The Mayflower bobbed on the waves, anchored near a shore where a small brook emerged and flowed to the sea. It was not Plimoth Bay (Bradford’s spelling) , but a temporary stop. They hoped to still find a deep, safe harbor with fresh drinking water. The men formed a hunting party and went ashore to obtain food.
While they were gone, the children remained on ship, within sight of land and all that room to run, but kept from it. One young boy, Francis Billington had more energy than he did opportunity to spend it. “If he tried to climb the ropes from the mast, somebody always dragged him down . . .Poor little Francis! He did not mean to be naughty, but he was a great trial to the Pilgrim mothers and fathers. When he was quiet for a few minutes, they felt sure he must be in some mischief—and they were usually right.”
Francis took some duck feathers, with their long hallow quills and headed toward the room where the gunpowder was kept. He planned to fill his quills, making squibs (firecrackers) from them. Inside the small room he found an opened keg, and began to fill his squibs. “It was hard to make the powder go into the little quills; most of it went on the floor instead.
“When the squibs were filled, he looked about and saw several old muskets hanging upon the wall. ‘How those women in the next room would jump if I should fire off one of those muskets!’ thought [Francis].
“Muskets made in those days could not be fired by pulling a trigger. The powder must be lighted by a spark of fire. At that time no one had learned how to make matches, either. But Francis knew where to find a slow-burning fuse made of candlewick, and away he ran to get it.
“Soon he returned, carrying the burning fuse right into the powder room.”
Francis did not consider how explosive all the spilled gunpowder was. A single spark could ignite a smoky fire that could explode the keg, any unopened barrels, and possibly destroy the whole ship.
“He climbed upon a box and took down an old musket, then looked to see if it was loaded. Yes, it was all ready to fire, and Francis knew how to do it.
“I think the very sun must almost have had a chill when he peeped through the tiny window and saw the terrible danger.
“Boom! Roared the old musket. Then came a blinding flash, and Boom! Bang! Snap! Crack! Bang!. . .
“When the thick smoke had cleared a little, a very angry sailor found a very frightened boy in a corner of the cabin. Francis did not know how he came to be lying there in a heap. He only knew that his eyes were smarting and his hands were very sore.
“Women with white faces and trembling hands tried to comfort their screaming children. Sailors hurried to and fro looking for leaks in the boat.”
Miraculously, the only damage was that “the squibs were gone, two or three of the loaded muskets had gone off, but the powder on the floor had flashed up and burned out without setting fire to the keg.
“If that keg had exploded, we should have found no more of the Mayflower than a few chips floating upon the water,” said Miles Standish, when he heard of it. “I thank God for protecting our ship.”
This story, based on actual events, I have enjoyed telling children at Thanksgiving time. It comes from the chapter, “A Narrow Escape,” in the book Stories of the Pilgrims by Margaret B. Pumphrey (revised and edited by Michael J. McHugh). When children act it out, they gain an appreciation for the details and remember it better. The lesson of obedience can be included with this example of God’s protecting hand; however, be sure children understand that the later does not sanction disregard of the former.
More interactive, information about the Mayflower can be found here.