William Brewster (Mayflower passenger)
An imagined image of William Brewster. There is no known image of him from life.
|Died||April 1644 (age 76)
Duxbury, Plymouth Colony
|Occupation||Postmaster and English Teacher of Scrooby, Preacher of Plymouth|
Patience Brewster Prence
Fear Brewster Allerton
Life in England
William Brewster was most probably born in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, England, about 1566, and died at Duxbury, Plymouth Colony, on 10 April 1644. He was the son of William Brewster and Mary (Smythe) (Simkinson) and he had a number of half-siblings. His paternal grandparents were William Brewster (1510–1558), and Maud Mann (1513–1558). His maternal grandfather was William Smythe (1505–1560).
He studied briefly at Peterhouse, Cambridge, before entering the service of William Davison in 1584. Brewster was the only Pilgrim with political and diplomatic experience. With his mentor in prison, Brewster had returned home to Scrooby for a time, where he took up his father’s former position as postmaster. Cambridge was a centre of thought concerning religious reformism, but Brewster had spent time in the Netherlands in connection with Davison's work, giving him opportunity to hear and see more of reformed religion. While, earlier in the 16th century, reformers had hoped to amend the Anglican church, by the end of it, many were looking toward splitting from it. (See Brownist.)
Restrictions and pressures applied by the authorities convinced the congregation of a need to emigrate to the more sympathetic atmosphere of Holland, but leaving England without permission was illegal at the time, so that departure was a complex matter. On its first attempt, in 1607, the group was arrested at Scotia Creek, but in 1608 Brewster and others were successful in leaving from The Humber. In 1609 he was selected as ruling elder of the congregation.
Life in Holland
 William lived near St. Peter's church in Pieterskerk with his wife and children. He taught English to Leiden University students and was also a printer of religious pamphlets. His son, Jonathan, was a ribbonweaver. William was chosen as assistant and later as an elder to Pastor John Robinson. He was still an elder when he travelled to Plymouth Colony in 1620.
In Leiden, the group managed to make a living. Brewster taught English and later, in 1616–1619, as the partner of one Thomas Brewer, printed and published religious books for sale in England, though they were proscribed there. In 1619 Brewster and Edward Winslow published a religious tract critical of the English king and his bishops. James ordered Brewster’s arrest, and when the king’s agents in Holland came to seize the Pilgrim elder, Brewster was forced into hiding just as preparations to depart for America entered the most critical phase. The printing type was seized by the authorities from the English ambassador, Sir Dudley Carleton, and Brewster's partner was arrested. Brewster escaped and, with the help of Robert Cushman and Sir Edwin Sandys, obtained a land patent from the London Virginia Company on behalf of himself and his colleagues.
With Brewster in hiding, the Separatists looked to their deacon John Carver and to Robert Cushman to carry on negotiations with the appropriate officials in London. In 1620 when it came time for the Mayflower departure, Elder Brewster returned to the Leiden congregation. He had been hiding out in Holland and perhaps even England for the last year. At the time of his return, Brewster was the highest-ranking layperson of the congregation and would be their designated spiritual leader in the New World.
Brewster joined the first group of Separatists aboard the Mayflower on the voyage to North America. Brewster was accompanied by his wife, Mary Brewster, and his sons: Love Brewster and Wrestling Brewster.
Among children boarding the Mayflower were four children from Shipton in Shropshire placed as indentured servants with senior Separatists with William Brewster, John Carver and Robert Cushman, on behalf of Samuel More, husband of the children’s mother Katherine More. The children were placed without their mother’s permission after four rancorous years between the More adults over charges of adultery against Katherine More with her longtime lover, the children’s alleged father. Two children were placed with William and Mary Brewster – Mary More, age four and Richard More, age five. Mary was to die in the winter of 1620 as did two other siblings. Only Richard survived and lived with them until approximately 1627. The event has become a bizarre 17th century historic incident. It is not known what Brewster knew about the More children.
The Mayflower departed Plymouth in England on 6/16 September 1620. The small, 100-foot ship had 102 passengers and a crew of about 30–40 in extremely cramped conditions. By the second month out the ship was buffeted by strong westerly gales. The ship‘s timbers were badly shaken with caulking failing to keep out sea water. Passengers laid wet and ill even when in their berths. On the journey there were two deaths, a crew member and a passenger. The worst was yet to come after arriving at their destination. In the space of several months almost half the passengers perished in the cold, harsh, unfamiliar New England winter.
On 9/19 November 1620, after about 3 months at sea, including a month of delays in England, they spotted land, which was the Cape Cod Hook, now called Provincetown Harbor. After several days of trying to get south to their planned destination of the Colony of Virginia, strong winter seas forced them to return to the harbour at Cape Cod hook, where they anchored on 11/21 November. The Mayflower Compact was signed that day.
In Plymouth Colony
When the colonists landed at Plymouth Colony, Brewster became the senior elder of the colony, serving as its religious leader and as an adviser to Governor William Bradford. Brewster's son Jonathan joined the family in November 1621, arriving at Plymouth on the ship Fortune, and daughters Patience and Fear arrived in July 1623 aboard the Anne.
As the only university educated member of the colony, Brewster took the part of the colony's religious leader until a pastor, Ralph Smith, arrived in 1629. Thereafter, he continued to preach irregularly until his death in April 1644. “He was tenderhearted and compassionate of such as were in misery,” Bradford write, “but especially of such as had been of good estate and rank and fallen unto want and poverty.” 
Brewster was granted land amongst the islands of Boston Harbor, and four of the outer islands (Great Brewster, Little Brewster, Middle Brewster and Outer Brewster) now bear his name. In 1632, Brewster received lands in nearby Duxbury and removed from Plymouth to create a farm there.
In 1634 smallpox and influenza ravaged both the English and the Indians in the region. William Brewster, whose family had managed to survive the first terrible winter unscathed, lost two daughters, Fear and Patience, now married to Isaac Allerton and Thomas Prence, respectively.
Mr. Jeremy Bangs made an extensive search for any documents relating to the Brewsters, including a marriage document for them, in the archives of London and Nottingham. Mr. Bangs has been unable to find any new information on Mary, the wife of William Brewster, including any record of their marriage in the preserved marriage records of Nottinghamshire Archives.
Their first child, Jonathan, was born on 19 August 1593. Two other children were born in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire - Patience about 1600, and Fear about 1606. Per Mayflower author Caleb Johnson, there are many theories about the surname of Mary, wife of William Brewster, but apparently without acceptable genealogical verification. William's wife Mary Brewster died in April 1627, at about age sixty.
The children of William and Mary were:
- Jonathan Brewster (12 August 1593 – 7 August 1659) married Lucretia Oldham of Derby on 10 April 1624, and were the parents of eight children.
- Patience Brewster (c. 1600 – 12 December 1634) married Gov. Thomas Prence of Lechlade, Gloucestershire, 4 children.
- Fear Brewster (c. 1606 – before 1634) so called because she was born at the height of the Puritans' persecution. Married Isaac Allerton of London, 2 children.
- Unnamed child was born, died and buried in 1609 in Leiden, Holland.
- Love Brewster was born in Leiden, Holland, about 1611 and died between 6 October 1650 and 31 January 1650/1, at Duxbury, in Plymouth Colony. At the age of about 9, he travelled with his father, mother and brother, Wrestling, on the Mayflower to Plymouth Colony. There he married Sarah Collier on 15 May 1634. Love and Sarah were the parents of four children.
- Wrestling Brewster was born in 1614 in Leiden, Holland; was living in 1627, died unmarried before the 1644 settlement of his father's estate.
Death and Burial of William Brewster
William Brewster died in April 1644 and was buried in Burial Hill in Plymouth. A memorial stone exists there for him, which states that it is in honour of "Elder William Brewster Patriarch of the Pilgrims and their Ruling Elder 1609–1644". The burial place of his wife Mary is unknown.
Places and things named after Brewster
- Great Brewster Island
- Little Brewster Island
- Middle Brewster Island
- Outer Brewster Island
- Brewster, Massachusetts
- Brewster Gardens
- Brewster Chair
- Eugene Aubrey Stratton. Plymouth Colony: Its History and People, 1620–1691, (Ancestry Publishing, Salt Lake City, UT, 1986) p. 251
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- A genealogical profile of William Brewster, (a collaboration between Plymouth Plantation and New England Historic Genealogical Society)
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- Nathaniel Philbrick Mayflower: A story of Courage, Community and War (New York: Viking, 2006), p. 18
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