Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I Am Not Making This Up: The Custody Battle on the Mayflower

Written By: Tracy - Dec• 01•14


The kid next to the dog might have been dumped on some pilgrims so she couldn’t inherit a fortune.

Now that Thanksgiving is over, it’s a little odd to revisit the pilgrims. But I ran across this story that seemed like something out of a Gothic novel.

We all have this idea of the first Thanksgiving. It was the Pilgrims and Indians Native Americans and turkey. But that’s about the extent that most people think of things.

But the founding of Plymouth Colony is a little more complex than that. More than half of the first settlers on the Mayflower weren’t part of the religious group fleeing persecution in England. This group (which were known as “The Strangers”) included orphans picked up off the street to serve as indentured servants in the new world. And four children who might have been dumped on them by their legal guardian–who didn’t want them around anymore, but didn’t want their mother to have them.

It all starts in 1610, with Jasper Moore. Jasper was the owner of a 1,000 acre estate. He was also the father of several sons and a daughter. In a twist worthy of Charles Dickens, Jasper’s sons died leaving just Katherine — who couldn’t inherit the estate because it was entailed.

An entail is something the British used to do to keep land in the family. Basically only the men could inherit. This was a thing up until the early-mid 20th century. Just watch Downton Abbey to see the kinds of problems it could cause for a family. It was also something that fiction writers liked to play with. Because: Drama.

Jasper’s solution (rather like Mrs. Bennett’s solution in Pride and Prejudice) was to marry Katherine off to Samuel Moore, the son of the next living male relative (the Mr. Collins of this story). Problem: Katherine was already in love with someone else (possibly). A childhood friend named Jacob Blakeway.

Over the next four years, Katherine had four children: Elinor, Jasper, Mary and Richard. Along the way, Samuel noticed that his kids looked an awful lot like that tenant that Katherine was so friendly with.

To say that he didn’t take it well would be an understatement. Samuel dragged the dirty laundry into court. He refused to claim the four children and cut them out of his will. Then he took the kids away from Katherine (which he could legally do, despite claiming that the kids weren’t his, because he was still their guardian.)

Katherine and Jacob tried to make an end run around Samuel by applying for an annulment. They claimed that they had been betrothed before Katherine was forced to marry Samuel. But since they couldn’t find any living witnesses to verify this, the local priests wouldn’t give them the annulment.

Now Samuel had a problem: Katherine wanted her kids back. He didn’t want them, but he didn’t want her to have them. And, despite the entail, the kids might be able to sue for some kind of inheritance. Samuel’s father Richard (the one who inherited Katherine’s family property, not Katherine’s child) put the kids up with one of his tenants, but Katherine showed up on their door demanding that they give the kids back.

At the same time, Samuel’s boss was a member of the Virginia Company, sending settlers to the New World. He suggested that Samuel send the kids to a place far out of Katherine’s reach. The idea appealed to Samuel, and before you knew it, the kids were taken in by four families headed for America. Then he got rid of Jacob by suing him for trespassing (On land that Jacob’s family had been renting for generations. Because Samuel technically owned it now.) Faced with the possibility of hanging, Jacob ran off, abandoning Katherine and the whole idea of getting the kids back.

Sadly, after The Mayflower had already departed for America, Katherine sued Samuel to find out where her kids were and to get them back. At which point, Samuel said “I sent them away with these nice Christian families so that they could grow up without all this scandal over their heads.”

Suuuurrrrreeee you did, Sam. Out of the goodness of your heart, even.

Things don’t end well for the four Moore children. Like many of the pilgrims that first year, Three out of four of them didn’t survive the first harsh winter. Only the youngest survived. After Katherine’s court case, she disappears from history. There is no record of whether she ever saw her surviving son again.

File this under reasons that I’m glad i’m not a 17th century woman.

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