What do Mayflowers bring?
Updated: July 8, 2012 6:23PM
Last summer I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent book Mayflower, a detailed account of the famous ship, its passengers and their first 50 years in New England. It was filled with little known facts, great personalities and unexpected drama.
I knew immediately I had to visit Plymouth, Mass., a place on my “to see” list even though my mother repeatedly told me I had visited before, but was too young to remember.
I looked online, read travel guides and vowed to visit even the most touristy attractions. I originally planned at least two days in Plymouth, to make sure I would soak in the complete Pilgrim experience. As the trip grew near, my itinerary filled. Plymouth was dropped to just a day, then a half day. By the time I arrived in New England, I realized just a quick stop would do, and indeed spent under an hour in Plymouth.
Within days, I would regret that decision.
Part of my growing itinerary was leaving time to study my mother’s ancestry. I knew little about her lineage, except the full names of her parents, both of whom died before I was born. I often suspected her family had deep roots in New England, as she was born in Providence, R.I. and I heard there were several relatives buried in an historic cemetery in Massachusetts.
Some preliminary work told me my research would take me back in time, as I am the youngest in my family, my mother the second youngest in hers and, as I learned, her father the youngest in his. In fact, my great-grandmother — a relative many people meet within their lifetimes — was born 130 years before me.
The real surprise was how quickly I uncovered online family trees that matched my ancestors. The first surprise was to trace back to my great-times-six-grandfather, who came to these shores in 1628 as an indentured servant.
That led to the revelation that a descendant of the indentured servant married a descendant of the Mayflower. That meant I am a direct descendant of the Mayflower.
I recalled reading in Philbrick’s book last year 35 million Americans, 10 percent of the population, could trace their ancestry to the Pilgrim landing in 1620. Hogwash, I thought at the time. There were only 102 passengers, and half died the first winter. Couldn’t be true.
On hearing of my revelations, my sister shared that our mother often said we were descendants of the Mayflower. I vaguely recall my mother saying something like that, which I apparently dismissed as quickly as I did Philbrick’s research.
The General Society of Mayflower Descendants confirmed much of the lineage from passenger Richard Warren (who claims 14 million descendants), but also noted I need to provide a good bit of documentation to join their society. Since membership involves a lot of meetings, something I don’t need, and mainly governing who else can join, I’m not that interested. But I am oddly thrilled at the news.
The society reports it is an emotional experience to learn one’s ancestry includes a Mayflower passenger. I can’t say I felt that initially. But this past Sunday, I was giving a tour to prospective members at my church, First Congregational United Church of Christ in Downers Grove. As usual, I talked about the stained glass windows in our sanctuary, and how they tell our church history.
I was suddenly enthralled by the pane that shows the Mayflower, the Pilgrims walking ashore and Plymouth Rock, all part of the history of the Congregational Church. Looking at the window I’ve viewed for more than 20 years had an emotional impact. Just as my walk along the harbor toward Plymouth Rock brought back memories of the long-forgotten childhood trip, suddenly every reference to the Mayflower, the Pilgrims or early America have taken on new meaning.
I’m sure I will find myself pondering my lineage in the future as I look at that window pane in church. I’ll think of my mother, kicking myself for writing off her words and wishing she were still alive so I could share the research with her.
Brett Johnson is a managing editor at The Doings