We say something “should have been a movie” when the action is unexpected, a bit player suddenly becomes the star, the good guys triumph over the bad guys when all hope seems lost, there’s a good love story, and some adventure is involved.
I’m sure many of my ancestors experienced some “should have been a movie” moments throughout their complicated and adventurous lives, but it’s not always easy to tease out the elements that would make a good series to binge-watch on Netflix. But I’ve picked one such story. Here’s the pitch to potential investors and producers:
Against All Odds
Plymouth, Essex, and Dartmouth in Massachusetts, 1637-1655.
Cast of Characters:
- William Spooner, 16-year-old indentured servant (and my 9th great-grandfather)
- John Coombs, William’s master
- Sarah Priest Coombs, wife of John and daughter of Mayflower passengers Degory Priest and his wife Sarah Allerton
- Isaac Allerton, father of Sarah Allerton
- Fear Brewster, mother of Sarah Allerton
- Mary Priest Pratt, sister of Sarah Priest Coombs
- William Brewster IV, religious leader of Pilgrims on the Mayflower, grandfather of Sarah Allerton. and uncle/guardian of William’s mother, Ann Peck Spooner.
Episode 1: Indentured
William arrives in New Plymouth in 1637; he enters into a 6-year indenture with John Holmes, a freeman, landowner, and messenger to the General Court.
Episode 2: Traded
John Holmes almost immediately signs over William’s indenture to another resident of the colony, John Coombs, who has been in the colony since 1630. John and his wife Sarah have three children – John (born in 1632), Francis (born in 1635), and Elizabeth (born in 1640).
Episode 3: A Day in the Life
As an indentured servant, William’s duties include assisting his master on his farm and helping to supervise John and Francis as they work with their father. A housemaid, Elizabeth Partridge, assists Mrs. Coombs with household duties and supervision of the Coombs’s young daughter, also named Elizabeth.
Episode 4: The Difficult Mr. Coombs
Mr. Coombs is a hardworking, conscientious member of the Plymouth community when William first comes to work for him. However, over the years Mr. Coombs begins to drink heavily and behave in ways that disrupt the community. He is soon stripped of his status of “freeman” and is relieved of other responsibilities he has in the community. William takes over more and more of the responsibilities for the farm and mill that Mr. Coombs had begun to develop on his land.
Episode 5: The Unfortunate Mr. Coombs
When the household becomes aware that Mr. Coombs has not returned home from a night of drinking at the local tavern, they are not alarmed at first. But as the day wears on and there is no word of Mr. Coombs, William leads the efforts to locate his master. He takes the two sons of the household – ages 16 and 11 – with him on his search; this is not the first time Mr. Coombs has gone missing, and they know all of the places to look for him. Meanwhile, Elizabeth stays with Mrs. Coombs and little Elizabeth, waiting for the men to return. They return with the hard news that they had found Mr. Coombs in the nearby pond, where he had apparently fallen on his way home the previous night.
Episode 6: Mrs. Coombs
Despite Mr. Coombs’s recent decline into drunkenness and irresponsibility, Mrs. Coombs loved him dearly and seems unable to rise above her grief to tend to her property or her children. All she can do is lament the loss of Mr. Coombs and yearn for her home and her friends in Leyden, where she was born and had lived among the Separatists who made their home there. She cannot be dissuaded – she insists on going back home to recover from her grief. She will not be gone long, she promises. She will come back, healed and ready to assume the responsibility of her home and children. She signs over to 25-year-old William the guardianship of her two youngest children. Her oldest son, John, is already indentured to another master in the community.
Episode 7: William and Elizabeth
Because William is already doing most of the work on the farm, it is not difficult for him to continue this pattern. Elizabeth, the indentured maid who had been the primary helper for Mrs. Coombs in the performance of the cooking and housekeeping chores for the family, continues in those duties, incorporating care for the young daughter Elizabeth in her daily routine. It doesn’t take long for the companionship between William and Elizabeth to turn into something deeper; when Elizabeth finds herself with child a few months later, she and William marry. Their son, John, is born six months later. The household is set: William and Elizabeth could manage the farm and community responsibilities while raising Francis, young Elizabeth, and the infant John.
Episode 8: Elizabeth is Gone.
Their happiness doesn’t last long. When Elizabeth finds herself pregnant again a short time after John’s birth, she and William are delighted. Adding to their family will be a blessing. But, as was often the case in the primitive conditions of colonial Massachusetts, Elizabeth’s pregnancy does not go smoothly. She is often ill, and, as the time of her confinement grows near, she take to her bed and noticeably weakens. When her travail begins, she is not able to withstand the trauma, and she succumbs – as does their infant. William is left to care for all three children on his own.
Episode 9: It Takes a Village
William is at his wit’s end. He doesn’t know how he’s going to keep his family going. He learns that Mrs. Coombs has died in Leyden, and he is now officially and permanently responsible for the Coombs children as well as for his infant son. He turns to the community for help, and it is forthcoming. William’s connection to the powerful Brewster and Allerton families in Plymouth focuses the community’s attention on his plight.
- William’s mother, Anne Peck Powell (she had remarried after the death of William’s father in 1630) is living a day’s ride away in Salem, but she is in poor health and can’t help her son.
- However, Anne’s guardian (appointed after the death of her mother Prudence Brewster in 1609) was Elder William Brewster IV, leader of the Plymouth colony until his death in 1644.
- There is a second link to this important family: Mrs. Coombs’s mother was Fear Brewster, the second daughter of Elder William Brewster IV.
- Mrs. Coombs’s brother is Isaac Allerton, another leader of the Plymouth Colony.
- Both Fear and William are gone by 1648, but many relatives of the Brewster and Allerton family are still living in Plymouth and nearby Duxbury at this time, and members of his family step forward to help William.
Episode 10: William Finds Love Again
In 1652, William remarries after four years of raising his children without a partner. He marries Hannah Pratt, daughter of Joshua Pratt and his wife Bathsheba, and they go on to have eight more children. William lives until 1684, when he died in Dartmouth; he and Hannah had gone there to live with one of their children.
It is 1734 in Dutchess County, New York (in the Hudson River Valley between Manhattan and Albany). William Spooner’s 2nd great-granddaughter Rebecca Tripp is marrying Benanuel Deuel, the 3rd great-grandson of two Mayflower passengers – Francis Cook and Richard Warren – who were neighbors of William’s mother’s family – the Brewsters and the Allertons – in Plymouth 100 years earlier. Both families had moved to New York with a group of Quakers that emerged in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, at the end of the 17th century.
All of the historical figures in this Netflix series are accurately identified with the events documented in the story. I have embellished the details a little — for example, I don’t know the exact circumstances of Mr. Coombs’s death, but my scenario is plausible and in keeping with the overall narrative. The individuals identified in the Epilogue — Rebecca Tripp and Benanuel Deuel — are my 5th great-grandparents.
It’s been interesting to dig into this story. I think I’m going to try to turn this into a historical novel. I’ve done a lot of writing, and I often read historical fiction, so I can totally do this. Right? I’ll let you know. And maybe it will be a movie!!!