More has probably been written, with fewer solid conclusions, about George Soule, an indentured servant to Edward Winslow and signer of the Mayflower Compact, than about any other passenger on the Mayflower. Speculation has been rampant about his origins (English? Dutch? French?) and has ranged from agnosticism to wildly imaginative speculation (that he was a Sephardic Jew from Spain, who came to Leiden via Africa), with none of it -- absolutely none of it -- resting on even a single document that has his name. As it happens, the very first document on which George Soule’s name appears is the Mayflower Compact. It may be valuable, or at least entertaining, to look at the various theories for his origins:
1. A generation ago it was generally agreed that George Soule of the Mayflower came from Eckington, a small village in Worcestershire. There was a George Soule there in the early seventeenth century, but this identification is too problematic to be a prime answer in the search. The facts that argue in its favour have to do with connections of the Winslow family to the area; arguing against it is that the Soules in that area (and there are still some) do not share any DNA connection with George or his descendants, and no documentation clearly shows any local George Soule of the right age or occupation, or one with Separatist sympathies. The Eckington origin, however, is still the story that is used in the Plimoth Plantation playbook for the actors who portray George.
2. About twenty years ago, several researchers, particularly Louise Throop, pointed to a couple of Dutch Reformed refugees named Jan Sol (or Soltz or Solis or Sols) and Mayken Labis (or Labus). They married in London at the old Austin Friars Church in 1586, and had seven children, who were baptised in Haarlem in Holland. While the name sounds a lot like “Soule,” the problem with this identification is that the record of their children's baptisms appears to be complete into the seventeenth century, and none of their children are named George (or any variation of that). Another John Soule (Jan Sol, Johannes Sol) was a Leiden book printer, thus putting him in the right place at the right time, but his marriage was in 1616, making it impossible for him to be this George Soule’s father (see Bangs, Strangers and Pilgrims, 299f. n. 135). There has, thus far, been no documentation to either prove or disprove George Soule’s Dutch origins. Overheated speculations on DNA results have been inconclusive as well.
3. With the discovery of Elizabeth (Barker) Winslow’s family connections a couple of years ago, a new place of research has opened up. She was the daughter of Samuel Barker of East Bergholt and Chattisham in Suffolk (see the work of the intrepid trio of Sue Allan, Caleb Johnson, and Simon Neal in NEHGR 173 : 5-17), and it is clear that both Edward and Elizabeth went back in 1619 to sell off property she inherited from her parents. They purchased shares in the merchant group financing the Mayflower voyage, and this recent sale would have made Edward and Elizabeth two of the wealthier people in the community. I have speculated in these posts several times before that it is possible that the Winslows were thus in a position, being newly flush with cash, to pay for the passage of others of like mind; the fact that George Soule and Edward Winslow were roughly contemporaries is also intriguing, as well as the fact that George did not have any particular trade that would have made his presence necessary or valuable to the settlers (such as John Alden, who was a cooper). There were Soules in this area of Suffolk, and it is possible that the Winslows picked up George Soule while they were back there making arrangements for the Barker estate. This is, however, the proverbial needle in a haystack, but researchers are looking to see if there are any candidates for a George Soule in Suffolk, where it is known that there were influential Separatist conventicles. Nothing has yet shown up to prove or disprove this possibility, either.
4. Edward Winslow’s relationship to John Beale, a London printer, is also a possible connection to look at. Winslow was apprenticed to Beale, “citizen [of London] and stationer, for the term of eight years,” on 19 August 1613, but left England in 1617, before his apprenticeship ended (Bangs, Edward Winslow, 3-4). No penalties were imposed on him when he returned in 1635, which they would have been if he has been a runaway. This suggests that Winslow’s relationship with Beale was not merely master-servant. The facts will bear the interpretation that Beale was a distributor of the Puritan and Separatist tracts produced in Leiden, and if George Soule were from London and could be connected with Beale’s circle, whether as a courier or in some other capacity, it would be easy to connect him to Edward Winslow (by occupation and religious preference) before the Mayflower sailed. In some ways this is the most difficult of the possibilities, since Winslow’s printing activity was illegal in England, and there is not likely to be a very obvious paper trail connecting George with anyone involved in seditious activity.
There may be other possibilities, as well, but these all (except for the Eckington connection) are currently live options. Stay tuned …