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Finding Your Mayflower Connections

by Liz Walker

(This article originally appeared in Tulsa Cityscapes Magazine.)

Thanksgiving is America’s national holiday but for some people, descendants of the original Thanksgiving, it's personal.

Each November, preschool children make turkey decorations from brown, orange, and yellow construction paper. Grade school children wear black and white clothing and perform school plays. Families gather, and adults bake Butterballs and pumpkin pies and eat until they become butterballs themselves, all in the name of thanks.

For people like Mildred Greenstreet, descendant of Mayflower passenger, Edward Fuller, and Caleb Johnson, who traces his lineage to at least nine Mayflower passengers, the holiday has always been a personal one because the nation’s history is also their own. The General Society of Mayflower Descendants, estimates there could be tens of millions who are descendants of the Mayflower Pilgrims.

The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts considered a time of thanksgiving to be a solemn day of humiliation and prayers, not a day of feasting and football like the contemporary version. What is commonly referred to as the first Thanksgiving was in fact, a three day harvest celebration held in 1621, not a thanksgiving day. But 380 years later, this day of remembrance has become a symbolic combination of feast and thanks.

There are two accounts of the original harvest celebration written by men who were there. One account by Edward Winslow is taken from a letter he wrote to a friend on December 1621.

Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent forth men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours.

Probably the best known account was written some twenty years after the event by Governor William Bradford:

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty.

The first official Thanksgiving didn’t occur until more than 200 years later. Shortly after the Revolutionary War, Bradford’s account was rediscovered and it prompted a resurgence of interest in the Pilgrims. By the time of the Civil War, citizens, particularly descendants of Pilgrims were calling for a national day of thanksgiving. One persistent woman, Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, had been lobbying Presidents since 1827. She didn’t give up until President Abraham Lincoln invited the nation to the collective table.

In his 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation Lincoln said:

In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity…It has seemed fit and proper that [the gifts of God] should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American People.

These words are still relevant today.

Lincoln had proclaimed the last Thursday in November as the day of Thanksgiving but because the last Thursday was sometimes the 5th Thursday, putting it too close to Christmas, an act of Congress in 1941 changed the official day to the fourth Thursday of November.

Like most traditions and stories passed down through generations there are some inaccuracies in the Pilgrim story:

1) The Pilgrims were not Puritans, they were separatists. The difference being they did not want to "purify" the Church of England, they wanted to "separate" from it entirely. 2) They did not wear all black clothing because many of their wills listed belongings like, a red overcoat, and an emerald green waistcoat. 3) Their shoes did not have buckles because buckles didn’t come in fashion until near the end of the 17th century. 4) And even though the years of 1622 - 23 were difficult times, they didn’t live on just 5 kernels of corn a day. They had small amounts of fish, shellfish, and native fowl but no vegetables or grain like they were used to. The Mayflower Descendant Society began the "Five Kernel Observation" in 1898 to remember the hardships their ancestors suffered during what is referred to as a time of starvation.

One reason the Thanksgiving story is so intriguing is because the Pilgrims are our ancestors, not just figuratively, but literally, for large numbers of Americans.

If you are statistically inclined, think of it this way. Each of us has two parents and four grandparents. Each of them have two parents and four grandparents and so on. We are 10 generations removed from 256 pairs of seventh great-grandparents and by the time we reach 15 generations removed we are descended from 16,384 couples. Most people living today are between 11 - 15 generations removed from the Mayflower Pilgrims. With over 32,000 family lines to follow back, each of us has a pretty good chance of having a Mayflower connection. It’s just a matter of finding the right needle in the haystack of family lines.

Every Thanksgiving, since they were old enough to understand, I have told my own children that I will to try by next Thanksgiving to find that rumored John Alden connection in my husband’s family. Last year, with a little serendipity and a lot of hard work, I finally did it.

If you think you have Mayflower connections, the best way to start is the same way you start any genealogy search - at the beginning. If your family has a tradition of a Mayflower connection try to find out where these stories originated. Was Aunt Sarah an amateur genealogist and did she keep good records? Do you know which Mayflower passenger you are supposed to be descended from? Do you know the names, birth & death dates of your parents, your grandparents and great grandparents? In most families, it’s fairly easy to get back at least that far. Interview living older relatives and get documentation for all life events for each person that you can find.

Documentation includes: birth and marriage certificates, death certificates, cemetery records, wills, probate records, town records, newspaper articles and census records. Many of these are available from county courthouses, state archives, or genealogy library collections.

Check your grandmother’s attic, too. Old letters provide clues and family Bibles are often the best place for information. When it comes to verification Bibles are also considered original sources.

And what about making those connections from William Bradford, Miles Standish or John Alden and the like? There are two series of books which provide volumes of information on the early generations of Mayflower descendants. The first is called, Mayflower Families for Five Generations and the second is called Mayflower Families in Progress. These books give documentation on all the known lines for at least five generations, with the exception of John Alden. The first Alden book only documents four generations because he had so many descendants. The second book was just published and lists his children through his daughter, Elizabeth.

You can begin your search at your local library or Family History Center. If you're in Tulsa,OK, the Tulsa Public Library, Genealogy Department is the place to go. The library has the Five Generations books and several other Mayflower resources. The library’s web site can be found at http://www.tulsalibrary.org/collections/genealogy/genealogy.htm

The national Mayflower society maintains a web page at http://www.mayflower.org

The Oklahoma Society of Mayflower Descendants meets twice a year. They meet in Tulsa in the Spring and in Oklahoma City in the fall. For more information contact Mildred Greenstreet 743-7529, mgstreet@aol.com or write to the society at 3220 S. Zunis Place, Tulsa, OK 74105-2236.

Some other Mayflower sites are: The Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony 1620 maintained by descendant, Duane Cline at http://www.rootsweb.com/~mosmd/

and The Mayflower Web Pages maintained by descendant Caleb Johnson at http://members.aol.com/calebj/mayflower.html

No one knows how many of us are related to those Mayflower passengers and how many of us are related to one another. It kind of gives new meaning to the word family.

 

This page was created by Liz Walker. Copyright 2002. Last updated 10/09/ 2002.
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