Newton man traces ancestry to Mayflower passenger

Jeff Guy
The Newton Kansan
Brad Hopkins shares family history with his daughter and grandchildren.

Brad Hopkins will tell you he’s no geneaologist, but through years of perseverance and a little luck, he managed to trace his ancestry back 400 years to a cornerstone event in American history.

For years, the Newton man knew there was a chance he could be related to a passenger on the Mayflower. He just lacked the evidence, that final piece of the puzzle that would confirm his suspicions. 

A week before Thanksgiving, the holiday connected with the Mayflower ship’s voyage from England to Plymouth Rock in what would become Massachussetts, Hopkins researched online one more time, trying to make the connection.

“It was kind of a last-ditch effort,” he said. “If I didn’t find anything, I was gonna try DNA.”

What he found was a court affadavit from the 19th century in which his great-great-grandfather, Philander Hopkins, stated that his father was Luke Hopkins. There were 97 documents related to Luke Hopkins and the War of 1812. When Brad Hopkins read the 55th document, he found what he was looking for. 

Philander Hopkins swore under oath that his father was Luke Hopkins in order for his stepmother to be able to collect the deceased elder Hopkins’ pension from the war. 

The Mayflower Society had listed Luke Hopkins as a descendent of Stephen Hopkins, who arrived on America’s shores on the Mayflower. But the society’s records only went back about so many generations. There was no record beyond Luke Hopkins.

Four years ago, Brad Hopkins’ niece found a comment from a distant relative on, speculating about the family connection to Stephen Hopkins and the Mayflower, but they lacked proof.

Brad Hopkins, 72, searched for the next few years and encountered documents that indicated a possible connection between Philander and Luke Hopkins. There were records of them both moving to the same locations at the same time, but there was nothing conclusive.

“For several years we were in limbo,” Brad Hopkins said. “We couldn’t find any birth certificates or anything.”

The affidavit was the missing link.

“That was the tie I needed,” he said. “It was like bonanza.”

‘Here shall I die ashore’

According to Wikipedia and other sources, Stephen Hopkins was born April 29, 1581, in Hamphsire, England, a county in southeast England on the English Channel coast. A day later, he was baptized in Upper Clatford in a rural church that stands to this day and is surrounded by grazing sheep and cows in the countryside.

Hopkins was married at least twice — to a Mary and an Elizabeth — and possibly married three or four times. He was the most travelled passenger on the Mayflower voyage, the only one with prior experience of the New World. In 1609, he was hired by the Virginia Company as a minister’s clerk. He left his wife, Mary, and children Giles, Constance and Elizabeth back home in England and boarded the ship Sea Venture on a voyage to Jamestown.

Two months into the journey, a vicious storm raged, and the ship was about to sink from storm damage when land was spotted. The crew was shipwrecked on Bermuda, “the isle of devils.” Stranded on the island for 10 months, the crew survived on turtles, birds and wild pigs. Six months into the castaway, Hopkins and others organized a mutiny against the governor, Thomas Gates. Hopkins was arrested, charged, tried and found guilty. He was sentenced to death.

However, he pleaded for his life with sorrow and tears. “So penitent he was, and made so much moan, alleging the ruin of his wife and children in this his trespass, as it wrought in the hearts of all the better sorts of the company,” an observer wrote.

Hopkins was given a last-minute pardon.

News of the shipwreck reached England and most scholars believe William Shakespeare based his play "The Tempest" on the adventure. The comedy depicts the experiences of a crew shipwrecked by a mighty storm. There was a subplot involving a comical character, Stephano, who tries to take over as leader of the island. It is widely believed that the character was based on Hopkins.

In 1613, Hopkins’ wife, Mary, who had been surviving as a shopkeeper in England, died, leaving her three young children alone. Word of her death reached Hopkins by letter a year later, and he returned to England.

Back in England, Hopkins worked as a tanner and merchant. In 1617, he married Elizabeth Fisher, and a year later their daughter, Damarius, was born. Despite his hardships in the New World, Hopkins had every intention of returning. 

He was recruited by the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London to provide governance in a new colony. Hopkins boarded ship with his wife, children and two servants. His daughter, Elizabeth, had died. Stephen Hopkin’s wife, Elizabeth, gave birth to the only child to be born at sea on the Mayflower — a son they named Oceanus. He died in the Plymouth colony at around age 7.

Upon the ship’s landing at Plymouth Rock, Stephen Hopkins was one of the 41 signatories of the Mayflower compact. With his prior experience in America, Stephen Hopkins was considered an expert in Native American hunting techniques, languages and culture. He was sent on ambassadorial missions to various indeginous tribes in the region.

Hopkins was an assistant to the governor through 1636, but in the late 1630s, he started to run afoul of Plymouth authorities. A tavern owner, he was charged in court with letting “men drink in his house upon the Lords day,” “for suffering servants and others to sit drinking in his house” and “for selling wine, beere, strong waters and nutmeggs at excessiue rates is fyned.”

Stephen Hopkins died in June of 1644. His burial place is unknown, but he asked in his will to be buried next to his wife, Elizabeth.

She ‘would be elated’

Brad Hopkins was not the first in his family to conduct research into his roots. His late mother, Jean Hopkins, became interested in genealogy after his father died in 1983. After retiring as a nurse, she worked in the Concordia office where Brad Hopkins operated his own headstone and granite business. During slack time, his mother would get on the computer and look for information. But she could only go so far. Advanced technology has made the difference.

“We would’ve never found that affidavit in the War Records of 1812,” Hopkins said. “She didn’t have Ancestry and Google.”

Jean Hopkins died in 2008. She would be thrilled with her son’s latest find, he said.

“My mother would be elated,” Brad Hopkins said. “My father, I don’t know if it’d be a big deal to him.”

Hopkins said his wife, Joy, “did the hard part. She listented to me all these years. As far as researching, she was the support behind it.”

Brad and Joy Hopkins moved to Newton in 2008 after she got a job with USD 373 as a preschool special needs teacher.

Now that he has found the link to Stephen Hopkins, Brad Hopkins said he wants to put in the time and “research where the rest of the family is.” He has another project in mind.

His grandparents lost five children — two boys and three girls — to the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 before Arthur Hopkins, Brad Hopkins' father, was born in 1920.

“There’s an article in the Tulsa World-Herald that talks about my grandfather having to bury his 11-year-old son by himself,” Brad Hopkins said. “Some of this has opened up a whole can of worms because we aren’t sure where those five children are buried.” 

Having been in the memorial business, Hopkins would like to properly mark where his aunts and uncles are buried.

His advice to anyone wanting to research family history is to find a relative who’s already done a lot of the detective work and “join an organization so you aren’t out in nowhere.”

Hopkins hasn’t joined the Mayflower Society (there’s a Kansas chapter), but said he figures he will now that he’s confirmed his eligibility.

“I’m just excited to make that connection,” he said. “I didn’t think it was a big deal, but maybe it is.”