The love story of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins is the most famous of all the Mayflower Pilgrims. It has been passed down through generations and romanticized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s narrative poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish.
According to historical records, Alden was 21 or 22 when he was hired as a cooper, or barrel-maker, for the voyage to America. It was his job to repair any barrels that leaked due to bad weather or had become damaged in some other way. This was important because supplies and food were stored in barrels and needed to be kept dry.
Priscilla Mullins, 18 years old, was a passenger on the Mayflower along with her father, mother and brother. The family survived the journey but her parents and brother died during the first winter.
Miles Standish was a member of Queen Elizabeth’s army. The Pilgrims hired him to be in charge of military operations; protecting the colony against threats from the French, Dutch, Spanish and Native Americans. He and his first wife, Rose, survived the voyage but she died that first winter.
Longfellow’s poem opens with the Pilgrims already at Plymouth. That first winter is over and Captain Standish tells Alden that, since his wife died, he wants to remarry. He asks Alden to speak to the woman on his behalf, claiming that he knows what to say in battle but finds it difficult to propose marriage. Alden agrees but is surprised to hear the woman’s name is Priscilla, the same one he has been admiring for months. He goes to her home and offers the proposal in the name of Standish but her response is, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”
Standish is in a rage after hearing what happened and accuses Alden of betrayal. He cuts his tirade short though when he receives word about an Indian revolt. While he is off fighting, the Mayflower departs Plymouth for England. The colonists watch her set sail. Despite the harsh winter, no one is going back — not even John Alden.
Historically, the ship and crew stayed in Plymouth through the winter and departed for England in the spring. Alden had the option to make the return voyage but chose to stay. He and Priscilla married in 1622 or 1623 and lived in Plymouth until sometime in the late 1630s. The second wife of Miles Standish, Barbara, arrived on the ship Anne in 1623 and they were married that same year.
As a leader, Standish led numerous expeditions exploring Cape Cod. He was often criticized, though, for being too “heavy-handed” in his handling of uprisings and revolts. Longfellow points this out in the poem, noting the captain’s fiery temper. During the next few months, Alden looks after Priscilla “in the semblance of friendship.” They get word that Standish has been killed in battle. They set a date for their wedding, and after the ceremony, see that Standish has returned. He asks for and receives Alden’s forgiveness and congratulates Priscilla.
It is historical fact that the John and Priscilla remained friends with Standish and his family. The two families left Plymouth and founded the town of Duxbury, Massachusetts. Alden’s home in Duxbury was built in the early 1650s and is still standing today. They had 10 children and, today, millions of Americans can trace their lineage back to this famous couple. Longfellow, himself, is a direct descendant. The Pilgrims suffered through a difficult voyage and harsh winter, but the love story between John Alden and Priscilla Mullins endured.
By: Cynthia Collins
Related articles: Pilgrim Hall to Display First Thanksgiving Documents
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Courtship o Miles Standish. First published 1858, Reprint published by H. M. Caldwell Co., 1909.