Stephen Hopkins: The Incredible Life of a Mayflower Passenger

Let’s face it, some people are just more interesting than the rest of us, Teddy Roosevelt, Brian Blessed, Forest Gump (ok, he’s not real, but still…). Their exploits are what fill history books and propel our world forward.

One of the most interesting people in early American history is someone you’ve probably never heard of. Yet you may have heard whispers of his existence in great literature and maybe your school governance classes. He rubbed shoulders with famous people, sailed on famous ships and signed a very famous document. He is one of America’s great pilgrim fathers, Stephen Hopkins.

Hopkins was born in Hampshire, England during the reign of Elizabeth I. His early life seemed to be fairly uneventful, he married, had children and worked as a ministerial clerk. In 1609, Hopkins was given the opportunity to sail to the Jamestown Colony in the new world. He left his wife and children and sailed out on the Sea Venture in June of that year. His fellow passengers included John Rolfe (future husband of Pocahontas) and Thomas Gates, the new governor of Jamestown.

Castaway

Two months into the voyage, the Sea Venture was was hit by a storm, strayed off course and ended up shipwrecked in the Bahamas. The survivors, of whom there were many, managed to land on a tropical paradise with plenty to eat. The group built new ships to sail the rest of the way to Jamestown. Some opted to stay and form a new colony. I mean, why wouldn’t you?

Before they set sail, Hopkins voiced his dislike of Thomas Gates’s leadership and was arrested for mutiny and sentenced to death. However, it seems that the other castaways liked Hopkins and pleaded his case thus winning his release. Hopkins, along with several other men sailed for Jamestown.

News of the shipwreck and the attempted mutiny eventually reached England. It is believed that the story may have inspired William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. The character Stephano, a drunken fool, may have been a thinly veiled nod to Stephen Hopkins.

Jamestown

When they arrived in Jamestown, they found the inhabitants starving and the settlement near collapse. In truth, Jamestown had been colonised by a group of upper-class privileged dandies who considered the manual labour required for survival beneath them. Luckily, a supply ship followed soon after and, with the colony saved from starvation, Hopkins and his fellow shipmates stayed.

During his time in Jamestown, Hopkins learned the ways of the Native American including their language, a skill which would come in handy in years to come. It is believed that Hopkins probably met Pocahontas not long before she married his fellow Sea Venture castaway, John Rolfe.

Four years after arriving in Jamestown, news reached the colony that Hopkins’s wife had died. He immediately travelled back to England to be with his three children. He stayed in England for several years and eventually remarried. However, the lure of the new world never left him.

Pilgrim

In 1620, Hopkins learned of a new venture led by a group of Separatists to create a new settlement in the colony of Massachusetts. Hopkins took his wife and children and they boarded The Mayflower, on their way to the new world. Along the gruelling two month journey across the sea, his wife gave birth to a baby boy, Oceanus, the only baby born during the journey.

Once they arrived in Massachusetts, Stephen Hopkins was one of 41 men to sign The Mayflower Compact, one of the most important documents in early American history. This was the first time anyone had written down a framework of governance in the colonies and is sometimes referred to as the world’s first constitution.

Stephen Hopkins and his family settled into their new home in Plymouth Colony. Because of his earlier experience with Native Americans in the Jamestown colony, Hopkins was used as an expert when dealing with the local tribes. The first meeting between the settlers and the natives was held at the Hopkins family home. Over the years his understanding of native languages proved useful and he was sent to accompany the pilgrims on visits to meet with the natives, including the great Wampanoag leader Massasoit.

Rogue

Years later, Stephen Hopkins opened a tavern. While the community allowed him to sell alcohol, he had to obey their strict laws. This is where he began to run afoul of the authorities. During his time as an innkeeper, he seriously wounded someone in a fight, was fined for serving alcohol and allowing shuffleboard on a Sunday, he was charged with selling beer at double the price and for allowing people to drink excessively in his house.

The real trouble came in 1638 after his maidservant Dorothy Temple fell pregnant by a man named Arthur Peach. Peach was a highwayman who was caught and hanged after the murder of a Native American. Plymouth Court ruled that Hopkins was financially responsible for Dorothy and her child for the two years remaining on her terms of service. Hopkins refused and was found in contempt of court, landing him in custody. Another man stepped in and agreed to support Dorothy and her child thus releasing Hopkins of his obligations.

Hopkins continued to run his tavern until his death in 1644. In his will he requested to be buried alongside his wife.

From a possible Shakespearean muse, to a pilgrim father, to town troublemaker, Stephen Hopkins lived a life filled with more adventure than most people could ever dream. His spirit embodies the toughness and perseverance required to survive in the early days of America.

For more information about Stephen Hopkins, the Pilgrim Hopkins Heritage Society have their own website here: http://home.pilgrimhopkins.com

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