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 the Virginia colony of Jamestown.
While in Virginia he made himself useful for about 40 days shuttling livestock and other goods around the coast. Then an unfriendly Spanish vessel arrived on the Virginia shore.
The Spanish seized Clarke and took him first to Cuba, then to Spain. He spent roughly seven years facing questioning in Spanish captivity.
Clarke had the bad luck to get captured during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Spanish authorities wanted to know what the British in general, and Protestants in particular, had planned for the New World.
King James arranged for Clarke’s release, possibly in a ransom/prisoner swap, in 1616. Clarke, unfazed by his experience, 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.
It took some 30 seamen to manage a ship the size of the Mayflower. Storms sorely tested that crew. The Mayflower was supposed to land south of Massachusetts, but storms forced it up the coast. The winds and seas grew so rough the ship could not use any sails at times. It 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 Duxbury and Plymouth, using a small shallop as transportation. A storm came up quickly and threatened the small boat, with Clarke serving as captain. The crew spotted a small island off the coast of Duxbury and rowed for it. Back on solid ground, the Pilgrims and crew paused to give thanks for their deliverance from the storm.
The Pilgrims gave the island 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 simmered. In 1622 he got caught up in a massacre of colonists engineered by the Powhatan Indians. The Powhatans approached the colonists pretending to want to trade for food. When the Indians got within striking distance they picked up whatever implements they could 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. The dead included John Clarke — the pilot who saved the Mayflower pilgrims.
This story about John Clarke was updated in 2019. If you enjoyed it, you may also want to read about Stephen Hopkins, a Mayflower Pilgrim and Jamestown settler, here.