Churchill’s Mayflower line

Sir Winston Leonard (Spencer-) Churchill (1874-1965)

Last year I made a post teasing about an upcoming article I had written that showed, with the assistance of Y-DNA evidence, a Mayflower descent for Prime Minister Winston Churchill (among other notable figures). The journey began in 2017 when I was at the National Genealogical Society Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. When at our booth, we get a chance to meet lots of genealogists, members of American Ancestors and non-members alike. It is always a fun chance during some down time to discuss problems or recent findings.

I talked with longtime member Mary Sprague Langsdorf, who has participated on several education tours with us over the years. She asked me to take a look at her late brother John Reno Sprague, Jr.’s Y-DNA results from FamilyTreeDNA.com. I did so, and I was immediately surprised at some of his matches. Mary told me their patrilineal line went back to Francis1 Sprague, an early settler of Plymouth Colony who arrived on the Anne in 1623.

While there were several Spragues amongst John’s matches, I noticed several matches with the surname Fuller, descending the Mayflower passengers (and brothers), Edward and Samuel Fuller. I had already worked with the DNA results of NEHGS members with the surname Fuller who descended from Robert Fuller of Rehoboth, whose Y-DNA sequence had also matched with the Fuller DNA sequence. I took notes and told Mary I would like to continue with this research when I returned to Boston.

His parents (of record) … were presented at the General Court of Plymouth on 6 June 1655 for “fornication before they were married” and cleared after paying a fine.

This process took a while, and I solicited several additional men with the last name Sprague to participate in Y-DNA testing (in part with the aid of the terrific “Sprague Project” dababase). Mary’s ancestor John3 Sprague (John2, Francis1) was born around 1655, probably in Duxbury, Massachusetts. His parents (of record), John Sprague and Ruth Bassett, were presented at the General Court of Plymouth on 6 June 1655 for “fornication before they were married” and cleared after paying a fine. Generally, this charge meant that colonists “did the math,” and realized a couple’s first child was born “too soon” after they were married.

Their eldest child, known later in life as Lt. John Sprague, was clearly regarded in several records as a child of John and Ruth. However the Y-DNA sequence of the descendants of Lt. John’s younger brothers Samuel and William showed these two (while sharing a father themselves), had a different father than their older brother Lt. John, and that Lt. John Sprague’s biological father had to be a member of the nearby Fuller family of Plymouth, for whom only Samuel2 Fuller (son of Mayflower passenger Samuel1 Fuller), was still in the area! So while John Sprague the elder likely assumed he was the natural father of his wife’s first child conceived before marriage, there was another candidate unknown to the Plymouth courts…

The twenty-two page article I wrote in the Summer 2019 issue of the Mayflower Descendant explains much more of the context behind this surprising discovery, even including a clue to the English origin of Francis1 Sprague of Plymouth, which is presently unknown.[1] As soon as the article was published, Mary began the process of applying to the Mayflower Society in her home state of North Carolina, and early this summer, she shared with me that her application was accepted by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants on 26 June 2020.

Lt. John Sprague has many descendants, including frequent Vita Brevis contributor Jeff Record, actor John Wayne, and, as this post indicates, Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Gary Boyd Roberts included these descents in an appendix of his The Mayflower 500, published earlier this year. Churchill was already known to have descended from Arthur Howland, a brother of Mayflower passenger John Howland. More recently, I was in touch with Gregory Bell Smith of the International Churchill Society (and author of the 2014 book, The American Ancestry of Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, which I cited in my article on Lt. John Sprague).

In his work, Greg also discusses how modern genealogists had discredited the Churchill family’s assertion that they descended from Mayflower passenger Richard Warren. Greg kindly sent me an updated second edition of his book, and the November 2020 issue of “Churchill Bulletin – the newsletter of Winston Churchill” discusses this new discovery with a fun article “Mayflower Mischief – DNA evidence proves Churchill’s Pilgrim Paternity,” and notes that “perhaps in this 400th anniversary year of the arrival of the Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, one of Churchill’s descendants will honor the occasion by becoming a member of The Mayflower Society.”

Below is Churchill’s “new” Mayflower line:

Note

[1] Christopher Challender Child, “Lt. John Sprague (ca. 1655-1727/8) of Duxbury, Mass., and Lebanon, Conn., an illegitimate son of Samuel2 Fuller (Samuel1)?,” Mayflower Descendant 67 [2019]: 117-49. Subscribe to the Mayflower Descendant here. (This individual issue can also be purchased; please write to mayflower@nehgs.org.)

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.

22 thoughts on “Churchill’s Mayflower line

  1. Yes, a huge wow indeed!!! – Many thanks to Chris for all the great (and seriously quite amazing!) work he has done to explore and discover our Mayflower ancestry. On behalf of the descendants of my Mayflower grandmother, Katheryn (Ogle) Record, we are all humbled and grateful to Chris to have our heritage so we’ll documented and secure.

    Happy 400th anniversary to everyone at NEHGS, and especially to Scott C. Steward, to Sharon and Cecile, and to Alicia Crane Williams. I know I can speak for all of us out here in the Vita Brevis family when I say:

    May your Thanksgiving Day be truly blessed! We are grateful for you all!

    JR

  2. I’ve already sent the link to a friend who is a Sam Fuller Sr descendant. Between you and Alicia, VB may be going X-rated.

  3. I loved reading this article. I have 8 th great grandmother. Sprague. You created a challenge for me to see if my Sprague is related to the Sprague’s you wrote about. Happy Thanksgiving.

    1. Thanks, several of these Spragues have other Mayflower connections. Lt. John’s (half) brother Samuel Sprague (say 1670-1740), married Ruth Alden, a granddaughter of passengers John and Priscilla (Mullins) Alden. Anthony Sprague (1636-1719) of Charlestown and Hingham, Mass., son of William and Millicent (Eames) Sprague [and part of the Massachusetts Bay Spragues whose male line descendants matched on the Y-DNA to descendants of Samuel and William), married Elizabeth Bartlett, a granddaughter of passenger Richard Warren.

  4. Was rape a crime in that era? I don’t recall reading any mention of it in the information I have read.

    1. Yes, it was. The book Sex in Middlesex [County, Mass Bay] will have sections on that as the author surveys the sexual mores of the period 1635 to 1700 with detailed examples.

    2. Yes, rape was a capital offense in Plymouth Colony (although I’m not sure if there were any executions for the crime in 17th century Plymouth, there were at least two whippings in 1677 and 1682), see here for additional information – http://www.histarch.illinois.edu/plymouth/Lauria1.html. It is impossible to know the circumstances of Ruth’s conception, she may have had consensual relationships with both Samuel Fuller, Jr. and John Sprague before her marriage to John and may have never told John about her earlier relationship with Samuel.

      1. Impossible to know the circumstances re John’s conception? In detail, yes. Yet we can work towards an understanding by using all the same genealogical measures we apply to other issues. There’s no need to shy away.

        As John & Ruth were presented at the June court, Ruth delivered the baby in April or May (after the March court but before 9 June). Assuming May 1 as birth date, conception took place around August 1654. Samuel would be around 26 (PM has “say 1629”); online dates for John say 1630 and for Ruth say 1633 or 1634, so 25 and 20 at marriage. Likely all 3 have known each other and/or of each other for all their lives (hey, it is a small colony). John is looking to settle down, Ruth is smitten with the older and learned but-not-settled-down Samuel, and yet is also more than semi-serious with John. And then the hot, long summer days of July and August when late-evenings of walking-about were normal for the unmarried folk (cf Sex in Middlesex). Luckily for Ruth, she and John were perhaps already “bundling” and so seen as a couple. Yet there was that one (?) time with Samuel because the future would be quite different with him. I’d say it is better than 60% Ruth did not know with whom it happened but quickly realized she was pregnant, and the dependable one was John. (Marriage not recorded but likely late in September. Better to be married and pay the fine so as to avoid unwed motherhood for Ruth, then get into a “who’s the father” match in court.) If Ruth likely didn’t know which one, then neither did John nor Samuel, and I feel pretty sure that John knew nothing of Samuel.

        Samuel could only wonder, and I’m thinking he did. He died full of years as minister of the First Church of Middleboro, married with children and grandchildren. And Ruth, too, must have wondered and then didn’t anymore as she had to be daily focused on her two husbands and her other children. Still, if she reflected on the quality of a man her first born son turned out to be, she could only have been pleased. A better ending than Hawthorne came up with.

        She took the secret to her grave. Then, 320 years later, along comes DNA and Chris Childs!

        1. Robert, I also mention in the article that Lt. John Sprague [Jr.] himself was also presented at Plymouth court on 6 Nov. 1683, and charged along with his wife for fornication after contract and fined five pounds.

          1. “Then, 320 years later, along comes DNA and Chris Childs!”
            🙂

            There have been many surprises with DNA testing. I think we sometimes forget that our early ancestors had emotions and weren’t as sedate as we tend to think of them. They made both good and poor choices throughout their lifetimes, some poor choices because they lacked the research and information that we now have.

            And we’re all here today because everything happened exactly the way it did.

  5. As a descendant of John Howland, I have long understood Churchill to be descended from John Howland through his mother, the American born Jennie Spencer.

    1. Perry, the clue is that the descendants of Lt. John Sprague’s two younger brothers – William and Samuel Sprague (who matched each other and are “proven” grandsons of Francis Sprague of Plymouth), also matched descends of the Sprague family of Massachusetts Bay. See https://www.americanancestors.org/DB393/rd/12107/1728/235195741
      These were the brothers Ralph, Richard (who had no children), and William Sprague, who were from Upwey, Dorsetshire, the sons of Edward and Christian (______) Sprague. See their English origins discussed here – https://www.americanancestors.org/DB202/i/11648/194/23520196 While the parents of Edward Sprague are unknown, Francis Sprague of Plymouth, based on the Y-DNA match, could be a nephew or a cousin of some degree.

  6. Today is Churchill’s birthday. I have many books about and written by him, such fun to find out we’re related! (John Howland descendant)

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