WHEN the Mayflower and Speedwell sailed from Southampton in August 1620, aboard was Stephen Hopkins and his family from Hursley near Winchester.

Also on board was John Alden who some claim was another Hampshire man but from Southampton. Others claim he was from Harwich in Essex.

In the record of the Pilgrims' journey from Holland to America it says John Alden "was hired for a cooper (barrel maker) at Southampton" where most of the supplies had been purchased and where the Speedwell was being repaired.

Alden would have had many opportunities to talk to the Pilgrims and it was agreed that on arrival in America he could choose to stay or return home with the ship.

Being a fit and hopeful young man he was made welcome and so it was that he joined the crew of the Mayflower.

John Alden was born in about 1599 which would have made him 21 years old when he sailed from Southampton.

Maintaining the ship's barrels was an important task - as they were essential for storing both water and most of the food, they had to be water and air tight. If Alden stayed in America his skills would be essential to the settlers who planned to send salted cod in barrels to England to be sold to help repay their debts.

A cooper would have served a long apprenticeship to learn the practical skills and knowledge needed to make barrels and to be permitted to carry out that trade in the town. He would also have a comprehensive toolkit. Southampton at that time had been an important centre for the wine trade for over 400 years with many coopers working in the town. Apprentice records in the City Archives list them by name but John Alden is not shown for his age group. If he was a cooper then he must have been trained elsewhere.

Perhaps he was a shipwright who would have many of the skills of a cooper. This is plausible given that the record says Alden was employed "for a cooper" without saying he was a cooper. Aboard ship and in America there were no trade guilds to control the activities of craftsmen so he would have been free to work as a cooper unhindered by guild rules.

John Alden decided to stay in America where he married Priscilla Mullins who originated from Dorking in Surrey and had also sailed on the Mayflower. They had ten children and one of their descendents was the poet Longfellow who wrote a poem describing Priscilla and John's romance so he knew a great deal about the family's history.

One of his most famous poems is Hiawatha and when describing Hiawatha's marriage to Minnehaha her father is said to be an arrow maker. This is important circumstantial evidence as living in Southampton in 1620 was George Alden, who was an arrow maker, and he was probably John Alden's father. It is believed that George died in 1620 leaving John free to travel. The Alden surname appears in Southampton records as far back as 1454.

As for Harwich this connection is based on the will of William Russell dated 1586. Russell had a son in law John Alden who had a son also named John. Russell's other son Robert had married the widowed mother of Christopher Jones, the master of the Mayflower. Robert Russell's nephew the young John Alden would therefore have been a cousin of Jones, the master of the Mayflower. The Harwich John Alden was a seafarer though, so the important question is would he have had the skills necessary to take on the responsibility of a cooper aboard the Mayflower?

Will the details of John Alden's birth and family ever be traced? A great many hours have been spent seeking the information without success so we are left with the two possibilities described.

My money is on him being a Southampton man for he was after all a Citizen of Southampton.