Thanksgiving is a most American holiday (though shared by our Canadian friends on an earlier date in the fall). It is also one of our most genealogical of national days, since it affords many a chance to remember the Pilgrims and the harvest feast they celebrated with the Wampanoag tribe in 1621. In an article written for Weekend Magazine in 2002, political commenters Cokie and Steve Roberts estimated that some 35 million Americans are linked by blood to the Pilgrims – and many probably don’t even know of their kinship. The Robertses make the point that while the original band of 102 passengers were Englishmen, their modern descendants comprise all manner of racial and ethnic identities. “Through the centuries,” they write, “the children of those first colonists have mixed with a continuous flow of newcomers, enriching the nation’s gene pool and helping to define our national identity.”
When we gather at the dinner table with relatives and exchange stories of family history, many of us are curious whether they have a direct Mayflower connection. (I descend from William Brewster, the Pilgrims' spiritual leader, and his wife Mary). A great many genealogical works are now in print about Pilgrims and their immediate descendants. The classic work and most authoritative is the series, Mayflower Families through Five Generations, compiled by various authors and published by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (974.4 M45). Produced in 23 volumes with multiple parts, these volumes are easily recognized with their silver binding. This work is still on-going, and thus far volumes have been produced for the following passengers: Francis Eaton, Samuel Fuller, William White, James Chilton, Richard More, Thomas Rogers, George Soule, William Bradford, Francis Cooke, Edward Fuller, Edward Winslow, John Billington, Stephen Hopkins, Peter Brown, Degory Priest, Edward Doty, John Alden, Isaac Allerton, Richard Warren, Henry Samson, John Howland, and Myles Standish. More volumes are forthcoming (we Brewster descendants are still waiting for our silver volume and must content ourselves with the Mayflower families in Progress volumes, which are incomplete). Families treated in earlier volumes have been revised, in many instances, in later volumes of the series.
Another gem of genealogical research is Robert Charles Anderson’s The Pilgrim Migration: Immigrants to Plymouth Colony, 1620-1633 (974.402 P74pn). This work collects the Plymouth settlers from his larger Great Migration series, considered by many to be a modern genealogical masterpiece. In some cases Anderson revised the sketches from his earlier work. New discoveries about the Pilgrims are always being discovered, and researchers should keep regularly abreast of new articles in such journals as the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, American Ancestors, and the Mayflower Descendant.
For many genealogists seeking their Mayflower connection, the problem isn’t with constructing the five generations of immediate descendants from the Pilgrims in New England in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The brick wall comes later in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century in upstate New York, where many New Englanders moved in the decades following the close of the Revolutionary War. New York did not keep vital records in this period, and the search for a connection can often be exasperating. The New England Historic Genealogical Society’s recent book, Western Massachusetts Families of 1790 (974.4 UL44we) offers some help with families in Berkshire, Hampshire, Hampden, and Franklin counties, Massachusetts, bridging the gulf for some families (additional families appear on their American Ancestors website). Most researchers will still have to go through deeds, court records, church records, and estate records to find additional clues.
Even if your ancestors didn’t come on the Mayflower (and millions more have connections to later arrivals in Plymouth Colony), we can all celebrate our collective diversity on this Thanksgiving and give thanks for the national heritage that they have bequeathed us.