By Carolyn L. Barkley
This article was originally posted on November 21st 2008. I thought it was worth sharing the information once again, with minor revisions.
Thanksgiving is a week away. In addition to the turkey and trimmings, the approaching holiday is inextricably linked to the voyage of the Mayflower and its landing at Plymouth on the coast of Massachusetts. My primary purpose is to share information about the wealth of resources available about the voyage and its passengers, but first, as a native of Massachusetts and a thirty-seven year resident of Virginia, I’m obliged to muse momentarily on the origins of the thanksgiving event.
Growing up in Massachusetts, every school child’s attention is focused on the Mayflower passengers and their feast of thanksgiving held in 1621. The New England tradition, of course, flies in the face of Virginia’s claim to the first Thanksgiving, let alone that of St. Augustine, Florida, where a Thanksgiving celebration was held in September 1565! In 1619, a group of settlers left Bristol, England, and landed three months later at the present-day site of Berkeley plantation on the James River in Virginia. The tradition is that immediately after reaching sold ground, they fell to their knees and thanked God for their safe arrival. A rivalry about whether the Virginia event in 1619 or the Massachusetts event in 1621 represents the “real” Thanksgiving continues today. Both are re-enacted annually and I would suggest that they can coexist as different types of Thanksgiving events, although neither of them is the “first” in the New World. The Massachusetts event was a harvest festival in which the settlers gave thanks for the summer’s crops and their survival through the harsh first winter. They were joined by Wampanoag Chief Massasoit and about ninety of his men who brought venison and turkey. The Virginia event was a religious service of thanksgiving at which a meager meal of bacon, peas, cornmeal cakes and cinnamon water was served. (It is interesting to note that at the time of the Mayflower’s arrival, Massachusetts was considered to be a northern part of Virginia.) Thanksgiving proclamations were made by American presidents beginning with George Washington. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln formally designated Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be held on the final Thursday of November.
Who, then, were the individuals feasting and giving thanks in Massachusetts in 1621? They would not have referred to themselves as “Pilgrims,” a term applied to any travelers for religious purposes, but rather as “Saints.” Some were Puritans, some were not. They arrived in the new world at the end of a long journey from England, first to to Leyden in Holland, and then back to England, where they finally embarked for North America. Nicholas Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (Viking, 2006) presents a very readable, comprehensive history of the voyage and landing of the Mayflower and the history of Plymouth Colony in the years after their arrival.
A story in my family had always tied one of my maternal lines to Thomas Rogers, a passenger on the Mayflower. One version said his nephew Joseph, who arrived after the first winter, was the direct ancestor; my later research suggested that the lineage descended from Joseph, one of his younger sons. For a number of years I tried to document the line conclusively, but consistently have been confounded by the several Noah Rogers who existed in later generations. In addition, the Joseph Rogers who many believe to be Thomas’ son is not accepted by the Mayflower Society as a qualifying ancestor, so my research into Mayflower ancestry has not been successful to date. The Mayflower Society’s web site is a good place to start for anyone hunting for Separatist roots, as it lists the twenty-six men and three women who are accepted ancestors for membership purposes. The site’s bookstore offers an extensive list of titles for sale, including the latest revisions of works in the Society’s Five Generations Project.
Robert Charles Anderson’s Great Migration Study Project is a seminal work for New England researchers in general and Mayflower enthusiasts in particular. The project’s aim is to “compile comprehensive genealogical and biographical accounts of every person [twenty thousand English men, women, and children] who settled in New England. Such information will eliminate much duplication of research and make authoritative, well-documented material available to all researchers.” The project publishes a series of volumes, each of which features sketches for about 200 individuals for the period 1620 to 1633; future volumes will cover 1634 and 1635. Sketches may include such information as place of origin, migration date, first residence, removes, occupation, education, offices, estate, birth, death, marriage, children, and more. In addition, a Great Migration newsletter supplements this work with “feature articles on a variety of topics, including the settlement of early New England towns, migration patterns, seventeenth-century passenger lists, church records, [and] land records.” The first phase of the project, The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England 1620-1633, can be searched by New England Historic Genealogical Society members at that organization’s web site.
Researchers will also find an extensive list of resources for Mayflower ancestry at Genealogical.com:
- Annie Arnoux Haxtun’s Signers of the Mayflower Compact  (1897-1899, Clearfield, 2007) provides lengthy sketches of the signers and their families including lineages, excerpts from wills and other contemporary documents, and historical and biographical data.
- Susan E. Roser’s Mayflower Increasings (2nd edition, Genealogical Publishing Co., 2001) provides a summary of what is known about the passengers and the first three generations of their families, as well as an appendix identifying fourth and fifth generation children, for a total of 6,000 references to individuals.
- Charles E. Bank’s The English Ancestry and Homes of The Pilgrim Fathers Who Came to Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620, the Fortune in 1621, and the Anne and Little James in 1623 (1929, repr. Genealogical Publishing Co., 2006) provides biographical sketches of 112 passengers on the first four ships to New England. Also by Banks, The Planters of the Commonwealth, (1930, repr. Genealogical Publishing Co., 2006), provides the names of 3,600 early passengers on 96 ships to New England. Entries include place of origin and place of residence in America, and indices to surnames, ships, English parishes, and New England towns.
- Pilgrim Genealogies and Histories (Family Archives CD) provides access to 18 books linked by a single index, including many of the titles mentioned here as well as others now out of print. Read over the product listing on genealogical.com to check viewing requirements.
Other titles to consult include Charles E. Bank’s Topographical Dictionary of 2,285 English Emigrants to New England (1937, repr. Genealogical Publishing Co., 2002; currently on sale at genealogical.com); James Savage’s A Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England (4 vol., 1860-62, 1873, 1884, repr. Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008; currently on sale at genealogical.com) and its companion Female Index to Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England by Patty Barthell Myers (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2008); Nathaniel B. Shurtleff’s Records of Plymouth Colony, Births, Marriages, Deaths, Burials, and Other Records, 1633-1689 (1857, repr. Genealogical Publishing Co.; currently on sale at genealogical.com), and Frederick Lewis Weis’ Ancestral Roots of Certain American Colonists Who Came to America Before 1700 (8th ed., Genealogical Publishing Co., 2004).
The Internet also provides a wealth of research information.
- A card catalog search for “Mayflower” on ancestry.com yields 39 entries including birth, marriage and death records; stories, memories and histories; reference aids; directories and member lists; and wills and land records. Given the small number of women who qualify as Mayflower Society ancestors, one interesting entry is for Annie Russell Marble’s 1920 publication, The Women Who Came in the Mayflower (Pilgrim Press).
- Cyndi’s List provides several screens of links to pertinent websites. Other links provide access to articles about Mayflower research, undertakings like the Plymouth Colony Archive Project at the University of Virginia, and the holdings of the Plymouth Public Library. Several mailing lists exist, both broad in scope. You can subscribe to MAYFLOWER-L or MAYFLOWER-D (digest format) by sending mail to MAYFLOWER-Lemail@example.com with the single word subscribe in the message subject and body. You can also join more narrowly defined mailing lists such as the North Carolina Mayflower Society’s discussion group.
- Teachers will find Duane A. Cline’s The Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony: 1620 useful as it provides an “educational study guide for instruction on the Mayflower, Pilgrims, Plymouth Colony, Native Americans.” Mr. Cline is the former education chair of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. In addition, Scholastic provides an online site that provides curriculum support, activities, teacher’s guide, booklist, and recommended reading.
- If you are planning to visit related historical sites, check out online sites for a Walking Tour of Plimoth Plantation, the Alden House Historic Site, or Pilgrim Hall Museum.
- You may want to join a lineage society such as the Myles Standish Society (note that the link does not work on Cyndi’s List, nor does a direct Google search to MylesStandish.org work), The Pilgrim Edward Doty Society, or The Pilgrim John Howland Society, among others.
Whether you are from Massachusetts, Virginia, or elsewhere, you may discover a Mayflower ancestor in your lineage. I hope that some of the resources here will help guide you on your journey back to Plymouth and beyond.