"Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor," by William Halsall, 1882 at Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA

Resources for Mayflower Research

This article was originally posted by the late Carolyn Barkley. We’re bringing it back with minor edits in honor of the Thanksgiving season. As mentioned, the author’s own roots are tied to the Thanksgiving story, making her knowledge that much more relevant.

Thanksgiving is around the corner. 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:

The Internet also provides a wealth of research information.

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.

Image credit: “Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor,” by William Halsall, 1882 at Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA. By William Halsall (http://www.artcom.com/Museums/vs/mr/02360-38.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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