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John Clarke Guides the Pilgrims to Shore

By the time John Clarke signed on to pilot the Mayflower on its journey to America, he had already managed a remarkably adventurous career.

Born in 1575 in England, Clarke was an old hand at sailing to America by the time the Mayflower set out. He first came to this country in 1609, transporting goods and colonists to Jamestown, Virginia. While in Virginia he made himself useful for about 40 days shuttling livestock and other goods around the coast until an unfriendly Spanish vessel arrived on the Virginia shore.

john clarke

“Mayflower on her Arrival at Plymouth Harbor,” by William Formsby Halsall,

Clarke was captured by the Spanish and taken first to Cuba and then to Spain. He would spend roughly seven years facing questioning in Spanish captivity. This was  during the time of the Spanish Inquisition and Spanish authorities were eager to know what the British in general, and protestants in particular, were planning for the new world.

King James arranged for Clarke to be released, possibly in a ransom/prisoner swap, in 1616. Clarke was not put off by his experience and set about looking for work as a captain's mate and pilot. He signed on with Thomas Jones, a pirate and sea captain, to carry livestock to Virginia in 1619. And in 1620 he agreed to serve as Pilot on the Mayflower, under ship's master Christopher Jones. It's a lucky thing for the Pilgrims that he did.

The Mayflower was destined to land not so far north as Massachusetts, but storms forced it up the coast. It took some 30 seamen to manage a ship the size of the Mayflower. That crew was sorely tested by storms so rough the ship could not use any sails at times and simply drifted with the wind and waves. After arriving at the tip of Cape Cod, the Pilgrims began exploring for a site on which to build their settlement.

December of 1620 found the Pilgrims shuttling in and around the shoreline of the Duxbury and Plymouth coast, using a small shallup as transportation. A storm came up quickly and threatened the small boat, with Clarke serving as captain. The crew spotted a small island of the coast of Duxbury and rowed for it. Back on solid ground, the Pilgrims and crew paused to give thanks for being saved from the storm.

The island was given the name Clark's Island for John Clarke's part in saving the crew. And John Clarke himself received two shares in the Virginia Company for his efforts. Soon Clarke decided to settle in America. In hindsight he should have chosen New England over Virginia.

Clarke returned to Jamestown, where hostilities with the Indians were growing. In 1622 he got caught up in a massacre of colonists engineered by the Powhatan Indians. The Powhatan approached the colonists under the guise of offering to trade food. When the Indians got within striking distance they picked up whatever implements were handy and killed 347 colonists -- men, women, and children.

The massacre, which touched off a series of fights, wiped out roughly one quarter of the settlement in Jamestown, including John Clarke -- the pilot who saved the Mayflower pilgrims.

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