Among the saints and strangers who braved the New World on the Mayflower, John Howland (1592-1672) is solidly in the stranger category as the wild man, the headline grabber, the howler. Among all the Pilgrims, he has the most to do with Maine.
Why is he our patron sinner? From the beginning, he did everything the hard way.
In Plymouth Adventure (1952), starring Spencer Tracy, Van Johnson, and Gene Tierney, Gov. William Bradford is swept off the deck during the most harrowing scene in the crossing. But it was really Howland, uncredited in the film, who spent “sundry fathoms under water.” According to mayflowerhistory.com, “During the Mayflower’s voyage, Howland fell overboard during a storm, and was almost lost at sea–but luckily for his millions of descendants living today (including Presidents George Bush and George W. Bush, and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt) he managed to grab hold of the topsail halyards, giving the crew enough time to rescue him with a boat-hook.”
What was it about the hapless Howland that made Gov. William Bradford describe John Alden as a “young man” and Howland a “lusty young man”? Whatever that X factor is, Howland shares it with Maine.
When you’re a lusty young man, they don’t keep you near the fire. You’re the one sent to Maine to lead a party trapping on the Kennebec in the winter of 1634 and set up a fort. Ouch. Talk about an undrafted free agent. The rude structure Howland manned here in the wilderness would one day become Fort Western.
One time, Howland had to face down some British poachers who’d come by sea and were trapping on his turf in Maine. Howland ordered his men to cut their boats’ lines as a farewell gesture, with gunfire involved and people dying. When the poachers’ leader was about to execute two of his men, Howland walked toward the gun and said, “I told them to do it. Shoot me.” The gutsy move paid off. After a dustup, Howland was the one who was still standing.
Fittingly, the town named for Howland, located on the west bank of the Penobscot River where it stares down the Piscataquis–is independent trapping country. The population is 1,241, according to the 2010 census. At the turn of the Millennium, 11.5 percent of the town was below the poverty line. Per capita income was $15,466. How are things in 2013? Don’t ask. You don’t think you’ve crossed into Whoville, do you? Welcome to Howland.
Since 1818, when the town fought its way into being, has no one else famous ever been born here? Who, beyond the original howler, could possibly put the howl in Howland?
The second quarter is almost over as the New England Patriots challenge the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome. The Patriots set up on the scrimmage line, led by its infamous squad of no-name receivers. Quarterback Tom Brady drops back to pass, looks left, then right, and checks out the defenders. Nightmare city. Then he looks behind Atlanta Falcons defenders William Moore and Akeem Dent. Who is that No. 88, that new guy, forcing his way into daylight? Not knowing his target went to high school in Howland, Brady fires a strike and the enormous stranger grabs a piece of history. Matt Mulligan, 274 pounds, formerly of Husson College and later the University of Maine–waived or released by the Dolphins, Titans, Jets, Rams, and Packers before being signed, waived, and reclaimed by New England–is the first Mainer ever to score a touchdown for the Patriots. Happy Thanksgiving.
John Howland would be proud.