I’ve been doing some genealogical research on my father’s side of my family. He knew some names as far back as his great grandfather and several stories, but that was about it. One family story had some ancestor (name unknown) settling in Long Island in 1642, and another story posited someone equally unknown being a major in the Great Swamp Fight (whenever that was), but that was the extent of it. As so often happens, neither of those stories appears to be true. What I have discovered, however, is that some were captured by the Indians, or fought in various wars, or founded towns. I thought I’d devote a series of posts to some of these individuals, trying to place their lives in their historical context. This post focuses on my ancestor who refused to come over to America on the Mayflower.
His name was Thomas Blossom, and he was born in in 1568 in Parham, Somerset County, England. Blossom was one of those who fervently believed that the Church of England required further reformation. He shared with those reform-minded Puritans the conviction that the entire episcopal hierarchy of archbishop, bishops, and priests was a corrupt, papist innovation, sanctioned neither by the Bible nor by the practices of the early Christians. Instead of this top-down structure, as we might describe it, Blossom wanted a bottom-up, congregational structure. A few God-fearing worshippers would form their own congregation, elect a minister and perhaps a teacher, and remain altogether independent of every other congregation. This independence meant in turn that their congregation would be entirely apart—separate from—the Church of England. As a consequence, in their time they were called Separatists; we have mythologized them as the Pilgrims.
Under the successive reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James I, the Church of England was the national church. Attendance at Sunday service was obligatory; you were fined for being absent. The more radical Puritans like the Separatists had therefore only two choices: they could meet to worship in secret, or they could leave the country and go to Holland, another Protestant country, and one far more tolerant than England. Blossom may well have done both, marrying his first wife Ann Sarah Palmer (1570?-1650) about 1588 or so and taking care to avoid notice by the ecclesiastical establishment. His daughter Frances (1589?-1635) apparently was borne by Ann Palmer. Blossom’s second marriage took place in 1605: he married Anne Elsdon, who was the mother of his two sons Thomas and Peter. In 1609, his daughter Frances married William Palmer (no relation to Blossom’s first wife), by trade a maker of nails.
At some point, Blossom and his family emigrated to Holland, first probably to Amsterdam, where William Brewster had established a congregational church in 1608, and then, like Brewster in 1609, to Leiden, where they became members of John Robinson's church. In Leiden, the Separatists were indeed free to worship as they pleased. The difficulty was that, with a few exceptions, the Separatists were desperately poor. Not only were most of them at an initial disadvantage in knowing no Dutch, but many of them had been farmers and herdsmen. In Leiden, an urban center, they could gain only menial employment at minimal wages. Worried about their children becoming more Dutch than English, anxious that the twelve year truce between Catholic Spain and Protestant Holland would be expiring in 1621 and war might resume, the Separatists began to consider emigrating to North America.
When their congregation finally obtained financial backing from a company of investors in London, Blossom decided that he, his wife, and his two sons would be among the 30 or so passengers on the Speedwell, a ship that would sail from Holland, meet the Mayflower in England, and then sail in company to New England. The Speedwell had been fitted with new masts and sails, and there is some evidence that its master deliberately overmasted the ship because he had no desire to cross the Atlantic. The two ships met up at Southampton and duly sailed. Both began to leak, the Speedwell alarmingly so, with the result that they returned to Dartmouth for repairs. Again they set out, and again the Speedwell leaked alarmingly. Back they went to Plymouth, and this time the master refused to continue in the Speedwell. The outcome was that the already crowded Mayflower took aboard some of the Speedwell’s passengers and made the voyage alone (it may be relevant that the Speedwell continued subsequently as a trading vessel for a number of years). They arrived late in the year, and what with inadequate shelter, insufficient food, diseases, and the cold, nearly half of the passengers died that winter.
Thomas Blossom and his family were among those who decided not to go on the Mayflower. They returned to Leiden, presumably hoping that they could soon make the crossing to New England. Money continued to be scarce, so not many more were able to emigrate. His son-in-law William Palmer came over on the Fortune in 1621; his daughter Frances, on the Anne in 1623. Not until 1629, nine years after the Mayflower sailed from Old Plymouth, did Blossom and his family finally reach New Plymouth—on, coincidentally, a ship also named the Mayflower, but an altogether different vessel.
Thomas Blossom was soon elected a deacon of the church in Plymouth. (Robinson's church in Leiden appointed deacons for life, so Blossom may well have been a deacon before coming to Plymouth, but there's no record of it.) Apparently he fulfilled that lay office well for the three years he had yet to live. He died in 1632. In his history Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford mentions Blossom by name as one of the "ancient friends" from Holland dead from an "infectious fever" that struck upwards of twenty people. In The Barbarous Years (New York, 2012), the first volume of his work on “The Peopling of British North America,” Bernard Bailyn quotes a contemporary description of Deacon Thomas Blossom: he was “a holy man and experienced saint, . . . competently accomplished with abilities” (349). That sounds to me like a worthy epitaph.