of Alden’s courtship of Priscilla Mullins in A Collection of American Epitaphs and Inscriptions. This legend was used by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, yet another Alden descendant, as the basis for his wildly popular poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858), in which Alden is depicted as the romantic suitor torn between love for Mullins and loyalty to his older friend Captain Standish, who also loves the Puritan maiden. This mythical image of the triumph of youthful American love over Old World standards and expectations has served to perpetuate Alden’s name. The actual accomplishments of Alden’s long and useful life have been largely obscured by the myths so often repeated in storybooks, paintings and popular legend.

Bibliography

All the extant information about Alden’s life can be found in William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647 (1952), and in Nathaniel B. Shurtleff et al., eds., Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England (1855–1861). Filiopietistic treatments of Alden include Ebenezer Alden, Memorial of the Descendants of the Hon. John Alden (1867), and Augustus E. Alden, Pilgrim Alden (1902). Justin Winsor, History of Duxbury (1849), describes Alden’s influence in the founding of that town. More recent accounts of the Alden myth and its sources include Dorothy Wentworth, The Alden Family in the Alden House (1980), and Alicia Crane Williams, “John and Priscilla, We Hardly Know Ye,” American History Illustrated 23, no. 8 (1988): 40–47.