In 1891, American author Jane G. Austin (not to be confused with the better-known English writer, Jane Austen), wrote in the preface to her novel, Betty Alden: The First-Born Daughter of the Pilgrims, “He who would read for himself the story of this noble woman must seek it through ancient volumes and mouldering records, until at Little Compton in Rhode Island he finds upon her gravestone the last affectionate and honorable mention of Elizabeth, daughter of John and Priscilla Alden, and wife of William Pabodie.”
Elizabeth Pabodie (or Peabody), commonly known as Betty Alden, is famous for being the first white woman born in New England. It’s impossible to know if that’s the historical truth—and it took almost 200 years for her to be given that distinction.
Born in 1623 or 1624 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Betty Alden was the daughter of Mayflower pilgrims John and Priscilla Alden. She married William Pabodie in Duxbury, Massachusetts, around the age of twenty and gave birth to thirteen children. In her 60s, she, William, and two of their children moved to Little Compton.
Just like any other woman in her time and circumstances, Betty worked hard and raised her children, scratching out life in a new colony. There is no evidence to suggest that her death in 1717 received special tribute or acknowledgement. However, 175 years later, Betty Alden became memorialized in popular imagination because of the timing and location of her birth.
The life of Betty’s husband, William Pabodie, included several notable accomplishments—Little Compton founder, first town clerk, prayer service leader—but he is overshadowed by his wife’s legendary status, a historical reversal of fortune that might provoke some people to say, It’s about time.
Local reverence for Betty began in the second half of the nineteenth century, and it remains strong. During the period known as the Colonial Revival, Americans looked to an idealized—and sometimes fictional—past for comfort in the face of changing times that included waves of immigrants, rapid industrialization and new technology, and changing family dynamics and gender roles.
Despite the poems, novels, and Betty Alden folklore, it’s possible that she wasn’t actually the first white girl born in New England. Detractors claim it’s unlikely that no other white girls were born in the three-year period between the landing of the Mayflower and Betty’s birth, given the double-digit numbers of children common to families of the era.
But Betty is the one we continue to remember. Town historian Sarah Soule Wilbour started raising funds for the monument in 1847. In June of 1882, she noted in her diary, “We went to see the monument put up yesterday. It is a great satisfaction to me to know that the thing is done. I have had it on my mind for 35 years.” Betty Alden’s simple original grave marker is embedded into the west side of this memorial.